More Thoughts on the Disposability of the NYT Op-Ed Roster

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Dorf on Law post last Friday, I argued that all of the twice-a-week columnists for The New York Times op-ed page should be fired.  Further, I suggested that they should not be replaced by better permanent columnists, even though my reason for wanting to dump the existing group is that so many of them are so bad.

If it were simply a matter of improving the quality of the home team, it would have made sense to keep the acceptable-to-good (which, in my view, would be limited to Charles Blow, Gail Collins, and Paul Krugman) and find replacements for the others. That was apparently what Salon's Alex Parreene was arguing, when he wrote: "Blow up the Times Op-Ed page, and start again!"  Instead, I questioned why the Times would even want to maintain a group of regulars, virtually none of whom have any known expertise, to continue to write stale commentary, when it would be quite easy to print guest commentary in their places.

A commenter on my post alerted me to a very nice reply to my piece on PrawsBlawg by Professor Paul Horwitz (of the U. of Alabama's Law School).  Professor Horwitz offered some further thoughts that deserve serious consideration.  He did not disagree with me on my larger point, but he did probe a few of the pieces of my argument.  Having had almost a week to think about his questions and comments, I will do my best to respond here.

I especially like Professor Horwitz's explanation of how the Times selects its columnists.  Whereas I, ever the recovering economist, imagined in my reductionist way that it was all about selecting columnists to sell newspapers, Professor Horwitz points out that there are very non-economic reasons why people land on the op-ed page.  For example, he says that the op-ed page is often the consolation prize for the losers of internal promotion battles.  His cynical explanations make a lot more sense than mine, and I am happy to be enlightened.

More substantively, although Professor Horwitz does not directly raise this point, I should be clear on the threshold question of why this subject matters at all.  When I wrote my blog post last Friday, after all, I thought of it as a bit of a relaxing digression, clearing my head from all of my recent writing about inequality, the corruption of economics departments, and so on.  Professor Horwitz, reading my vibe correctly, called it a "fun post."

Yet I do think that this is an important matter, even though there is a very strong argument that the op-ed world matters not at all.  Consider, for example, the question of Paul Krugman's influence.  Here is a man, the only economist ever to win the top two prizes in his field, who is given a prized platform from which to argue about economic policy.  His columns are read by millions of people.  He happens to possess writing skills that make him uniquely capable of capturing complicated ideas and explaining them in persuasive, even catchy, prose.

Moreover, Krugman sits on this perch at a time when his advice is most needed, during and after the greatest threat to the global economy since the Great Depression.  He has spent that time repeatedly explaining why the policy responses in the U.S. and Europe have been almost universally wrong-headed and disastrous, and he has repeatedly laid out a better path, relying on evidence and logic in a world in which his opponents offer neither.

And what impact has he had?  Europe's elites dismiss him, Republicans revile him, and the Obama Administration pointedly ignored him.  If Krugman cannot leverage his NYT slot to make a difference, how does any of it matter?  Maybe having Maureen Dowd imagine internal conversations in politicians' heads is no worse than anything else.  Maybe the op-ed page is all about entertainment, with any thought of real-world impact a conceit of people who think that arguments matter, or at least that they ought to.

Even if that were true, however, it is not clear why we would have to settle for bad entertainment.  If we are sitting in a virtual waiting room, can we not at least ask the receptionist to turn off the muzak and play some decent music?

But it really is not true.  Krugman's impact has not resulted in 180-degree shifts on policy, but he clearly changed the conversation.  Policies really have changed over the last few years, with the European Central Bank acting more like a central bank, the Obama people backing off of austerity, and even the U.K.'s government dialing back on the sadism.  We cannot know how much of this was connected to Krugman's influence, but I suspect that it is not negligible.  (I am confident that his impact would survive being fired by the Times.)

On the negative side, consider the influence that the usual suspects have on the national conversation.  My post this past Friday began with a lament about a column by Frank Bruni, who joined the "deficits are destroying our children's and grandchildren's futures" chorus.  This is one of the best examples of the damage that generalists do, when they are expected to opine twice-weekly about something.  They invariably end up saying pompous, safe things within the conventional wisdom, reinforcing nonsense about which they know nothing.  Most of the NYT columnists have written something along the lines of what Bruni wrote last week, and the drip, drip, drip of the conventional wisdom becomes ever more entrenched with each repetition -- no matter how well Krugman argues the contrary position.  We are still living in an austerian world, with ignorant columnists filling space by saying what other people like them have said many times before.

In short, I think that there is a negative impact from having a half dozen or so people put in positions from which they can set the policy agenda, or at least reinforce damaging orthodoxy.

Professor Horwitz points out, however, that there is much more to the NYT op-ed world than merely this rotating group of columnists.  There is also the online world, which includes a lot more pieces by non-NYT writers.  This is obviously true, but I do not think that it undermines my larger point.

First, the printed page still matters.  Maybe not for long, but at least for now, the printed version has much more impact.  Just as a bit of anecdotal evidence, I can report that I have been cited in pieces on the Times's electronic pages, and I have even been published in the "Room for Debate" feature on the Times website, but I have never been contacted by anyone following those mentions.  When my name was dropped in an op-ed piece in the printed newspaper, however, I heard from friends who had disappeared from my life years ago.

For those who do not want to rely on one anecdote, however, I can make the argument in the form of a question: If the Times told Thomas Friedman that it was going to stop printing his column in the hard-copy newspaper, moving him (without a pay cut) to the online site only, would he view that as a good thing or a bad thing?  Exactly.

Second, the non-print op-ed site of the Times is just an expanded version of the print page, with another set of usual suspects mixed in with guest commentary.  Some of these guys show up on the printed page every now and then, the worst example recently being Timothy Egan's uniquely moronic "The Commencement Bigots."  Egan, Roger Cohen, Steven Rattner, and so on are just shadow Brookses and Kristofs.  As on the printed page, there are some whom I like (June Lapidus, David Firestone), but the whole enterprise is still the same: People with no apparent qualification filling space because they have to fill space.

Which brings me to an important question that Professor Horwitz raises: "It's not clear to me whether the replacements he envisions would only be experts opining on subjects ostensibly within their expertise, or whether he would also run a mix of opinionated generalists who would at least be more varied and surprising and entertaining than the existing limited stock of permanent columnists."  I definitely favor the former.  Now, this will still mean that the Times would be free to pick "experts" who say things that make no sense.  For example, I recently took issue with a guest piece by a scholar who tried to argue that inequality is no big deal because of income mobility.  Even though I took strong exception with that piece, it was a vast improvement on, say, finding yet another column in which Gail Collins asks, "Are you with me, people?"

More generally, however, my suggestion could be undermined by the simple fact that the unseen powers at the Times, who currently tolerate the low quality of their op-ed page, would simply follow my advice by dumping their high-profile columnists, but replacing them with guest columns from safe and boring alternatives.  I can only say that even that could not be any worse than what we have now.

Finally, Professor Horwitz wrote: "I cannot resist taking issue with a couple of his judgments along the way. Pace Buchanan, losing Charles Blow would not be a blow. By the time he left, Frank Rich was not a loss. (I am surprised that Buchanan laments stale, predictable column writing but exempts these two.) And he's wrong about Manohla Dargis."  I can completely understand that this is a matter of personal preference.  I think Blow is saved by his efforts to try to report and analyze polling data, but maybe that is just the stats nerd in me coming out.  Rich never bored me, but he might not be everyone's cup of tea.

On the other hand, I think Professor Horwitz's keyboard must have malfunctioned when he was typing that last sentence.  Somehow, "And he's completely right about Manohla Dargis," was rendered as "And he's wrong about Manohla Dargis."  Notify tech support!