Hit or Miss

The Times’s pro-Trump editorial page is patronizing and circular

January 18, 2018

Like most things involving Donald Trump, The New York Times’s decision to give over its editorial page to 15 letters from the president’s supporters on Thursday inspired a furious reaction from many liberals, who criticized the paper for elevating pro-Trump voices. As if to preempt the backlash, the Times promised us that tomorrow we’ll see “letters from readers who voted for Mr. Trump but are now disillusioned, and from those reacting to today’s letters and our decision to provide Trump voters this platform.”

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Left-wing critics of the feature are right that it’s problematic to devote a full page to Trump voters, but perhaps not for the reason they intended. Partisans for the president shouldn’t be given a special platform with a chosen few perfectly composed, black and white—and 100% white—portraits alongside. Instead, they should be treated just like any other reader who writes in to the Times editorial page, paired with Greens, never-Trump conservatives, and everyone in between.

It is absurd to suggest that pro-Trump voices are marginalized—by any cogent definition of structural privilege they are not. But liberal media too often treats these voices as anthropological curiosities, to be held at arm’s length by thumb and forefinger, sniffed, ogled, then eventually put down. By turn, they’re cast as uniformly ignorant, then uncritically raised up. (The Times’s Daily podcast host Michael Barbaro cried when a miner asked him, with no apparent malice, whether he’d ever actually visited a mine—an especially toe-curling example of the latter.)

James Bennet, editorial page editor at the Times (and a member of CJR’s board of overseers), says the paper consciously solicited input from Trump supporters, in part to address a shortage of ready pro-Trump sentiment in its inbox. This instinct to reach out, which Bennet says the Times has done with different groups in the past, is right and laudable. But the splashy framing of the letters—and the media’s history with Trump voters over the past year—makes the piece read as tokenistic.

Many of the people who voted for the president (whisper it quietly) have always been capable of expressing why they did so articulately, without relapse to the sort of racism or falsehood that should have no place in any curated selection of reader comment. Does “we desperately needed a seismic change in the pusillanimous foreign policy pursued during the Obama years” sound like the rambling of an illiterate hick? Does “As a child of the ’60s I admire his iconoclastic nature, optimism and unapologetic humanity”?

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There’s an element of classism in justifying the inclusion of these views in “the spirit of open debate, and in hopes of helping readers who agree with us [to] better understand the views of those who don’t.” Right-wing people with very similar opinions to those on Thursday’s editorial page have long written about them for mainstream newspapers. In fact, the Times employs many conservative commentators. It just seems to be a requirement that those commentators are never-Trumpers—even Bret Stephens, loathed by many liberals for his views on climate change and other topics, continues to wholeheartedly reject Trumpism. It’s not supporting Trump-style policies that seems to be beyond the pale—it’s supporting Trump himself, in all his brash complexity. It’s striking that several letters the Times published on Thursday expressed support for Trump in spite of his unrefined behavior, when many of his supporters say they like him because of it. (Bennet, who didn’t choose which letters were published, says the selection reflects the overall sentiment of correspondence the Times received.)

Bennet says the Times is actively looking for Trump supporters to write regularly for its opinion section, but that there’s a short supply of writers who would live up to the rigorous standards the section demands. Admittedly, it’s hard to think of prominent candidates who fit the bill. But as the Times just proved in actively soliciting pro-Trump letters, cogent defenders of the president can be found—especially if you reach out beyond the social circles that the commentariat frequents.

Giving Trump voters the chance to express themselves in their own words is a better idea than the tone-deaf parachute journalism on “the heartland” that scarred the aftermath of the election. And the Times is not a lone offender in missing the mark when it comes to framing pro-Trump opinion.

But the media should be mindful not to needlessly stoke tensions in a divided country. Contriving a platform for Trumpers, then promising to give a platform to opponents of Trump who want to argue that the initial pro-Trump platform should never have been offered, is a circular and unnecessary stunt—more likely to remind Americans why they hate each other than to advance mutual understanding.

So here’s some advice for the Times. Scrap the splashy feature. And when a Trump voter writes you a thoughtful letter, just publish it on the same page as everyone else’s.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.