By David K. Shipler
The New York Times violated a worthy tradition today by publishing an editorial on its front page, above the fold, in a space previously reserved for facts and analysis, not opinion. It was a mistake, and I’ll bet I’m not the only former or current reporter for the paper who hopes it doesn’t happen again.
The Times has been one of the last American news organizations to maintain a high wall between news and editorial. This is a peculiarly American practice, unusual even among other democracies. But it has been badly eroded by Fox News especially, which taints much of its reporting with politics. MSNBC, some radio broadcasters, and smaller newspapers have also allowed news coverage to be corrupted by partisan perspectives, while The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and some others still cling to what we denizens of the newsroom used to call, in decades past, “the separation of church and state.”
Reporters were so zealous about this firewall that the newsroom would rumble with murmurs of discontent when a certain editorial writer, who opined on urban affairs, descended periodically from his exalted perch on the tenth floor of the old Times building to the third-floor newsroom to find out from me and other writers what was actually going on in the street. We talked to him but were careful not to listen to him and to pay no attention to whatever he wrote on the topics we covered.
I know that zealots on one or another side of an issue will scoff at this, because they think the paper is biased against them. But we reporters were absolutely forbidden to infuse our news stories with our personal opinions, and copy editors had a keen enough sense of smell to detect any whiff of editorializing, which would be instantly excised with the stroke of a pencil or a cursor.
Yes, yes, it can be argued that there is no such thing as objectivity, that defining what is news, choosing which people to interview, deciding what history and context to include, and so on are all subject to debatable judgments, which are influenced by reporters’ and editors’ backgrounds, world views, and social values.
But self-awareness and intellectual discipline were the answers to those pitfalls. My best colleagues and I believed strongly that our task was not to tell readers what to think but to tell them what was happening and perhaps why it was happening, but never whether it should happen. I didn't imagine that anyone picked up the paper to find out what I would propose should be done, but rather to find out what I had found out. Letting each side of a dispute give its best argument was the hallmark of a fair report, and we usually got a kick out of a reader’s letter that accused us of holding an opinion opposite to the one we actually endorsed. It also helped our morale to be attacked by both sides as tilting toward the other.
I strongly protested once to a senior editor over his failing on this point, telling him rather self-righteously that he should leave his personal opinions at home and not bring them into the newsroom. My position ultimately prevailed, because The Times as I knew it was eternally self-correcting—not always, but almost always. It had an internal gyrocompass, and it usually swung back on course after a deviation.
In recent years, as a reader, I’ve noticed some breaches in that wall of separation between opinion and news. News is what happened. Analysis is why it happened or what might be the impact. Editorial opinion is whether it should have happened or what should be done about it. The first two—news and analysis—are appropriate for the news pages. Editorial opinion deserves to be restricted to the defined editorial and op-ed pages. Naturally, as the Internet and broadcasting have made straight news seem outdated by the time it becomes print on paper, analysis and investigation have grown more prominent. Unfortunately, slivers of opinion also slide into the news columns occasionally, as if editors now have lost their keen sense of smell.
Today, when The Times ran its page-one editorial calling for strict gun control (albeit clearly labeled “Editorial”), it served little purpose except to undermine the paper’s longstanding argument that it separates news from opinion. What are reporters going to tell doubters now? I’d hate to still be there, having to rebut the catcalls.
I happen to agree personally with everything the editorial declared on guns, and I usually find the editorials on the editorial page—where they should be—smartly written and cogently argued. But this one was not among the best. It made no new arguments, offered no new facts, and used extreme vocabulary. It surely persuaded nobody.
Guns are a scourge. But so was the war in Iraq. So is global warming. So is the endemic poverty that handicaps the United States. So is the embedded racial bigotry that warps our society. So is Donald Trump, a demagogue with dictatorial impulses. Will the Editorial Board usurp the front page for those causes as well?
Some years ago, the editorial department took from readers one of the best Sunday sections in all of journalism, known as the Week in Review, which carried searching analysis of major events from correspondents and some outside writers across the globe. They were not opinion pieces but solidly reported, thought-provoking examinations that reached beneath the headlines. I loved writing for it.
Since the section was handed from the news department to editorial, and renamed The Review, it has mostly abandoned the news in favor of a very uneven display of essays and opinions and analyses that miss the mark as often as they hit it. I’ve written for the new section a couple of times and enjoyed doing so. But as a reader, I’m often left cold by The Review: An inspiring piece of reporting and writing now and then, in among pontificating columnists and outsiders, is not enough to maintain the stature of The Times.
Oddly, many Americans seem to want to be told what to think. They flock to Fox News. They flood websites that contain little except opinion. Students I taught at Dartmouth in 2003, whom I asked to refrain from expressing their opinions until they had mastered the facts of cases on civil liberties we were studying, had immense difficulty doing so. Most—not all—did not have the discipline of mind at first to define and label and put aside their personal views in the interest of academic study. If you read college newspapers, you’ll see them loaded with opinion pieces and woefully short on straight news reporting.
There’s a place for opinion writing. You’re at one of them right now. But it’s a side dish. The main course has got to be the delicious array of disturbing, contradictory, illuminating, confounding facts that allow each of us to think, think, and think before deciding what we think.