On Tuesday, September 21, 2010, The New York Times op-ed section turns 40.
Since its debut, there have been countless articles written by professionals from all sectors of society: entertainers, public officials, industrial magnates, historians, novelists, educators, and former U.S. presidents, including Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, along with current president, Barack Obama
According to Edwin Diamond’s book: ``Behind the Times: Inside the New York Times,’ when Times’ editors first started kicking around the idea of launching an op-ed page, one editor in particular, Clifton Daniel, a former managing editor and Washington D.C. Bureau chief was against the whole concept of giving voice to outside opinions, so convinced was he that outside opinions would only ``dilute’’ the Times authority by seeming to endorse opinions that ran counter to the Times’ editorial page.
Fortunately for Times’ readers, the publisher of the newspaper, Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger, Sr, thought the op-ed page would be a splendid idea that would give balance and add a new layer of diversity to a page opposite the editorials. Sulzberger, according to Diamond, also was well aware that the Times was developing a reputation for being ``too liberal’’ in the post-Vietnam years; and adding outside opinions might be the best way to placate critics.
Adding diversity was certainly one of the driving forces behind Punch Sulzberger’s hiring of Richard Nixon’s former speech writer, William Safire in 1973. The back story is Sulzberger originally had his eye on a young conservative writer, George F. Will, but the Washington Post beat him to it, so he settled on Safire. Interestingly enough, when I asked Mr. Will about this, he responded: ``my impression is that the Washington Post also wanted [William] Safire but settled for me.”
The op-ed page was launched on September 21, 1970, which included contributions from W.W. Rostow, Han Suyin, and Gerald Johnson, all non-staffers of the Times. Within a year after the Times op-ed page, was launched, other newspapers, including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times began their own op-ed sections as well.
But contrary to popular belief, The Times wasn’t the first newspaper to launch an op-ed page; that is, opinion columns opposite the editorial page, which is what ``op-ed’’ stands for, ``opposite the editorial page’’. That distinction belongs to Herbert Bayard Swope, editor of the New York World, who organized a collection of columns beginning in 1921, calling it ``Op. Ed.’’ and invited a number of leading journalists to contribute, including Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott, Deems Taylor, Harry Hansen and Franklin P. Adams. In addition, The Chicago Tribune featured opinion pieces as far back as 1912. The Times, however, at the suggestion of John Oakes, was the first to seek outside writing contributions from persons with expertise in different fields from all walks of life. The first editor of the page was Harrison E. Salisbury.
As documented by Marilyn S. Greenwald in her book: ``A Woman of the Times: journalism, feminism, and the career of Charlotte Curtis’’, Salisbury’s mission statement for the page was as follows ``: `It was to be opposite in the true sense. If the Times was liberal, the op-ed articles would be reactionary or conservative or radical or eccentric. The page would offer a window on the world, particularly that scene which for one reason or another (usually the parochialism or timidity of editors) the Times was not presenting in its news pages or editorial comment.''
Alex Jones, Director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University and co-author of ``The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times’’, informs me the philosophy and purpose of the op-ed page has been an enduring struggle at the Times over how much of the page should reflect the views not necessarily expressed in the Times editorials, an issue that was a source of great debate between Sulzberger and Johnny Oakes, when Punch decided to hire William Safire.
The other issue, Jones tells me is ``whether the op-ed page should be the place where the great and powerful had a conversation with each other in public about issues of importance, or should be more the place where less exalted people had their say on topics not front and center on the national agenda. ‘’If I were Arthur [Sulzberger Jr.]’’, Jones said, `` I would expand the op-ed page to do both every day. But as you know, I’m not Arthur.’’
When I emailed Mr. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, about whether the original mission of the op-ed page has remained intact 40 years later; Diane McNulty, a spokeswoman for the company, issued the following statement through an email: ``When The New York Times began the Op-Ed, 40 years ago, it was a tremendously interactive moment for us. We wanted to open our opinion pages to the voices of others – and that hasn’t changed. We seek over time to present a range of views on major issues, to present different ways of looking at a subject’’... ``We do not seek perfect balance, nor do we always look for opposing views to the editorial page. ‘’
The debate whether The New York Times op-ed page lived up to its original mission as envisioned 40 years ago, probably rages on without a clear resolution; but one feature of the page that can’t be disputed is the influence it has with readers around the globe, as a public policy watchdog, and in shaping public opinion. I often think of the op-ed page and its regular columnists much like I would a Seinfeld episode. What Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, David Brooks and Paul Krugman et al wrote about on any particular day is often talked about at the office water coolers, referred to on the cable news talk shows, and of course closely scrutinized by the left and right in blogosphere.
Bob Herbert’s human touch in chronicling those crushed by the Great Recession (one example ) has been particularly moving, so much so that it would be a miscarriage of justice (I believe) if Mr. Herbert isn’t recognized by the Pulitzer board in the category of distinguished commentary for his series of commentaries on those poor souls and innocent victims drowning in one of the most calamitous economic downturns since the Great Depression.
And speaking of Bob Herbert, he was kind enough to share with me his favorite column since being named an op-ed columnist in 1993. It was a column he wrote marking the 25 anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War on May 4th, 2000, titled: ``In America: A Fool’s Errand’’, a chilling narrative about two war time comrades of his, the friendship that blossomed and how the cruel ravages of the war impacted them.
One final note. When A.M Rosenthal became a full-time columnist on January 6, 1987, William Safire gave him one piece of indispensible advice: ``Don’t be objective.’’ Thankfully, some of my favorite columnists at the Times use Mr. Safire’s sage words as their guiding principle.