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 bias in coverage or because the Internet has largely wiped away the compartmentalization of the traditional paper, but 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. — openly report from a left-wing perspective.
I’m not sure if this kind of transparency is necessarily a bad thing, but whatever the case, an editorial board is still run separately from the 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, occasionally even challenging its 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, for instance, James O’Keefe demonstrated just how easy it is to either confuse the editorial board with the newsroom or to manipulate readers to confuse them. At some point, however, it also becomes the paper’s fault, as well. What happens when an editorial board goes beyond arguing for liberal positions and debating policy to actively politicking for one party? There’s a big difference between political discourse and partisan activism.
This week, The New York Times editorial board took over the paper’s opinion Twitter account, which has around 650,000 followers, “to urge the Senate to reject a tax bill that hurts the middle class & the nation’s fiscal health.” By urging the Senate, it meant sending out the phone number of moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins and imploring followers to call her. In others words, the board was indistinguishable from any of the well-funded partisan groups it whines about in editorials all the time.
Contact @SenatorCollins, (202) 224-2523, particularly if you live in Maine, and ask her to oppose the Senate tax bill because it would repeal Obamacare’s individual mandate, driving up the cost of health insurance. #thetaxbillhurts pic.twitter.com/id69OJ4CPC
— NYT Opinion (@nytopinion) November 29, 2017
Perhaps I’m forgetting instances of similar politicking, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a major newspaper engage in the kind of partisan activism The New York Times is involved in right now—not even on an editorial page. The Times’ editorial board isn’t saying, “Boy, that Republican bill is going to kill children,” it’s imploring people on social media — most of whom don’t even subscribe to their paper or live in Maine — to inundate a senator with calls to sink a tax reform they dislike. (It’s worth pointing out that most of the hyperbolic contentions the board makes regarding the bill are untrue or misleading, but that’s another story.)
The average news consumer doesn’t care about the infrastructure of a news organization. When they see a media giant engaged in naked partisan campaigning, it confirms all their well-worn suspicions. 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 the same paper not merely editorialize against it, but run an ad that could have come from any of the proxies of the Democratic Party?
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 they see everything Republicans engage in as an apocalyptic event. So, like political norms, journalistic ones fall every day on both sides.
What makes this kind of activism (which is likely to be ineffective, anyway) particularly hypocritical and distasteful, though, is that the Times has long argued in favor of empowering the government to shut down corporations — just like them — that engage in campaigning by overturning the First Amendment via Citizens United. This is worth remembering as the board turns into the equivalent of a super PAC.