Harvey J Graff

Note: area readers are aware that the local “daily newspaper” is no longer either daily or a newspaper. Following USA Today/Gannett, the Columbus Dispatch does not publish on Dec. 24 or 25, 31 or Jan. 1 (as well as Thanksgiving or Labor Day). They do not coordinate with their carriers so subscribers do not receive the everyday New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post. The USA Today managed Dispatch website is chaotic and incoherent. It does not replace even the printed Dispatch’s late and low volume of actual news.

All opinion writers—including New York Times’ conservative columnists—must meet basic standards of journalistic practice and ethics. They are responsible not only for presenting clear and logically coherent opinions, but also for adhering to established facts and objective evidence. In other words, alternative narratives and their rhetoric must be constrained by critical if minimal standards.

Typical opinion essays by New York Times columnists Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens fall short of responsible journalism. In their distortions, misrepresentations, and illogic, they cross the lines that separate opinion from unacceptable breaches of journalistic ethics.

Consider three examples. On March 7, 2021, Douthat hyperbolically asked, “Do liberals care if books disappear?” He misrepresented Dr. Seuss’ (Theodore Geisel) publishers as “cancelling” and “banning” books. They did neither. The trust that legally controls the publication status of the Seuss books decided to discontinue six of his many volumes.

In the wake of decades of well-documented instances of derogatory, racist depictions in this small number of books, the Dr. Seuss Enterprises, owner of the copyrights, sought the advice of a panel of experts. Douthat muddied the key issue of legitimate concerns about literature for impressionable young readers. He failed to mention the regular criticism of Babar and Tintin books. In sum, the answer to his rhetorical assertion that “few liberal journalists and critics seem troubled by” Seuss’ publisher’s actions: There is no reason for them to be.

On March 10, 2021, Stephens barely contained his outrage against the state of California’s not-yet-finalized high school ethnic studies curriculum. He falsely stated that “ethnic studies” is “a radical ideological movement” synonymous with “critical race theory.” In fact, they are distinct intellectual and institutional developments with different histories and applications.

Stephens incorrectly claimed that the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement “essentially calls for the elimination of the Jewish state.” With no logical basis, he implied that high school curricula should include all imaginable ethnic groups.

On March 23, 2021, in “The Atlanta massacre and the media’s morality plays,” Stephens attacked “the media,” which he treats as an undifferentiated whole. He illogically based his tirade on an undeveloped notion of what “the news media should have learned.”

His flailing effort to dissociate the Atlanta-area mass murders from anti-Asian hate represented his alternative to “the media.” But he ignored widely publicized evidence, from STOP AAPI HATE and others, of rampant acts of hatred, including violence. He refused to admit that the confessed murderer targeted three Asian American-owned spas and six Asian American (and one other) women. Ignoring the powerful conjunction of race and gender, Stephens instead blamed the victims by repeating an irrelevant, unproved allegation that the spas “provide sexual services.” His incoherent rhetoric was itself a dangerous “morality play.”

These three examples prompt a discussion of the basic journalistic responsibilities of all opinion writers, across the ideological spectrum. Illogical and anti-factual “opinion” pieces continue unchecked.

It is ironic that New York Times opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury’s case for “guest essays” replacing OpEds (April 27, 2021) fails to mention “fact-based” among her “principles.” The stated standards—cogent argument, logical thought, compelling rhetoric—do not seem to hold for conservative writers. Is this requirement only for “guests”?


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. 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.