When Op-Eds Relitigate Facts

Bret Stephens’s first Op-Ed column for The New York Times.

What year were we taught the difference between facts and opinions in grade school? Was it an election year?

To review: The bar for an opinion is low. The bar for a fact is higher. Statements of fact need to be verifiable, substantiated, and proven. An opinion doesn’t need to meet any standards at all. The bar for what constitutes an opinion — sans corroboration, sans evidence, sans proof — is, indeed, low. The bar for who will listen to it is somewhere else.

A published opinion doesn’t need to meet any particular standard, either, other than an editor deeming an opinion piece worthy of publication. In opinion journalism, the publisher sets the bar. And no publisher’s bar placement comes under more scrutiny than The New York Times’.

At Splinter, David Uberti asks: “Who Is The New York Times‘ Woeful Opinion Section Even For?” If the paper of record is to remain any kind of standard-bearer in our current political moment, what should its opinion section look like? How rigorous should its standards be? Uberti advocates for raising the bar, preferably one or two notches above the denial of facts that have been painstakingly reported on the other side of the Times‘ news-opinion firewall:

In his initial column, in late April, Stephens questioned the predictions about the effects of climate change that the Times has reported on extensively. This slickly branded “climate agnostic” approach stuck a finger in the eye of both the Times’s readership and its newsroom. It risked mimicking the pundit-reporter dynamic seen at CNN, where in-house bloviators are paid to spout opinions that at times directly contradict the network’s own news reporting. Bennet defended the column as part of a “free exchange of ideas,” in what Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple described as a “Boilerplate Kumbaya Response to Public Outrage.”

The op-ed page—opposite of the editorial page—was unveiled by the Times in 1970 to foster a true “conflict of ideas,” as onetime Editorial Page Editor John B. Oakes put it. Points of view clashing with the Times’ institutional perspective or biases would be especially welcome. Names floated as potential contributors ranged from Communists to members of the John Birch Society.

“They really wanted diversity when they came out—they really prized it,” said University of Maine media scholar Michael Socolow, who authored a 2010 paper on the origins of the op-ed page. Its debut contributors included a staff column on the need for super-sonic air travel; a Chinese novelist describing Beijing during the Cultural Revolution; a political scientist and former LBJ aide analyzing U.S. policy in Asia; and a New Republic contributing editor slamming Vice President Spiro Agnew. It was a radical expansion of the Times’s opinion offerings that other newspapers soon emulated, and it hasn’t fundamentally changed since then besides expanded publishing space and formats online.

“In general, we’re looking to challenge our own and our readers’ assumptions, and, we hope, put people who disagree on important questions into conversation with each other in order to sharpen everyone’s thinking,” Bennet wrote to Splinter.

Some recent attempts to do so, however, seemed to trade intellectual rigor or true diversity for the appearance thereof.

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