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It's OK to have a moderate opinion
On the decay of the newspaper opinion section, and why it cries out to be reversed
The ongoing decline of the newspaper editorial page may not be any great human tragedy, but it is a sad symptom of civic decay. The Des Moines Register, a newspaper with a storied editorial history (including past Pulitzer Prizes for both editorial writing and editorial cartooning, has announced that it is reducing its opinion pages to just two issues per week, on Thursdays and Sundays.
■ The Register is far from the only publication in this boat, but its particular reasoning stands out in an odd way that is irreconcilable with the facts of the world today. The newspaper excused its retrenchment by arguing that syndicated columnists are widely available elsewhere, and that it saw a little value in opinion pieces submitted by the community -- saying, "[W]e'll accept far fewer unsolicited columns and instead invite writers with specific subject expertise or personal experience to submit essays".
■ They are certainly right on one level: It is easy to find opinions everywhere online, everyday, in volumes that are impossible to read. Medium counts on that as a business model. But the ease of discovery does not mean that those opinions are organized in any way to recognize quality.
■ The lamentable fact is that an entire industry has grown up around the promotion and supply of opinions that are mindlessly provocative. People are rewarded for these opinions with growing audience figures, oftentimes including people who join the audience for the express purpose of providing criticism. But in lining up to point and stare at the car crash in the opposite lane, we may well miss the curves in the road ahead of ourselves.
■ The fragmentation of media means that it is more important than ever for a publication to be clear about its editorial philosophy. Nobody should pretend like there is a true neutrality of viewpoints from any publication or outlet. Even being pro-democracy or pro-freedom-of-speech is a viewpoint.
■ Any choice to devote resources, whether in the form of people, pages, time, or money, is an editorial decision. A decision to cover or not to cover is an editorial choice by its nature. In a world of scarce resources for news coverage, editorial judgments ought to be made clear.
■ That doesn't mean the opinions need to be stronger, nor that they need to be more polemical. But the people allocating news resources do need to explain themselves. Other professionals, like triage doctors, make choices amid scarce resources, and serious thought is put into how they make decisions because the process is important. Self-government is less bloody, but the process of reflecting on it is important, too.
■ Thoughtful editorial statements ought to reflect the considered judgment of the people who ought to have the best available public access to the information on matters of public interest. If an editorial board thoughtfully concludes that it is neutral about a public issue, that is worth noting -- just as in science, a finding of no effect is still an important result, often worth publishing. But if an editorial board reaches a position of neutrality simply by not examining an issue, then it may be failing its community.
■ On most issues, people will form opinions. And they will form those opinions whether informed by facts or not. If a vacuum is left behind on matters of public interest, then that vacuum will tend to be filled by interest groups armed with the tactics of persuasion (and motivated to use them). Those interest groups indisputably have a right to have their say, but a vibrant civic community doesn't stand alone on the opinions of the extreme.
■ Moderation more often stems not from having an initial opinion and holding it tight, but from having the broad-mindedness to consider all of the available opinions, and giving them due examination. As John Stuart Mill put it, "Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it."
■ The allocation of resources is a reflection of an institution's values. And you really won't see local newspapers cutting back faster on their local sports pages than on their local opinion pages. That is a statement of values that calls for recalibration. The trivial may be good for entertainment, but there is no community in America that doesn't have the room for at least one decent, well-considered opinion on the matters of public interest every day.
■ If a local newspaper cannot or will not fulfill the role of the community's conscience and its institutional memory, something else must. Civic life depends upon people being bound together by mutual tolerance and common interest. Those values are hard to generate in a vacuum.
■ Too many recent events have illustrated the consequences of individuals failing to do the right thing and of institutions falling into decay. Far from being a time for retreat, this ought to be the prime time for thoughtful, community-based consideration of the world. And far more often than just twice a week.