The Op-Ed Problem

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With so many people up in arms about The New York Times’s handling of Senator Tom Cotton’s opinion piece on its op-ed page, it’s time for all of us to be thinking about the mission of opinion sections. At best they provide a critical outlet for fresh thinking and ideas and voices, and while they may not persuade, the act of agreeing or disagreeing with them can help us define and refine what we ourselves think and why. A well-reasoned opinion can build critical thinking, even if we disagree with it or see gaps in the arguments. At the very least, and this is important, an op-ed piece exposes us to what others are thinking.

At Moment, we are always working to expand the conversation while figuring out who should be included. It’s no easy task to decide what voices, viewpoints and arguments to seek out and amplify; specifically, it means deciding what arguments are too fringe to be published, and more broadly it means setting ourselves up as an arbiter of public discourse and defining the spectrum of acceptable thought. We need to balance what we think is acceptable with the reality of what people are actually thinking and saying. We can’t pretend the conversation outside our walls is always within the bounds we would set, because it’s not. How far outside the bounds do we go? And whose bounds? These kinds of conversations regularly dominate our editorial meetings.

While each opinion we publish is carefully discussed and fact checked, we do sometimes run opinions with which no one on our staff agrees. That’s the reason behind the longstanding statement in our masthead, “Articles and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the view of the Advisory Board or any member thereof or any particular board member, advisor, editor or staff member.” More recently, for our Jewish Political Voices Project (which currently dives into income inequality in the United States), created to present a range of voices from the American Jewish community, we began to publish this carefully crafted disclaimer. “In these pages we are providing the unfiltered opinions of voters interviewed for this project. These opinions do not represent the views of Moment. They are based on the voters’ understanding and perception of facts and information from a range of sources. In some cases that information may be misleading or incorrect.”

But no matter what we say, many readers mistake the opinions of outside columnists or people we interview for reporting or for Moment’s opinion or for that matter, my opinion. While it is hard to get the message across that these opinions are not ours, and why we believe it’s important to publish diverse opinions, it is even harder to provide context for a one-off opinion piece. One way to address this problem is to publish not just one view, but many. This is why we spend so much time on our “Ask the Rabbis” and “Moment Debate” sections, as well as devote months at a time to each Moment “Big Question.” These symposiums give us the chance to curate the conversation by talking to a wide spectrum of thinkers. The questions tend to be existential and not immediate commentary on the events of the day, but they are incredibly valuable. Take, for example, “Is Democracy Broken?” where we include the opinions of people who both agree and disagree from a variety of vantage points. Another one of my favorites is “Is Religion Good for Women?,“ a multi-faceted discussion that gets to the heart of many contemporary conversations. I hope that The New York Times will do something similar to respond to the controversy surrounding Senator Cotton’s op-ed, devoting a special section to a range of carefully fact checked opinion pieces about the appropriate response to civil demonstrations.

Publishing opinions has always been a balancing act, but these days, it seems as if the line between opinion and news is blurring more in our brains. Perhaps it’s because we are flooded with so much information due to the surfeit of pundits and sources. Or perhaps it’s because all of us have become accustomed to shooting off comments without thinking. Or it could be because the nation is so deeply polarized. Part of the problem may simply be that more of us are reading online where it may be less clear that what we are reading is an opinion.

So what do you do if you disagree with an opinion we publish here at Moment? Write us a letter to the editor at editor@momentmag.com. One of my personal favorites sections of Moment is the letters section, called “The Conversation,” where readers write to tell us why they disagree with our writers and even other readers. But please, take a deep breath before you write! Please be respectful—and as factual as possible. In this way, your voice has the best possible chance to be heard!

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