Yoo’s on First

Is John Yoo's columnist status an asset or an insult to democracy?

Today brings a firestorm about the Philadelphia Inquirer’s signing of John Yoo—the jurist responsible for authoring the Bush administration’s just-released “torture memos,” as well as for crafting the legal justification for that administration’s massive expansion of executive power—to be a regular columnist at the paper. (Yoo has been writing Inquirer columns on a freelance basis since 2005.)

While one could view Yoo’s hiring—which the Inquirer editorial page editor, Harold Jackson, explains by noting that Yoo is “a Philadelphian, and very knowledgeable about the legal subjects he discusses in his commentaries”—as a mere stunt, geared as much at generating publicity for the struggling paper as at fostering discourse, one could also view the move as a good-faith attempt at fostering civic conversation. Yoo’s freelance columns, Jackson notes, have “promoted further discourse, which is the objective of newspaper commentary.”

Many, however, are outraged at the hiring. “While promoting public discourse is a goal of newspaper commentary,” Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch writes,

it should not be the main objective. The higher calling for an American newspaper should be promoting and maintaining our sometimes fragile democracy, the very thing that Yoo and his band of torture advocates very nearly shredded in a few short years. Quite simply, by handing Yoo a regularly scheduled platform for his viewpoint, the Inquirer is telling its readers that Yoo’s ideas — especially that torture is not a crime against the very essence of America — are acceptable.

What do you think? Is the Inquirer’s hiring of Yoo an opportunity to foster the open-minded discussion that democracy requires—or is it, as Bunch had it, an “indefensible” affront to that democracy?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.