The Uselessness of Op-Ed Pages
I see today that the Washington Post decided to hoist upon the unsuspecting masses the latest in a series of uninformed remarks from a soon to be retired governor of Alaska. Today’s topic is cap and trade and you read an effective throttling of the column here and here.
But I don’t really want to talk about the substance of the column as much as I want to consider what the utility is of a page that would print such a thing in its pages.
I’m taking my first formal class on opinion writing this fall with Peter Beinart, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former editor at The New Republic. I’m very much looking forward to it as I have visions of pursing a career in opinion journalism. I expect it will be rigorous and that a great many of my ideas might fall apart under critical examination. But that’s ok! I’d rather have my half baked ideas knocked down early so I can reexamine the issue and produce a stronger article rather than produce an ill-considered piece of shit.
But to zoom out for a second, there should be a general expectation that a college graduate, and certainly a governor of a state, should be able to articulate a cogent, factual opinion on some subject or another. Indeed, that’s really all a good op-ed should be: a written argument that seeks to inform, advance a point of view or influence discussion by deploying facts in support of that particular point of view while also using facts to rebut contrary claims. So it becomes quite maddening to read editorials about cap and trade that don’t mention obviously related issues like pollution or to see editorials about global warming that misinterpret or manipulate data in the service of advancing an ideological point of view.
One thing the blogoshpere does much better than the mainstream media is that it generally identifies and kills specious arguments before they’ve taken hold and become received wisdom. The ability to link to experts and primary documents greatly speeds up this process, allowing for almost real time debunking. Comment sections and crowd sourcing also aid in this process and that’s why a lot of the more honest bloggers affix updates or strike through and correct incorrect information when they encounter factual data that run counter to their assertions.
This kind of correction rarely happens in a traditional news paper, though. It’s exceedingly rare to see a newspaper ombudsman or editorial board directly confront, retract or disavow a piece that has run on its pages. Yes, you’ll see a fact corrected here or there, but the general premise of the piece, which could be fatally flawed, will be allowed to stand. This makes sense because acknowledging that they’d allowed a factually challenged piece into the paper speaks badly about their judgment. But this is obviously a bad practice for institutions that trade on their reputations as honest, unbiased brokers of information, as publishing these things gives them an air of legitimacy. It also sends a bad signal when newspapers continually hire writers who have a track record of playing loose with the facts.
As a person who reads a great deal of opinion journalism, I value the benefits that come from being exposed to differing points of view. But that value is diminished when you can’t trust that the info you’re reading is accurate. So what can be done? For one, newspapers should obviously employ fact checkers with some sort of requisite knowledge in a given field. I know that newspapers are struggling with layoffs and the like, so hiring might not be a choice available to all outlets. If that’s the case, use the expertise of the reporters on hand to help prevent embarrassing mistakes. If you have a top flight science reporter or editor on staff, at least allow him or her to give the piece a cursory going over. I suppose this might be a violation of some written rule of the newsroom, but I think it’s worth it.
Something else that might be even more useful would be allowing columnists (or outside experts) to directly engage each other on the op-ed page. I know the New York Times has an informal prohibition against this, but I think that in certain instances this should be allowed. I remember the David Brooks/Paul Krugman dust-up referenced at the link and the whole exchange came off as junior varsity to me. I get that it might seem like the height of journalistic narcissism and navel gazing to allow for a couple of talking heads to square off all “Dueling Banjos” style on the Times very valuable op-ed page, but this situation was crying out for it. It played out over a few weeks, other Times columnists got involved, and the entire dialogue manifested itself in a barely veiled code, even though it was painfully obvious to anyone following the exchange what was going on.
Why not let the readers see the sausage being made in this case? It would have given the Times audience insights into how some of it’s most prized assets think and formulate arguments, which surely would have been good for the paper’s visibility. To some extent, the paper has addressed this in a limited fashion with its editors’ “Room for Debate” blog, but an open roundtable with the op-ed writers would be much more useful.
Opinion pages can have a lot of value if they’re done the right way, but all too often they simply serve as launching pads for junk that eventually clutter our collective understanding of important issues.