Harvey J Graff

When New York Times opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury published her case for “guest essays” replacing OpEds(April 27, 2021), she did not include “fact-based” among her “principles.” Her standards—cogent argument, logical thought, compelling rhetoric—however, are not requirements for all opinion writers. They do not apply to regular columnists and especially “conservative” writers. Is this requirement only for “guests”?

The question of journalistic standards for opinion writers cries out for discussion. I haven’t fact-checked, but my strong impression from the two national newspapers (New York Times and Washington Post) and one local (Columbus Dispatch) that I read each day, and others that I check online, is that in-house and “editorial board member” columnists’ numbers have swelled. They are replacing news reporters. For example, on the important topic of critical race theory—which I follow closely (and write opinion essays about)—the New York Times and the Washington Post publish more opinion pieces, predominantly from columnists, than news reports. This is one aspect of the decline of newspaper staffs, economic cuts, and rise of large corporate networks. By policy, neither national daily publishes essays in response to an opinion essay and only rarely a letter.

It is increasingly clear that opinion writers are not held to basic journalistic standards or minimum codes of ethics. In part, this reflects the absence of editors and editing. In my hometown newspaper, for example, grammatical errors and articles that contradict their headlines are frequent; the Columbus Dispatch does not maintain a copy desk (despite reporters’ wishes). Opinion columns are not copy-edited and certainly not fact-checked.

Given their national exposure, my main examples come from the New York Times and the Washington Post.). In “How conservative opinion writers fail their readers,” I show how columnists Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens fall short of responsible journalism. In their matter-of-course distortions, factual misrepresentations, false comparisons, and illogic, they cross the lines that separate opinion from breaches of journalistic ethics. They have no regard for established facts, the need to research their claims, or even to check definitions. They quote any “authority” who fits their claims, rather than reputable and relevant sources.

Ross Douthat’s never-ending series of columns trying but failing to enunciate a “patriotic and Catholic” approach to teaching about race and to American history, society, and culture more generally is an especially ignorant and offensive ideological campaign. He rivals the illogic and falsehoods of the Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, Henry Olsen, and George Will. Skeptics should read the thousands of online readers’ critical comments and fact-checking.

The larger problem doesn’t stop with the so-called “conservatives.” Moderate and progressive columnists also stumble, sometimes badly, with respect to critical race theory and national politics among other issues. This includes the Times’ Michelle Goldberg, Maya Gaye, Charles Blow, Jamelle Bouie, Frank Bruni, and Gail Collins, and the Post’s Michael Gerson, Greg Sargent, Paul Waldman, Dana Milbank, Eric Wemple, Perry Bacon Jr., and Eugene Robinson, among others. Consider how often a column is little more than a summary of an article or a book with a few comments. The problem is that opinion writers, no matter how skilled they may be, are not trained reporters (reporters should not be compared, of course, to scholars). But they make assertions and voice conclusions as if they are.

Moderate and progressive columnists fall into the trap of bending over backward in an attempt to be balanced and, as a result, accept false equivalencies of “excesses” on both left and right. But the evidence does not justify that degree of tolerance and benefit of doubt. That is a logical as well as an evidentiary failing.

As a consequence, these columnists allow right-wing activists (Heritage Action, 1776 Project, Citizens for Renewing America, ALEC, and their education affiliates) to dictate terms of discussion. (See my “The media mangle the Second Big Lie: The nondebate over critical race theory,” Columbus Free Press, forthcoming.) Critical race theory is confused with teaching about race and slavery; they overlap but are distinct. Critical race theory, for example, is not taught in K-12 and seldom in universities; it appears mainly in law schools. Teaching about race and slavery is a regular and necessary part of history and civics (if not always or often taught adequately).

These activists have been allowed to create a false narrative that there is a “debate” about teaching these topics when, in fact, there are no real issues and no real terms of mutual discourse. Perhaps most egregiously, the right wing has created a false impression that there is a “raging debate” among parents and school boards. In actuality, a small number of examples from several states are mentioned repeatedly, and a review shows that they are quoting a script from “handbooks” and “toolkits” circulated by the activists. Almost no opinion writers do basic homework or fact-check. This is the focus of my recent writing. (See, for example, “The New White Fright and Flight and the Critical Race Theory Nondebate,” Academe Blog, Sept. 29, 2021, and “There Is No Debate About Critical Race Theory,” Washington Monthly, Sept. 4, 2021.)

My final examples come from the Columbus Dispatch, a USA Today/Gannett affiliate. To the objections of many readers (expressed in online comments), this struggling metropolitan daily now publishes as “guest essays” unfact-checked campaign pitches filled with outright lies (from Ohio’s Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate, novelist J.D. Vance and former state party chair Jane Timken, to take only two examples) under the banner of opinion. Similarly, “opinion” essays appear from corporate leaders selling their products with no acknowledgement that this does not meet any recognized standard for “opinion” or “essay.”

As a member of the USA Today/Gannett network, theDispatch reprinted an opinion [sic] essay by Christopher Rufo, the most disreputable right-wing propagandist against teaching about race. It was titled, “It’s state-sponsored racism, needs to stop.” Rufo indiscriminately labels those he opposes as “Marxists” and “racists” and fabricates quotations that he dishonestly attributes to them. None of these writers passes muster for elementary logic or facts. The Dispatch cannot decide if the frequent, self-congratulatory essays by its just-retired editor are “guest essays” or “editorial statements.” When asked, they are unable to answer.

The Dispatch outdid itself on Jan. 11, 2022. In addition to its daily Opinion page, two pages earlier it printed a “Commentary”—not termed either “Opinion” or “Guest Essay”—by a representative of the right-wing Heritage Foundation. Inaccurately and ideologically criticizing the Biden administration for “stagflation,” a term no longer used by reputable economists, it stated partisanly “Some blame high costs on government policies.” Nowhere is it stated that Heritage Foundation is a supporter of USA Today and that it has a representative on its Board. (No URL on website.)

The media and other observers ask why so many in the public no longer trust or support national or local media, especially newspapers. It is well-known that many newspapers have closed and many struggle. The rise of the “opinion economy,” as I call it, is part of the problem. It overshadows the news. It is easier and cheaper to produce. It is more digestible. It fans emotions. But it fails the public and the bases of our democracy.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar at The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history including The Literacy Mythand The Dallas Myth. Searching for Literacy will be published this year. His own opinion essays appear in Inside Higher Education, Times Higher Education, Washington Monthly, Academe, Publishers Weekly, and other outlets including NPR. His specialties include the history and present condition of literacy and education including higher education, children and families, cities, interdisciplinarity, and contemporary politics, culture, and society.