Saturday, December 03, 2016

The Misunderstood Op-ed

In the beginning there was the op-ed. The op-ed begot the blog. And the blog begot the talkback.

The first op-eds, as we know them, ran on September 21, 1970 in The New York Times. The editors were frank in telling readers that their purpose was not to “counterbalance” the newspaper’s views, nor to provide a platform opposite the editorial page for those who disagreed with the editorial line.

The idea, the paper explained, was for outsiders to diversify the paper’s own stable of columnists. 

The raison d'etre was diversity not balance.

That first batch of op-eds saw economist W.W. Rostow writing about the military budget; Gerald Johnson of The New Republic poking fun at the Nixon White House, and China-expert Han Suyin (Elizabeth Comber) writing from “Peking.” All this alongside Anthony Lewis’s regular column.

For 46 years now, those of us in a love-hate relationship with the Times have been kvetching that its op-ed pages are unbalanced. Truth is, though, they were never meant to be otherwise. Indeed, most days you would be hard pressed to find even a single viewpoint that is categorically opposed by the newspaper. 

Take the four op-eds running on November 28, 2016. In-house columnist Paul Krugman warns that Donald Trump is positioning himself to use the power of the presidency to expand his personal wealth. Contributor Achy Obejas, a Cuban-American, writes about how ambivalent he feels over the death of Fidel Castro. Policy wonk Christopher Daggett addresses the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to auction public airwaves. And Douglas Harris, an economist, decries the appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary.

The Times editorial page has historically been antagonistic toward Israeli policies. This outlook is echoed by columnists Roger Cohen and Tom Friedman – with outside contributors sometimes piling on.

In 2016, Israel’s ambassador, Ron Dermer appeared on the op-ed pages once — in a letter to the editor. Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon got three letters published.

The Times, as the flagship of the liberal media, is an easy target. My hunch is that any analysis of The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed pages would turn up a similar policy, only in the conservative direction.

Since the late 1990s, the Internet has fostered a deluge of voices though not a torrent of counterbalancing opinion. 

Of course some platforms abjure being pigeonholed, but in the main right-wing writers and readers seek out right-wing sites; left-wing writers and readers seek out left-wing sites.

The real purpose of the blog and talk-back is not to counterbalance but to drive Internet traffic. Not only do bloggers write for free — they use their own so
cial media channels to promote the sites that run them thus generating more page views and unique visitors.

In 1921, Manchester Guardian editor C.P. Scott (pictured left) coined the phrase “comment is free,” adding that “the voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard.”

Maybe that’s a credo belatedly worth resurrecting.

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