As I type out these words, believe me, I am 100 percent aware of the hypocrisy. But there are times when I cannot stand opinion columnists.
I was first confused, then furious last year when I saw the headline “The Mask Mandates Did Nothing. Will Any Lessons Be Learned?” on the front page of The New York Times website. Of course, I immediately angrily read the article and finished it, appalled that the Times would publish a piece that was not only inaccurate but dangerous.
I was particularly disillusioned when I found out that the author of the anti-mask article was Bret Stephens, a columnist who had written a few pieces I had enjoyed in the past.
Then I started thinking about the pieces I had read by him and other columnists for The New York Times. While I don’t keep a list of their names in my head to whip out as a party trick, I realized that if I was shown this list, I would be able to specifically identify them as the Times’s opinion columnists.
Why them? Why does The New York Times have a dedicated staff of writers who are, frankly, paid to give hot takes? Well-written, eloquent, and (usually) well-researched hot takes, but hot takes nonetheless. What qualifies them as worthy to bestow their opinions on tens of millions of readers?
An expert penning an article related to their area of expertise, I can understand. Some Times columnists, like economist Paul Krugman, are experts in their field and primarily write articles related to that. However, others are simply … what? Smart people? Good writers? Opinionated citizens?
One thing they are is alumni of the nation’s most elite universities. In The New York Times’s opinion section, 52 percent attended Ivy Plus institutions for either their undergraduate or graduate degrees. Nationally, the percentage who attended such universities is less than one percent. Many of these columnists come from an educational background that fails to represent the vast majority of Americans, and yet it is their opinions that are published weekly. Furthermore, more than half of these columnists are white, emphasizing the lack of diversity within the opinion section. Rather than a broad range of opinions being published, they are limited to those of a group of primarily white writers hailing from elite universities. Other perspectives, more relevant to other parts of the population, are ignored.
But even if these columnists weren’t the products of predominantly elite universities and were more diverse, I would still have an issue with them: they simply exist.
There isn’t anything wrong with writing opinion pieces and publishing them in prominent newspapers and magazines, but the official title of “opinion columnist,” especially in a paper as prestigious as The New York Times, places an extra level of legitimacy on their opinions. What happens if the opinions the columnists offer are questionable or dangerous?
In the case of the anti-mask article, a closer look at the facts behind the article reveals that they come from a study that was ultimately uncertain if masks slowed the spread of disease—it did not claim, as Stephens did, that masks were ineffective. It also noted that the results may be influenced by factors like improper mask usage, subjects not routinely wearing masks, or the use of low-quality masks. Stephens’s reading of the study was likely influenced by his political affiliation as a moderate conservative, exemplifying how a writer’s background colors their opinions. Although the readership of the Times trends liberal (and more likely to wear masks), this article is still problematic as it encourages people to eschew potentially life-saving measures.
It is not usually individual articles that bother me—many of them are well-written, thought-provoking, heartfelt, humorous, mournful, or joyous. It is the collective. It is one columnist’s archive that reaches back years, covering topics as broad as politics, technology, private jet travel, and ants. It is the realization that 19 people have been paid to give out their opinions on the basis of a talent for writing and an elite education. Looking at them as a whole, I began to realize that they are simply a glut of one person’s opinions. I wonder why they should have the authority to share their opinions on such a public forum, while other people with opinions to share lack that opportunity. Perhaps they could get published in a guest essay, but that requires their submitted article to be accepted by the Times, whereas designated columnists are guaranteed a spot in the paper.
These are smart people writing interesting articles, but I question why they are paid to write on a semi-weekly basis. I could understand occasional opinions, but more space should be made for other commentators. In fact, I think there should be no permanent opinion columnists. No matter how well-written their columns are, they are essentially paid to churn out opinions. Even if they diversify the topics they cover, their stances will inevitably be influenced by their own political and personal beliefs, and the articles they produce will ultimately reflect only their own perspectives. What’s lost is a fresh viewpoint.
Now, this article is not to say that all opinion sections—including the one I currently write for—are all out of touch and unrepresentative bodies of writers. A strength of publications like the Voice is our lack of permanent columnists. Any Georgetown student who wants to write articles for the Voice can do so.
To publish a greater range of voices, newspapers like The New York Times should focus on soliciting opinion pieces and publishing guest essays. Maybe this would lead to a logistical nightmare—a mad scramble of opinion editors clambering to find pieces for their paper each day, no longer able to rely on a reliable stream of articles from their staff columnists. But the world has no shortage of opinionated people itching to share their views with the world.
Just don’t make it the same 19 people.