Right or left? Either way, conventional thinking rules op/ed pages

July 6, 2017
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When The New York Times hired Bret Stephens, a prominent conservative columnist, to write for its op-ed pages, the backlash was swift and furious. Stephens’s first column in April questioned some of the certainty underlying climate change science, and the Times’s liberal readership revolted. An attempt by the Times to introduce more balance to its mostly left-leaning stable of columnists seemed to backfire. Disgusted readers canceled their subscriptions. A wide range of publications on the left panned the column, calling Stephens a climate change denier and “bullshitter.”

Explaining the decision to tap Stephens, a former Wall Street Journal columnist who was not shy about excoriating Donald Trump, James Bennet, the Times’s editorial page editor, quoted the newspaper’s 19th-century publisher, Adolph Ochs. Bennett* wrote that Ochs hoped to make the Times’s 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.”

The online debate raged over whether the Times, in the name of ideological diversity, had propped up a viewpoint invalidated by science, introducing false balance to its opinion section. For many liberal readers, this was clearly the case.

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Yet the contretemps over Stephens’s column obscured a larger point. Ochs’s 19th-century sentiment has not been upheld in spirit by the Times or any large, mainstream news organization, despite Bennet’s claim to the contrary. Hiring Stephens did not mean “all shades of opinion” were represented, at last, in its hollowed editorial pages.

For the most part, the shades remain limited to two: conventionally right and conventionally left.

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Despite the phenomenon that was the Bernie Sanders campaign, avowed socialists are not suddenly popping up on op-ed pages. If anti-capitalism is less taboo among the millennial crowds, it’s more so in newsrooms, where a traditional fear over being perceived as too biased or too radical has led to a long-running tendency to remain firmly entrenched in the center of political discourse, inching occasionally left or right on a select few issues.

In a traditional formulation, there is nothing “objective” about the socialist left or Trumpian right. These poles do not operate out of a newsroom consensus which, as CJR’s David Uberti pointed out, is steeped in the values of a globalized economy. Globalized capitalism, villainized by both Sanders and Trump acolytes, is accepted as an implicit good. To employ a slew of columnists who think free-trade is dumb, America should tighten its borders, or capitalists in other countries are screwing the American worker, would be to openly declare that the safe center can no longer hold, a more obvious proposition outside the newsroom—or any corporate structure—than within it.

Just as the anti-war far left can feel marginalized, conservative skeptics of military intervention usually don’t end up with columnist gigs at mainstream newspapers.

Open hostility to Trump among columnists and editorial boards has not meant an explicit promotion or celebration of leftist policies. The political center values decorum, which is supposed to transcend ideology, and Trump’s uncouth and erratic nature has been a violent shock to the media’s well-worn system.  For those on the far left who felt validated by Sanders’s success, there is a sense that their critique of society is still actively ignored.

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“There is a deliberate project to maintain an [acceptability] to the ruling class [status quo] that protects those in power,” says Maria Svart, the national director of the Democratic Socialists of America. “How violence is described, how economic conditions are described—it’s shaped by owners of mainstream media.”

Whether this deliberate suppression effort exists or not, it’s apparent that even Stephens’s left-leaning colleagues have never fully embraced the burgeoning Sanders movement. Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and popular liberal columnist, has been especially disdainful of Sanders.

The liberalism of Times columnists never strays too far from the shores of Democratic Party consensus. Hillary Clinton, the candidate of the Democratic establishment, was always their candidate. When military interventions were more popular with the party, for example, left-leaning columnists like Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof backed the invasion of Iraq. This position, at least in the early 2000s, reflected conventional wisdom—politicians and pundits on the left and right agreed on the necessity of the invasion.

Just as the anti-war far left can feel marginalized, conservative skeptics of military intervention usually don’t end up with columnist gigs at mainstream newspapers. “I once heard a joke. There are only 20 neocons in the country, but they all have Washington Post columns and New York Times columns,” says Robby Soave, an associate editor at Reason, a libertarian magazine and website.

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Stephens is an identifiable neoconservative. In his writings, he has advocated for free-market economic policy and a robust American military presence abroad. He was a prominent supporter of the Iraq War and a critic of Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. While Soave’s point is an exaggeration—he repeated a joke, after all—it speaks to an underlying truth. A certain type of conservative is more than welcome in the opinion pages of a newspaper, no matter the editorial board’s political leanings.

This conservative is usually in the Stephens mold: hawkish on foreign policy, a classical liberal on economics (limited government, lower taxes), and generally a believer in Republican Party orthodoxy. At the Times, Ross Douthat, who replaced conservative heavyweight Bill Kristol in the opinion pages, fits this archetype, and was also aggressively anti-Trump. He tweeted in September of 2015 that the “entire commentariat is going to feel a little silly when Marco Rubio wins every Republican primary.”

The Times employs no columnist who is a supporter of Trump’s economic and foreign policy prescriptions, let alone the man himself. Though Trump is ideologically elastic and prone to offering contradictory statements, his campaign generally adopted a worldview espoused by a once-fringe element of the Republican Party best represented, before Trump, by Pat Buchanan. By winning the presidency, Trump proved, at least in a GOP primary, this brand of Republicanism could be appealing to average people.

Unlike Stephens and Douthat (and major conservative columnists like The Washington Post’s George Will, who said he was leaving the Republican Party after Trump seized the nomination), the Trump wing, at least rhetorically, cares far less about Republican orthodoxy. Like left-wing Democrats, Trump criticized free-trade agreements and promised not to privatize social security and Medicare, the entitlement programs regularly attacked by Republican politicians.

I once heard a joke. There are only 20 neocons in the country, but they all have Washington Post columns and New York Times columns.”

The Trump wing is isolationist, intensely critical of American military adventures abroad. It believes, unlike Republican elders, that America must restrict immigration and offer no path to citizenship for most immigrants who arrive here illegally. Critics, notably those on the left, charge that the Trump worldview is inherently nativist and racist.

However controversial and popular—Trump crushed a bevy of conventional conservatives on his rampage to the presidency—it has no reliable booster in the Times or Washington Post. It may never.

“Cable news entities and the networks really force the dialogue into categories….That’s been seeping into the journalistic consciousness for some time now,” says Robert W. Merry, the editor of The American Conservative, a publication known for challenging Republican orthodoxy and offering more nuanced defenses of Trump policy. “People are taking a knee-jerk approach. This sounds kind of arrogant on my part, but if you don’t have an answer—what’s going on is so novel and profound and significant and disruptive—you’d think people would be stepping back and saying, ‘What’s going on here?’”

Merry blamed cable news for erecting a false left-right dichotomy and making guests adopt certain preconceived, antagonistic postures for whatever controversy dominates the headlines that day. CNN has been blamed for elevating this model, though it has also endured criticism for employing Trump boosters like Jeffrey Lord and Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager. Trump talking heads, with few exceptions, do not typically refine a CNN panel. Instead, they are often reduced to repeating, ad nauseam, Trump White House talking points, even when they’re counterfactual.

But this doesn’t mean all Trump policies and positions are without merit or not deserving of an intellectual hearing. Nor does it mean other perspectives beyond the Overton Window—the range of acceptable political discourse—deserve to remain there. Libertarians like Soave are often shut out because their arguments do not easily fit the left-right cookie cutter. Skeptical of foreign interventions, defenders of civil liberties and critics of post-9/11 security measures, libertarians can be lumped in with the left, even if they also believe in limiting welfare programs and reducing the scope of government in all facets of people’s lives.

Soave, who lives in Washington, DC, says his Washington social circle is particularly dismissive of libertarian ideas, and blames the concentration of media in urban areas for a neglect of any ideas beyond the conventional spectrum. “Everyone is in the same place, going to the same events, the same parties, socializing together,” Soave says. “It’s amazing to watch opinions starting to converge just for purely social reasons because of your friend circle.”

The perspectives you normally don’t see a lot of tend to be those who are outside an elite consensus.”

Zaid Jilani, a journalist with The Intercept, an online publication often critical of establishment progressives, wrote recently about six types of columnists the Times could have chosen instead of Stephens. Jilani said Arab- and Muslim-Americans, opponents of “militarism,” scientists and environmentalists, young people, and supporters of both Trump and Sanders could have been selected instead because all are underrepresented in the Times’s staid opinion pages.

“The perspectives you normally don’t see a lot of tend to be those who are outside an elite consensus,” Jilani tells CJR.

Jilani, who grew up in the Georgian Bible Belt, says highly religious people are also left out of this consensus. Most journalists reside in secular, cosmopolitan cities where evangelical Christians, many of whom make up the backbone of Trump’s support, are in short supply. With the collapse of local and regional media, more and more reporting and commenting manpower is concentrated in a few city centers where not only opinions, but the entire conception of reality, radically differ from what lies beyond them.

News organizations are still struggling to diversify their ranks. Minority groups only accounted for about 13 percent of newspaper jobs in 2015, according to one industry survey. Tied into that equation is a socioeconomic component that anyone who works in today’s precarious news industry is well aware of: Holding a newspaper job often means coming from an affluent household, especially as both undergraduate and graduate degrees, along with a slew of prestigious internships, become the price of admission for scant openings.

“You have so few people in the op-ed pages who grew up poor,” Jilani says. Pointing to the runaway success of Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir by J.D. Vance, a Yale-educated entrepreneur who lived a childhood of poverty in Appalachia, Jilani argued the book’s popularity was further evidence of how large media outlets (Vance has a Times column) pigeonholed working-class America. “It’s as if they found their rural Appalachian whisperer and his perspective is the [ultimate] perspective. The South has a variety of perspectives.”

Despite all the upheaval over the past year, the unchanging nature of newspaper op-ed pages doesn’t surprise Jack Shafer, a Politico media columnist. “A newspaper is not a Twitter feed. It’s not skywriting,” Shafer says.

The editorial status quo will remain as long as the people who control the pages hail from the same classes and ideological backgrounds they’ve always known.

“We can argue whether Bret Stephens or Paul Krugman’s ideas are worthy of placement in The New York Times,” Shafer says. “but [A.J.] Liebling said it best. The freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

* Bennet is a member of CJR’s board of overseers.

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Ross Barkan is a journalist and writer from New York City. He frequently contributes to the Village Voice and his work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire and Reuters.