The Old Gray Lady shouldn’t just shut up

And now, a criticism of the New York Times Editorial Board.

Not for something they’ve written, but for what they’ve now said they won’t write.

As captured in a recent “Editors’ Note” to readers, the Times says:

“Our goal has been to increase the originality and value of contributions made in the institutional voice […] the board has begun reserving its views for matters of great significance and when rigorous reporting and research by members of the board have led it to support certain arguments.”

If this were truly a signal of a newfound modesty, then perhaps their editorial reticence would be worthy of applause. But what it says instead is that the institutional voice matters less, not more. And that is a cringeworthy evolution.

People have many definitions for the word “news”. Some say it’s “anything someone doesn’t want published”. Some say it’s whatever “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable”. Yet others say it’s a crusade or a means of empowerment.

Here’s a different definition: News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo. Sometime what we read or hear is reporting on events (things that merely happened), and much of what we get packaged as “news” is just information. These other things aren’t bad, but they aren’t news.

That essential element of news is that the status quo has changed. That means — as citizens or consumers or voters or investors or whatever we are — we need not just to know that it has happened, but also to evaluate what and how to think about it.

And everyone has an opinion. Like a nation of Cliff Clavins, we often think we know more than we do and have brighter ideas than we truly possess on a range of topics so vast it might well circle the entire globe. Just look at the things people see fit to share on their Facebook walls, often wildly misinformed or objectively wrong.

This problem, of course, weighs twice as heavily on the kinds of people who profess opinions for a living. Not only is it a merciless time for the economics of news coverage in general, but so has it become a brutal, dog-eat-dog world for the columnists and opinion writers of the world. It’s everyone for themselves, write whatever you can to get the clicks, and, oh by the way, make sure you’re building your buzz on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, too. Why not a Snapchat while you’re at it?

The biggest cliche of our era is the “personal brand” — the thing an individual is supposed to cultivate on top of actually doing their work. If you don’t have a personal brand, you can’t attract a loyal following, and without followers, what are you really bringing to the table for the publication or broadcast outlet or website that issues your paychecks?

It’s not healthy. Not for individuals, not for media institutions, and not for the public at large.

The idea that a newspaper (or a website, or a radio station, or any other outlet) ought to have an institutional voice is a statement that institutions themselves matter, but also that history matters, consistency matters, and — perhaps above all — a sense of temperance matters.

One person can have a harebrained opinion. That’s the easy part. And a mob can be frenzied, too — usually at the instigation of one person with a harebrained opinion. But it’s hard for a group of people — maybe half a dozen or a dozen at a time to collectively lose their minds when trying to come to a consensus opinion on a matter, consistent with a set of known values and history.

That doesn’t mean they won’t be wrong. Collective opinions are the foundation of appellate-court jurisprudence, and decisions are overturned all the time. But a collective expression of opinion shouldn’t be fueled by the same extremes of passion that an individual might have. That’s a feature, not a bug. It’s good for us as people to learn from opinions that have been through a cooling-down process. The news can be overwhelming. And lazy opportunists are not just willing but eager to latch on to simplistic, jingoistic, overheated, mindless, inflammatory, uncritical, extremist ideas. It’s what drives all too much of talk radio, cable-television punditry, and online argument-making.

We need more often to learn not just the news, but how to feel about the news, from sources that have an institutional investment in helping us to learn and understand and see the continuities between those changes in the status quo that we encounter.

And part of that process requires that the institutional voice shows up about as often as the news does. The idea that the New York Times Editorial Board should retreat from expressing an informed opinion on the news unless it is a matter of “great significance” gets it entirely backwards. The kind of trust it takes to be a worthwhile institutional voice isn’t built on matters of “great significance” alone. It’s built on being there, being consistent, and (ideally) being more often right than wrong about small matters as well as big ones.

Not everything in life is or ought to be about “great significance”. One of the great errors of this century was the color-coded terror alert system introduced by the Department of Homeland Security. That system was around for a decade and essentially told the American public nothing at all — because of the five risk levels, it never dropped below the third.

When everything is important, nothing is important. That, regrettably, is the lesson we’re all going to learn sooner or later when we realize that there are lots of blowhards screaming and shouting all the time, with no accountability for lowering the volume and dropping the temperature of the conversation. But blowhards are the ones who get rewarded in a system of clicks and fanatics.

It is for the purpose of balancing the blowhards, of offsetting the extremes, of calling us back to historical perspective, that institutional voices ought to matter. Not personal brands, but unsigned consensus opinions rooted in a sense of obligation to get it right for the record, not for the day’s social-media reach. And that can’t work if the institutional voice only pipes up at times when the conversation is already dangerously close to shouting stage. At that point, the institution sounds more like a know-it-all blustering in on the weight of authority rather than a trusted, practiced, and careful narrator of the news and how we ought to feel about it.

Trust is earned by consistency over time. The world is filled with material changes to our understanding of the status quo, and that makes the interpretive duty of the editorial boards of the world — not just at the New York Times — surely as important as ever.

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