What The Hell Is Going On With The New York Times Opinion Pages?
Seasons may change, news may turn fake, but the New York Times will forever remain the star at the top of the journalism tree. The grey lady of the newspaper industry has weathered many difficult moments in time, and struggled in this demoralizing market as much as the rest of us who write for a living. Yet, through skill and investment and the sheer heft of its reputation, it stands tall as, infamously described by former editor Jill Abramson, the prettiest girl at the party. Everyone who writes dreams of doing so for the New York Times. Even for those of us who aren’t American, it’s a name that means something. It survives all conditions.
In the Trump age, however, the paper seems to have fallen into an identity crisis of sorts. The reporting is still top notch and it’s hard to argue that the paper remains definitively anti-Trump. Well, it is if you don’t look at the opinion pages, which have become so astoundingly tone-deaf in such a short amount of time that you half wonder if it’s all some sort of Bialystock and Bloom style scam. There was the time they allowed a full-page of letters to run from Trump supporters, who, as described by Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, ran the gamut from ‘republican partisans, [to] a few racists, and people you can fairly describe as delusional’. There was the controversial hiring of conservative columnist Bret Stephens, who described Black Lives Matter as being too ‘thuggish’ and loves a bit of old-school climate change denial and Woody Allen defending.
Another recent hire, Bari Weiss, quickly became such an embarrassment on Twitter for her comments on ice-skater Mirai Nagasu that journalists at the newspaper saw their grievances be leaked from a private Slack chat. By this point in time, she’d already attacked the #MeToo movement by dismissing the need to believe all women who talk about their experiences. David Brooks’s astounding ignorance and elitism are near legendary at this point, but he still has the ability to baffle in recent months, as he did with one piece where he concern-trolled a non-university educated friend who struggled with Italian language in a gourmet sandwich shop. Another Brooks piece, entitled ‘Respect First, Then Gun Control’ seems designed more to enrage than inspire. Ross Douthat recently tried to advocate for the banning of pornography. Another newer hire, Michelle Goldberg, has a questionable past in elevating anti-trans voices. Quinn Norton’s tenure at the paper lasted around seven hours, as people uncovered her delightful bragging about being friends with Nazis (even the Times seems to have limits).
Oh yeah, and last week, there was a piece attacking yoga pants. Fucking yoga pants.
The Times opinion pages have always been mired in questions over supposed biases and questionable targets. They continue to hire Maureen Dowd, a woman who won a Pulitzer Prize for essentially attacking Monica Lewinsky for a solid year. Opinion pages are designed to encourage this kind of debate, which often swings into very heated territory. Every paper with the budget does it. But what the Times are doing now feel different. The times themselves are not what they used to be and the old ways of opinion cannot and should not apply to them without serious consideration for the repercussions.
James Bennet, who was appointed the Editorial page editor in 2016, was the one who hired Bret Stephens. When this caused a flood of subscription cancellations, following Stephens’s first column that became a legitimized form of climate change denial, Bennet tried to frame this hiring in a historical context:
When Adolph Ochs set out the mission for The New York Times at the end of the 19th century, he said he hoped to make its opinion pages a forum for ‘intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion… Given how polarizing and partisan this era has become, we think it’s important to recommit ourselves to that goal.’
This isn’t the worst idea in the world, but history has also provided us with an understanding as to how such an approach can fall apart, even if the intentions are earnest. You cannot claim to be committed to understanding the partisan nature of the era when your offerings are so deliberately outrage-inducing in style and tone. Hiring a literal climate change denier has nothing to do with opinion. That’s just bad journalism, and opinion does not trump truth. The times are already horrendously anti-science, with climate change deniers in the highest offices of the land, so what point is there to giving such unequivocal lies pride of place in the newspaper of our era? If opinion has the power to sway others, what is the purpose of reinforcing the status quo, like Weiss strengthening the misogynistic lies spewed against the #MeToo movement? If our culture is so polarized, what changes when David Brooks brags about knowing what Italian sandwich to order? The opinion pages’ bullpen of contributors remains by and large very straight, white and male, which doesn’t speak highly of understanding what made our society so divisive. Indeed, they tend to meet the demographics of those doing the dividing.
Trump fans don’t like the New York Times. They don’t like traditional media in any form that isn’t a Fox News show being hosted by a compliant blonde or shouty white man. Part of the cult-like nature of Trump support lies in their outright rejection of everything that doesn’t meet their increasingly limited definition of the truth. Regardless of what the New York Times prints, they will deem it to be fake. They can dedicate as much time as they want to telling ‘their side of the story’, as if it isn’t already the most loudly amplified in our current ecosystem, but it won’t work. You may change minds here and there, but the divide has grown too wide to the point where mere opinion pieces cannot provide a decent attack.
At moments, one wonders if the Times are deliberately trolling readers for the clicks. Bennet denied this, claiming to Splinter that ‘to troll is to be deliberately offensive with the goal of infuriating people’. Yet what purpose does telling women that YOGA PANTS are bad for them other than to anger? Was that truly a pressing issue of our age that needed a no-holds-barred dissection in order to further our gender’s wellbeing? The greatest question one has about the opinion pages nowadays is, who is this all for?
Obviously, it’s not all trash over there. The Times do still publish eloquent and crucial pieces in the opinion section. They’re the New York Times - they can hire anyone they want. That’s what makes choices like Weiss and Stephens so infuriating. You’re the prettiest girl at the party but you still go home with the dude who smells like wee and won’t shut up about conspiracy theories, and he still makes you pay for the taxi? Maybe we shouldn’t expect better from the Times on this front, but when you have the power to subvert, challenge and demand better, it seems like such a waste when you simply reinforce the most insidious status quo then claim it’s upholding a fine historical tradition.
And you can wear yoga pants all day if you want, I promise.