I have my doubts that the affair is over, but I have had the chance to chew on some fine opinions by others and feel somewhat more qualified to weigh in.
Two quick caveats: I have served on several occasions as a de facto opinion editor, and these are unprecedent times that find many of us reevaluating our stance on issues we thought we had a fairly decent grasp of.
To me, the NYT situation breaks down to two specific questions:
- Should the opinion have been published?
- Should people have lost their jobs over it?
To the first question: At face value, an op-ed written by an elected member of the house or senate certainly demands attention. We expect our elected officials to hold themselves to a standard, even if we know in the backs of our minds we are asking a lot. Having read the piece, however, there were some serious red flags that required follow up — accusations that needed founding.
In a situation such as the one that prompted the op-ed, any call to bring active troops to bear against the citizenry that are now being labeled “insurrectionists” should damn well require some vetting. If the goal is to allow inflammatory words by a sitting senator to be in the public square, it should be imperative upon the staff to make it clear in the same kind of lead text that is now used to clarify the published piece on the website.
My gut reaction remains what it was last week: If an elected official is saying something beyond the pale, print it, publish it, run it. The public is far better served knowing this than it is by brushing it under the carpet. But, qualify it. We know now that it was a solicited piece. Seems pretty easy to clarify, then, and let the words speak for themselves.
That leads to the second question: Should people have lost their jobs over it?
Perhaps, due to the piece having been solicited, less attention was paid to it. I couldn’t say. But, the revelation that the head of the opinion section had not read it speaks to me as a serious breakdown in process.
- First, if I am the Opinion Page Editor of any newspaper, I’m damn well reading everything that goes in the section. Letters, columns, editorials. Everything.
- If, for some reason I screwed up that day or it wasn’t possible for me to read everything, my staff better damn well know they read something in there that should have been brought to my attention. Failure to do so means either the staff does not realize that, doesn’t care, or wants to see me get mine. Any way you slice it, it is a failure in leadership.
I don’t make that second point lightly, James Bennet has brought a lot of good thought to the opinion page and was in line for the big chair at the paper currently occupied by Executive Editor Dean Banquet. I believe the wide range of thought he brought to the page was a good thing. It didn’t make him popular, but we aren’t in this to be loved.
Should the opinion page be held accountable to the newsroom? I don’t think so. At large news organizations, opinion lives separate from the newsroom, as it should. Most layman do not understand this, but it is an extremely important element of journalism. Do I agree with reaction from the news department that printing the column put lives in danger? I don’t see that correlation, but as I said in the beginning, we are all reevaluating what we thought we knew just a short time ago.
What I do know is it certainly doesn’t make their jobs any easier, the way that it was presented, and we should be in it to support each other in our work. Journalism is a dangerous business, and I have no trouble believing it is difficult being a black journalist right now, Tom Cotton or no.
But what I cannot excuse, as an editor, as head of section, is not to have read the piece. Not to have a staff that knows the head of section should read it. Have faith in your deputies, sure, but the buck stops at the top. Inexcusable. And not who you want in the big chair.
That said… I’ll return to the first question.
Would the readership be better served by spiking the piece and never publishing the opinion?
Or by publishing the piece, with an explainer at the head, such as the one that exists now, qualifying that the paper solicited an opinion from a sitting senator, and this was the response?
I’d argue the public is better served being exposed to that point of view.