“How newspaper op-ed pages became the outrage-generating machine of 2020”

From a Washington Post story by Paul Farhi headlined “How the dusty old op-ed pages became the red-hot outrage-generating machine of 2020”:

Joseph Epstein says he has a lot of hate mail but no regrets.

A few weeks ago, the veteran writer and former university lecturer dashed off a few hundred words for the Wall Street Journal, to which he regularly contributes guest columns. He intended to make a point about advanced degrees and the pretentiousness of titles. Epstein focused on incoming first lady Jill Biden, who holds a doctorate in education, urging her not to use the honorific “Dr.” The sub-headline on his piece said it was a “fraudulent, even comic” title.

Epstein’s op-ed became one of the most talked about, and most loathed, articles of the year. People took to social media to denounce it and him as misogynistic, condescending and contemptible. At last count, Epstein said he’d gotten 200 pieces of hate mail, many from women and many using sexist, homophobic or anti-Semitic slurs. Some urged him to die.

“My reaction is one of great sadness,” he told The Washington Post this week, sounding more rueful than rebuked. “I’m not sorry I wrote it at all. I’m just mildly depressed about how stupid [the reaction] was. What struck me is how people are so content to put labels on you — ‘you’re sexist,’ ‘you’re racist.’ Well, labels aren’t thoughts.”. . .

An op-ed sparked a similar conflagration at the Times in June. Reporters and editors took to social media to protest the publication of a column by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that recommended using the military to respond to civil unrest. Readers also sounded off, resulting in the resignation of the paper’s editorial page editor, James Bennet, and the reassignment of his deputy, James Dao.

Bennet and Dao were the editors principally responsible for ushering into publication one of the most-discussed articles of the entire Trump era — an op-ed by a “senior administration official” who described himself as part of the “resistance” to President Trump inside the White House. The column, credited to “Anonymous,” prompted a brief but unsuccessful hunt within the White House for the writer’s identity and a series of rage-tweets from Trump. . . .

The modern op-ed page was created in 1970 by a New York Times editor, John B. Oakes, with the express purpose of expanding the range of opinion found on the newspaper’s pages. . . .Within a few years, most daily newspapers had copied the idea, regularly reserving space for columns by politicians, religious leaders, experts of various kinds and ordinary people with an interesting point of view.

Although most columns pass without much comment, the few that become part of the national conversation do so as a result of a combination of factors. The identity of the writer matters, as does his or her argument. And the medium seems to be as important as the message. Only a small handful of elite “legacy” publications — principally, the Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post — appear to have platforms big enough to create wide attention.

The three newspapers still enjoy an advantage even a large regional paper or social media platform does not: They are read by business and political elites, which makes them the first choice when a business or political elite wants to unburden him or herself on an issue. . . .

The outrage generated by op-eds may be greater now, but it’s debatable whether the range of published opinion is any more daring than when Oakes unveiled his innovation 50 years ago, said media historian Michael Socolow of the University of Maine.

Socolow cites several Times op-eds from the 1970s that would probably prompt an angry reaction, but passed without major controversy at the time. One was a 1971 piece composed of reconstructed quotes from the late Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who urged people to die in the “international proletarian revolutionary struggle,” effectively an argument for overthrowing the U.S. government. . . .

Op-eds may be an enduring form not just because they are relatively popular with readers but because they are also cost-effective. Reporting is expensive, requiring an investment in professional reporters and editors; opinions are cheap. Most publications pay nominal sums, or nothing at all, for guest submissions. . . .

Major news sites have also benefited from this. The Times’s Opinion section produced fewer than 10 percent of all the content on the Times site, yet opinion pieces accounted for 20 percent of the stories read by Times subscribers as of late 2017, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. . . .

Local and regional newspapers, however, have to work harder to keep the “takes” coming, said Sewell Chan, the editor of the Los Angeles Times’s editorial page. The major national papers, he says, are flooded “with fairly polished submissions.” Even at a large news organization like the L.A. Times, said Chan, “a lot of work goes into soliciting op-eds, especially from local scholars and writers, and the editing time is substantial as well.”

What may have changed most about op-eds over the past ­half-century isn’t the form itself but the audience for it, he said. A half-century ago, “the middle class was stronger,” and the political parties “weren’t as far apart as they are now. Society, generally, was less unequal and less polarized than now.”

His newspaper, he said, is among a small group of regional legacy newspapers, such as the Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer, that are locally owned and still investing in original journalism, including lively opinion pages.

“I hope regional and local papers survive the information apocalypse we’re going through,” Chan said. “We know that local news sources are still among the most trusted for Americans, and that trust urgently needs rebuilding. Op-eds by local professors, writers, leaders and influencers are important, and we need to preserve the forums that publish them.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post’s media reporter. He started at The Post in 1988 and has been a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter.

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