When you're a kid, you love the comics. A few years later, you read the sports or the style section first. As you age and mature, browsing the "A" section every morning becomes routine, as it becomes more pressing to learn the vital news that orients the world. Soon thereafter, reading favorite columnists on the op-ed page becomes habitual. Then, once you've ripened to a certain age and mortality's horizon draws near, you check the obituaries first. They're the only newspaper stories that wrap up neatly: All obits have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I found myself pondering the classic progression in newspaper readership after I learned The New York Times would be discontinuing my favorite newspaper feature: the op-ed. Henceforth, opinion pieces submitted by outsiders will be known as "guest essays." I heard of its demise shortly before it became public, because I once researched and published a brief history of the feature, and the Times's editorial page editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, was kind enough to notify me of its demise. Employees at the Times had used my scholarship for historical context as they deliberated the feature's future.
So now the story of op-ed has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But what follows isn't an obituary, because I'd rather celebrate the promise of this idealistic newspaper feature by reconsidering its hopeful origins rather than recount what it actually became. For the op-ed page that's being dropped by the Times after 50 years isn't the op-ed page as originally conceived.
I've always loved, and been fascinated by, the op-ed as a genre. Though I study other aspects of media history, years ago—when I discovered nobody had ever written a history of op-eds—I decided to research its origins as a side project. Over several years I found time to "collect string," as they say in journalism. I made occasional side trips to archives, where I took photos of documents or hastily transcribed old memos, and on the web I would bookmark interviews and relevant digital sources.
The results were published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly in 2010. My article traced the origins of The New York Times's op-ed page, which was more of an innovation than an invention; it resolved some debates about the feature's origins by crediting John B. Oakes, the legendary Times editorial page editor, who first envisioned the page approximately 15 years before it came into existence in 1970.
Oakes's original plan was not the op-ed page to which we've grown accustomed. It had no house columnists. He proposed four central elements: a daily poem, provocative but thoughtful avant-garde artwork (distinct from traditional editorial cartooning), excerpts from overlooked speeches and legislation, and essays contributed by outsiders. Regular employees of the New York Times Company would be excluded from Oakes's page. This was Oakes's primary innovation, for the old New York World had an op-ed page (called "Op. Ed."), but it was populated by famous house columnists such as Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams, and Heywood Broun. By curating space reserved only for outsiders, and cultivating new modes of communication and composition unavailable elsewhere in the Times, the newspaper's corporate distance from the op-ed page would be obvious—and reconfirmed daily.
I think Oakes's original plan was far better than what the page actually became. But Oakes was forced to compromise his vision, and to accept the imposition of columnist Anthony Lewis, as the price for seeing it born. Lewis's presence occurred at the insistence of publisher Arthur Ochs ("Punch") Sulzberger—Oakes's cousin.
The Times's op-ed page was the product of cacophonous times. Born on September 21, 1970, it attempted to render the bitter divisions of the 1960s in text and image on newsprint. It emerged during an era of remarkable innovation and experimentation in U.S. media. For American journalism, this period included new modes of media criticism, a maturation of broadcast journalism that made TV news more diversified in both outlook and personnel, and the flourishing of youth-oriented "alternative" newspapers that had begun evolving into serious investigative vehicles with first-rate reportage.
Even during this vibrant and transitional era, the Times op-ed page stood out for its distinctive contributions. This can be largely credited to the two people most responsible for shaping it: Oakes and Harrison Salisbury, a decorated foreign correspondent who became a widely esteemed editor. Despite some shared stodginess, the two men energetically embraced the op-ed ideal with creative fervor. Reading their archived correspondence provides fascinating insights into how editors create a new team, originate ideas, and foster a new arena of public discourse intended to facilitate debate.
They both considered what types of essays, and what sorts of subjects, might prove most attractive to readers—and which ones might drive them away. They agreed that allowing the page to become too pedantic or scholarly would be a mistake. Oakes, especially, remained wary of professors. His attitude was pithily summed up in notes for a speech I found in his papers. "Ivory tower," he wrote, "equals ivory head."
My favorite notes and memos came from the Salisbury papers held at Columbia University. One in particular haunted me but never actually made it into the article. It was sent by John Van Doorn, an editor assigned to the page in its developmental era, to Salisbury in October, 1971. Here it is in its entirety:
Since you mentioned it I have thought a lot about finding a young, black female to work here, but I don't know any and am a little unclear about where to look.
However, one has come in the door.
- Out of work
- Wonderfully intelligent but unschooled
She would fit right in and, I think, make a valuable addition. It seems to me that she could provide us with names and so forth, but even if she couldn't, her ideas and insights would be really helpful.
I'm not sure she'd want to work here. She wants her life to have some meaning; she wants to feel that she is sending the movement forward. But I think we should give it a try. Will you talk to her?
Her name is Afeni Shakur.
Yes: Tupac Shakur's "Dear Mama" came tantalizingly close to working for the New York Times op-ed page. But I couldn't locate any additional materials to corroborate what followed this remarkable encounter, so it remained in the realm of what could have been.
Van Doorn's memo (and similar ones) signaled the original op-ed team's interest in diversity. Other materials illustrated the ways the editors thought broadly and creatively across ideological lines. One hand-written, undated note in Salisbury's papers listed some of his ideas. They included:
Theodore Roszak… "the counter culture of youth."
Andrew Hacker… "Come, Come is U.S. Really Going to Hell in a Handbasket?"
Vladimir Nabokov: "What does America look like to a novelist from afar?"
Gus Hall (CPUSA): "What are the US Communist priorities these days?"
Miss Angela Davis… "Is Black nationalism a viable perspective?"
Robert Welch: "The John Birchers are Flourishing, Yes?"
Robert Penn Warren—on the South of Geo. Wallace.
In a note to Herbert Mitgang, another key editor in the feature's launch, Salisbury suggested Mitgang solicit an essay from the esteemed naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison "on Columbus as the first Astronaut." "This would be comparing the negative reaction and the lack of support which was Columbus's fate after returning from his great adventure with what has happened to our space program after it has achieved its great success," he wrote.
Mitgang's correspondence, held by the New York Public Library, is filled with similar wonderful exchanges. Mitgang wrote to several famous figures requesting op-eds before the page began, which caused some confusion among the game if uncertain essayists. "I think I'd be very glad to do such a piece for you," the novelist Walker Percy wrote Mitgang. "I need only to know what an op-Ed [sic] page piece is, or better still, to have a couple of tear-page examples of the same." Mitgang responded by precisely defining the new genre of essay: "These essays run 700 words, for which payment is $150, and appear opposite the editorial page of the Times. The most successful pieces have been highly individualistic, opinionated, and pungent. You will not get arrested if the piece is also witty." Percy encountered problems fitting the essay's tight constraints. "I wonder if there is some way that you could strengthen it for our peculiar opinion format," Mitgang responded upon seeing a draft. "I think it is a bit too gentle for most readers, who might miss your subtleties while hanging onto a subway strap." Percy didn't appreciate the editing. "I can't understand what you're telling me… In any case it might be better to forget the whole thing," he responded.
Walker Percy was not alone in having difficulties grasping the new mode of essay. An exchange with Noam Chomsky didn't end well when Mitgang suggested cuts, additional paraphrasing, and summarizing, while also asking for a "more pointed conclusion about what the scientific community can do about the 'new mandarins' in American society." "I am afraid that I will have to abandon the project, reluctantly," Chomsky responded. "For some reason, I find it enormously more difficult to write 700 words than 7000—a typical professorial defect, I suppose."
Despite such difficulties, most of the archival materials revealed a palpable joy in the daily labor of these editors. Their memos radiated energy and vitality, as evidenced not only in the creativity of their ideas but even in their jargon. Charlotte Curtis, another important early editor, suggested the page solicit an essay from Susan Sontag. Sontag, Curtis wrote, was a philosopher "who may or may not be able to tell us where it's at in a way we can understand." Hiring philosophers and feminists, revolutionaries and reactionaries, radicals and conservatives, to "tell us where it's at" seemed like a very fun job to me as I read through these missives.
The Times editors could be admirably candid. On the page's first anniversary, Salisbury and Oakes asked the team for evaluations. One shared critique would never be remedied in the long history of the feature, and it would remain perhaps its biggest flaw. "My single biggest complaint is our propensity towards 'names,'" wrote one editor. "I do understand the need for establishment opinion, but we do have too much of it. It is usually of very poor quality. Considering the large number of excellent articles that sit around for months, it is a shame that we run so much junk by the famous." John Van Doorn seconded that criticism. "I would like to insist upon excellence from all comers as the standard for getting on the Op-ed Page," he wrote. "I think it is hard and embarrassing to give unknowns a lot of big-time editor talk on sharpening up their material, and then to turn around and run, with absolute straight faces, such inept material as U Thant provides, or the Rostows, or Goldberg, and all the others that we suffer with. I think we should forget about names as names—and pursue good writing."
Unfortunately, the Times's op-ed page never did abandon "junk by the famous." But over the last decade, much of its original and experimental spirit of exchange and debate has sadly eroded. In its first two decades, the op-ed page fearlessly printed essays that were unquestionably offensive, dehumanizing, and even occasionally vile. Oakes and Salisbury, and the editors that followed, all took it for granted that publication did not equate endorsement and that the Times's readership would be cognizant that some opinions were published in the spirit of inquiry, exposure, or confrontation rather than agreement. When the page published a posthumous call for armed insurrection throughout the United States by Black Panther Fred Hampton, or when the page published a column supporting Pol Pot's murderous regime in Cambodia, I doubt most readers believed that Times management endorsed such opinions. More recently, when the Times published an op-ed by Russian President Vladimir Putin directly contradicting its own reporting from Syria, I doubt readers concluded that the newspaper now valued the Russian dictator's opinions over its own on-the-scene reportage. Putin's column was simply more "junk by the famous."
The great transformation that has seemingly doomed the old op-ed page sensibility centers upon the growing idea that no responsible organ of opinion might ever publish an idea, perspective, or proposal that it might find morally repugnant, offensive, or dangerous. Kingsbury's announcement specifies that the new version of the opinion page would henceforth carefully vet future "guest essays" with an eye toward "progress, fairness and shared humanity." Publishing offensive commentary these days is not simply seen as inflammatory in the old sense; many people consider it intentionally malicious, if not felonious. Any denial to the contrary—any defense of the old-fashioned marketplace of ideas, or calls for widening diversity of opinion—is widely viewed as little more than disingenuous subterfuge. After all, if Sen. Tom Cotton's vile prescription for violently subduing protests can be published immediately adjacent to columns by full-time Times employees such as Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, or Bret Stephens, how can any arms-length distance be plausibly asserted? For many Times readers (and even employees), the page looks like a unified platform or singularly powerful megaphone, and therefore anyone given access must be pre-approved and judged endorsement-worthy. Kingsbury's announced standard only reinforces this assumption.
And that's how one of the very first management decisions ultimately doomed the feature. It's a case of finis origine pendet: The end of the Times op-ed depended upon its beginning. If the Times itself failed to consistently make explicit that outside voices did not represent the Times in any way, then how could readers be expected to maintain this separation? Had the page been solely outsiders from its inception, if the feature's imperative to encourage interchange and incite debate been more consistently stated, then it might have stood a chance to survive the constrictions of our contemporary media universe. But we'll never know. Because The New York Times didn't do that, nor did it fire all its columnists to try out Oakes's original vision. It killed the op-ed instead.
The demise of the original impulse that animated the Times op-ed page, sadly, is not simply about a newspaper feature disappearing. This isn't Marmaduke or Mark Trail being dropped from the comics page. It says something telling about our society, culture, and politics. Democracy is premised on the interplay of ideas in a common venue of disputation, where a citizenry might be exposed to a diversity of perspectives—some even unpleasant or distasteful—in order to become more educated and informed. I'm reminded of the haunting words John Oakes said in a speech at Princeton, words that perfectly encapsulate his motive for launching the op-ed page. "Diversity of opinion is the lifeblood of democracy," he said. "The minute we begin to insist that everyone think the same way we think, our democratic way of life is in danger."