"Fact is not the opposite of opinion; it is its foundation."
In April this year, the New York Times retired the term “op-ed.” The term meant “opposite the editorial.” An op-ed is an opinion piece usually written by somebody who is not a regular columnist or writer of the publication. Thus, on the one hand, there was “editorial.” Everything else went to the page opposite it.
Contributions from the public were, from then on, to be known as “guest essays.”
The Times’ opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, wrote an explanation for the newspaper’s decision. She said the first op-ed page, literally opposite the editorial page, appeared in 1970. At that time, the editors were” nervous at its inception and worried whether anyone would be moved to contribute.”
The idea was for the page to serve as “a welcome mat for ideas and arguments from many points on the political, social and cultural spectrums from outside the walls of The Times — to stimulate thought and provoke discussion of public problems.”
For the past 50 years, the op-ed has served that purpose and has endeared itself to readers and contributions alike.
So why the change?
It reflects the changing times — the old print design of newspapers, specifically. In the digital format, there is not even an “Ed” for the “Op-Ed” to be opposite to.
“Op-ed” was also described as “clubby newspaper jargon.” Kingsbury adds: “Institutions — even ones with a lot of esteemed traditions — better serve their audiences with direct, clear language. We don’t like jargon in our articles; we don’t want it above them, either.”
On the other hand, guest essays are exactly that — one does not have to be an insider to know what it is.
In the past 50 years, what has made the op-ed so successful is the allure of clashing, well-expressed opinions, Kingsbury writes. But they want to take this further so that guest essays can include “voices who are new to us, on topics we may not yet understand.”
What has disappeared in recent times, she says, “are spaces where voices can be heard and respected, where ideas can linger a while, be given serious consideration, interrogated and then flourish or perish.”
Indeed the spirit of inclusiveness and respect drives us to listen to others who may hold views different from ours.
Yet how far can we push this spirit if that other voice is premised on a different set of “facts” that makes it resistant to serious consideration or interrogation, and instead stretches credulity?
Then again, reading the opinion pages, whether we are talking about regular columns or guest essays, has become difficult over time.
In the past, the newsroom simply had to correct grammar lapses or improve the style of the writers. It also had to make sure that the piece was not libelous. Or, if the piece trod on dangerous ground, it needed to show that the writer exerted an effort to be fair, that the sources were solid, and that the public interest was so much greater than the potential harm caused to the individual in question.
Outside of that, the opinion writer pretty much had a free hand on what to write about, and what literary style to employ. It’s his or her stomping ground. Readers were eventually able to tell, anyway, if this writer could be trusted as a thought leader, opinion shaper, an engaging read — or someone with conflicts of interest.
Today, disinformation has muddled up the equation, The newsroom now finds itself with the additional burden of verifying the information that the writers include in their pieces. That one would only form an opinion from verified facts used to be a given. These days, with the proliferation of manufactured quotes, made-up figures, misleading press releases and half-truths peddled as entire truths, one has to make sure that the writer is not knowingly or inadvertently propagating lies. Sometimes, despite best efforts, the exercise fails.
Worse, not many readers are conscious of the vast difference between a news story and an opinion piece. Thus, when they read an opinion piece they see on their news feed (shared by a friend or suggested by the platform), they have no opportunity to remind themselves that this is not gospel truth, and that this is only one person’s interpretation of facts — wherever those facts might have come from.
So how do we marry open-mindedness, inclusiveness, respect for different points of view on the one hand, and critical thinking and a healthy dose of skepticism on the other? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. We have to navigate this tricky road and figure out things as we go along, one news story, one opinion piece at a time.
Then again, don’t take my word for it. After all, this is also an opinion piece. See for yourself if it holds true.