Saturday, June 14, 2014
An Addendum on New York Times Op-Eds and Columnists
A fun post from Neil Buchanan on why he thinks the New York Times should get rid of its op-ed columnists and run a vast rotating bunch of writers instead. (It's not clear to me whether the replacements he envisions would only be experts opining on subjects ostensibly within their expertise, or whether he would also run a mix of opinionated generalists who would at least be more varied and surprising and entertaining than the existing limited stock of permanent columnists. On the former possibility, one might enjoy this short take from Mark Tushnet, along with his acknowledgment that his criticism applies especially to bloggers like us, who have some ostensible expertise in a particular area but sound off on all kinds of things.)
I'm fine with his proposal on the whole. I would add three pieces to his discussion that I don't think got much attention from him. One is a matter of the historical background that might help explain why the Times functions as it does. Columns in the Times have often served two useful internal purposes for the paper. One, they serve as a kind of negotiated golden parachute or emeritus position to ease someone out of a job like executive editor; Abe Rosenthal and Bill Keller fall into this category. Two, they have served as a way to retain a valued Times staffer, particularly one who has lost the grand sweepstakes for executive editor or some other main masthead position. Examples here include Anthony Lewis and Tom Wicker. I'm not sure this category describes any current main op-ed columnists (Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich may have been offered columns for retention purposes, but they were not leadership competitors.) It may describe some of the Taking Note and Contributing Writer columnists. These kinds of motivation were considerably responsible for the Times op-ed page taking the shape it did. The Times initially had an editorial page; the op-ed page was a relatively recent later innovation. The columnists it slowly accumulated were mostly people who insisted on a column as the price of staying at the Times rather than going elsewhere, or who were failed heirs apparent during particular moments of change at the top of the Times's masthead. (Other columnists filled a third need for the Times, which was "casting" or changing the face of the Times in response to demands for a more prominent role for African Americans, women, conservatives, and others; past examples include Bob Herbert, Anna Quindlen, and William Safire, and there is Ross Douthat in our own era.)
Second, I think Buchanan acknowledges but gives too little weight to the degree to which something closer to what he wants has already taken place on the Times's web site, although not its print version. The categories and backgrounds of opinion writers on the web site have expanded considerably. Whether these writers are much good is a separate question; certainly the Taking Note column, which basically consists of politically predictable blog posts by former reporters, is worth skipping on a daily basis. (Indeed, I assume that Buchanan's proposal would only promise more variety and less tedium on the op-ed page, not necessarily better quality.)
Third, I cannot resist taking issue with a couple of his judgments along the way. Pace Buchanan, losing Charles Blow would not be a blow. By the time he left, Frank Rich was not a loss. (I am surprised that Buchanan laments stale, predictable column writing but exempts these two.) And he's wrong about Manohla Dargis.
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