Journalists will often complain that readers don’t properly understand the distinction between editorialists and reporters.
To be fair, it’s often quite difficult to tell. That’s not only because of some biased coverage or because the internet has largely wiped away the compartmentalization of the traditional newspaper; it’s because reporters now regularly give their opinions on TV, write “analysis” pieces and make their ideological preferences clear on social media. Many news outlets—The Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, etc.—unapologetically report from a left-wing perspective.
I’m not sure whether this kind of transparency is necessarily a bad thing, but whatever the case, an editorial board is still run separately from a newspaper. It offers arguments regarding public policy and culture.
Ideally, it publishes op-ed columns by an array of voices with varying points of view, and it even occasionally challenges the preconceived notions of readers. When I was a member of an editorial board, our mission, at least as I saw it, was to offer rigorous good-faith arguments for whatever point of view we were taking. I never once consulted anyone in the newsroom.
In his botched sting on the Washington Post this week, conservative provocateur James O’Keefe demonstrated just how easy it is to either confuse the editorial board with the newsroom or manipulate readers to confuse them. At some point, though, it can also be the paper’s fault. What happens when an editorial board goes beyond arguing for liberal positions and debating policy to actively politicking? There’s a vital distinction to be made between political discourse and partisan activism.
This week, The New York Times editorial board took over the paper’s opinion section Twitter account, which has 650,000 followers, “to urge the Senate to reject a tax bill that hurts the middle class & the nation’s fiscal health.” To facilitate this, it tweeted out the phone number of moderate Republican Maine Sen. Susan Collins and implored its followers to call her and demand that she vote against the GOP’s bill. In others words, the board was indistinguishable from any of the well-funded partisan groups it whines about in editorials all the time.
Perhaps I’m overlooking some instance of similar politicking, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a major newspaper engage in that kind of partisan activism—not even on an editorial page. The Times editorial board isn’t merely contending, “Boy, that Republican bill is going to kill children!” It’s imploring people on social media—most of whom don’t even subscribe to the paper or live in Maine—to inundate a senator with calls in order to sink a reform bill it dislikes. (It’s worth pointing out that most of the hyperbolic contentions The Times make regarding the bill are either untrue or misleading, but that’s another story.)
When consumers see a media giant engaged in naked partisan campaigning, fair or not, it confirms all their well-worn suspicions about the entire paper. You can grouse all day long about readers’ inability to comprehend the internal divide. But how could a Republican trust The New York Times’ coverage of a tax bill after watching it not just editorialize against it but run what could fairly be characterized as an ad that could have been produced by any of the Democratic Party’s many proxies?
Maybe this is just a more honest way to do business. The fact is it’s highly unlikely that The New York Times cares about enticing conservatives anymore. Like many others, the Times board likely feels a moral obligation to act because it sees any Republican legislative victory as an apocalyptic event. There is nothing demonstrably unethical about this kind of crusading, but like many of our political norms, journalistic norms seem to fall every day.
On the other hand, there is one thing that makes this kind of activism (which is likely to be ineffective) particularly hypocritical and distasteful: The Times has long argued in favor of empowering the government to regulate or shut down corporations—just like The Times itself—that engage in this brand of campaigning by overturning Citizens United and, therefore, violating the First Amendment. This is worth remembering as we watch one of the nation’s largest editorial boards transform into the equivalent of a super PAC.