A lot of progressives spent Friday morning upset over the New York Times. This is not an unusual occurrence these days. The self-proclaimed “Paper of Record” tends to irk its liberal subscriber base quite frequently. Oftentimes, the source of the anger is news coverage that appears to be unfair to Democrats or treat a molehill of a Biden era controversy like one of the millions of mountain-sized scandals of the Trump era. The acrimony this time around was a particularly stupid and poorly argued editorial about “cancel culture” that equated the Left calling out racism with the Right banning books and outlawing the teaching of large parts of American history.
This is not the first nor will it be the last time the New York Times editorial board has stumbled into controversy, caused a backlash, and driven some readers to cancel their subscription in anger.
I could (and almost did) write about why this particular editorial reflects everything that is wrong with political journalism and evinces an out-of-touch elitism. That would be a cathartic exercise, but the problem is not this particular editorial. It’s all editorials. It’s time to cancel the very concept of the newspaper editorial.
The newspaper editorial is an artifact from the period of time when newspapers pretended to be objective chroniclers of events. The whole purpose of the enterprise was to push the owner’s specific point of view. This was propaganda; pure and simple. For example, the National Intelligence was a newspaper started by Thomas Jefferson’s closest advisor and became a party organ for Jefferson as well as Presidents Madison and Monroe. The editorial as we now know it started as anonymous letters in these newspapers to push a specific idea or policy. Over time, the journalistic model switched to putative objectivity, but the editorial board stayed as an independent entity within the paper.
In the days before the Internet, it was much easier to demarcate “news” from “opinion.” The editorial and op-ed pages were at the back of the paper and clearly identified as commentary. Every paper used the same format, so no matter which paper you picked up you were unlikely to be confused by the two very distinct forms of expression. Now that most people consume news digitally, the distinction is much harder to identify. Yes, there are “opinion” sections on the websites and apps for the major media outlets, but that’s not how large portions of the public see their news. Most people aren’t subscribers and they sure as hell aren’t for the NYtimes.com. They see their news on social media shared by others. In most cases, they aren’t even clicking on the link. They just see the source and the headline. And the distinction between opinion and news is completely lost.
For a long-time, newspaper editorial and opinion pages were one of the only places where interested consumers could find a debate over the issues. This scarcity meant that the opinion section was a value add for the consumer like the sports’ section and the comics. Things began to change with the growth of cable news shows like Crossfire and The Capital Gang among others. And now, thanks to social media, we are swimming in people’s opinions. You cannot escape them whether they come from an expert or your dentist who watched two YouTube videos and is now an authority on Eastern European military tactics.
Rebuilding the Trust Deficit
It’s fair to ask — who cares whether newspapers want to waste their time, energy, and, in many cases, very limited money on editorials? The problem with the editorial is that it serves almost no purpose and is the exact opposite of what I believe the media should be doing.
American media is in a trust crisis. When Gallup first started including the questioning poll, more than seven in ten Americans trusted the media. By 2021, that number had dropped to 36 percent.
Some of the erosion is part of a broader trend. Trust in institutions — the media, government, business — has been declining for years. Some distrust stems from high profile miscues like incorrect CBS News stories about George W. Bush and the national guard, the overly-credulous coverage about WMD in Iraq, and various plagiarism scandals. But as I write in Battling the Big Lie, my forthcoming book about the Right Wing disinformation machine, Roger Ailes, Steve Bannon, and others have spent decades specifically trying to undermine trust in the traditional media as part of a war against the very idea of objective truth. And for years, the media never fought back. At most, they tried to appease their bad faith critics with false equivalency and refused to use terms like “lie” and “racist” to describe obvious liars and racists.
The appeasement strategy clearly failed. Media outlets should follow the advice of Jay Roses, a prominent media critic, and “optimize for trust.” As Rosen wrote back in 2018:
For trust can no longer be assumed. Its continuous production has to be designed in. Nor does trust any longer follow from good practice, which is what American journalists used to mean by the term credibility. Once upon a time, you “had” credibility if you followed the rules of good practice. That doesn’t work anymore.
We have to design the modern news organization so that it is easier for people to trust it. (Which of course doesn’t guarantee that they will.) We might even say that trust has to become more agile.
Optimizing for trust, in my opinion, means no more editorials and no more endorsements. The vast majority of news consumers do not know about firewalls between the news and opinion side. And many who are aware don’t trust the outlets to abide by them. In the eyes of a large swath of the public, the progressive views of the New York Times editorial board invalidate the work of the investigative journalists who dug into Trump’s businesses and taxes. The same can be said for the arch-conservative views of the Wall Street Journal editorial board and their work holding Democratic politicians accountable.
Similarly, newspapers should stop endorsing in political campaigns. It’s fair to ask what purpose these endorsements serve — particularly in the presidential campaign where voters are lot lacking for information on the candidates. At this point, it’s all downside. No upside.
Democracy depends on a free and vibrant media. Our media ecosystem sorely lacks solid reporting, facts, data, and context. The one thing it doesn’t need is more people giving their opinions online. The anachronistic and antagonizing editorials are giving a weapon to those trying to undermine journalism for profit and political gain. If American media wants to fight back, it must adjust to the new era of journalism and focus on the news before it’s too late.
I feel like this would be a great opinion piece in a prominent newspaper. Had to say it…
I'm a retired journalist. I rarely read the editorials of the papers I worked for and can't begin to tell you how many times I had to explain to people the difference between the editorial pages and the rest of the newspaper. They have always seemed like a problem to me.