TO SOME READERS, the Op-Ed page is a bit mysterious. I’ll be at a cocktail party, or sitting in the bleachers at a Little League game, and the guy next to me will begin asking questions about just what it is we’re trying to do, and how we get it done.
Who are the writers who appear on the page? Are they speaking for themselves or the paper? How many articles come in every day, and how are they selected -- and by whom? What are the criteria by which they’re judged?
If my kid’s not at bat, I’m generally happy to talk about these subjects ad nauseum. But this week, with the move of the opinion pages from the California section to Section A, we decided we’d like to try to answer some of these questions more generally for all our readers. As editor of the daily Op-Ed page (and of the Current section on Sunday), the task fell to me.
Our mandate, as we see it, is straightforward: to provide provocative, thoughtful commentary that is reasoned yet opinionated on a wide variety of subjects. The page itself has no ideological bent or political agenda; we want to provide the broadest possible range of opinions -- from the left, from the right and, we hope, from authors whose politics are much harder to pigeonhole.
Sometimes we get e-mails complaining that the pieces we’ve run are biased. To which we reply: Of course they are! Unlike the articles in our news pages (where reporters endeavor to be objective), our articles are opinion pieces; bias and a point of view are expected. In that sense, they’re like the editorials that appear on the opposite side of the page (Op-Ed, get it?).
Unlike the editorials, however, our pieces do not reflect the opinion of the paper, its owners, its publisher or its editorial writers. Rather, the Op-Ed page is where individuals with no institutional connection to The Times can voice their opinions (opinions, by the way, that often disagree with the paper’s editorial stance). In addition, the Op-Ed page is home to 10 regular weekly columnists. More about them later.
As for our subjects, almost nothing is off-limits. We run articles on domestic politics, on foreign policy, on the great issues and controversies of the day in L.A., California and around the world. We also run personal essays and humor pieces, as well as articles on science and sports and movies and family life. The only unifying characteristic (we hope) is that all our pieces have an idea behind them and a point of view, and that they all stimulate some kind of intellectual engagement with the subject.
In recent weeks, we’ve run pieces on whether fish feel pain, on what it’s like to be a baseball fan growing up in Hong Kong, on whether to engage or ignore North Korea in the wake of its nuclear test, on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s trip to Asia, on the banning of transfats, on the agenda of the new L.A. schools superintendent, on surfing in Munich, on the legacy of U.N. leader Kofi Annan, on several upcoming ballot initiatives and on how Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s childhood helped shape his approach to politics.
Our authors include people who have never (or rarely) written a word for publication. Others are better known, and they include novelists, historians, policymakers, humorists and activists. All are paid a modest fee for their contributions.
Submissions arrive in two ways: Either we solicit them or they’re sent to us by authors “over the transom” -- i.e., unasked. In any given week, we receive 300 to 500 unsolicited submissions, most by e-mail. The vast majority do not make it onto the page (and, although we try to decline them politely, we are too overwhelmed to respond personally to every inquiry). In the end, we publish about 24 pieces each week on the Op-Ed page (average length: 750 words) and another eight or so articles of various lengths in the Current section.
Our pages -- the daily Op-Ed page and the Current section -- are put together on the second floor of the L.A. Times building by several full-time assigning editors as well as researchers, copy editors and an art director.
People often want to know whether we seek balance on the page. The answer, as best I can give it, is this: We want a page that is politically balanced over time -- not leaning too heavily to the left or the right -- but we don’t monitor it day to day, or count Democrats versus Republicans. Similarly, we seek diversity of thought and diversity of contributors -- we want provocative ideas from people of all races, genders, religions, etc. -- but again, we don’t try to balance the number of women to men on every single page.
In addition to our guest contributors, we have 10 Op-Ed page columnists, each of whom writes once a week. Some are based in Los Angeles; some are not. Some, such as Patt Morrison, have a long-standing connection to The Times, but most are freelancers (although they write their columns for us).
They have subjects they cover -- but only loosely. Max Boot, for instance, writes most frequently about American foreign policy; Meghan Daum tends to cover cultural issues; Morrison writes most often about L.A. and California; Niall Ferguson blends diplomacy and economics. But we don’t require them to stay within those boundaries. Their columns are edited, but they’re given wide berth to choose their subjects and even wider berth to press their own opinions. As you’ll see, all 10 have written about their columns below. (And there’s more about them at www.latimes.com/news/columnists/opinioncols.)
Finally, a word about Current (the section formerly known as Opinion), which runs as a stand-alone section in the Sunday paper. Current is an extension in many ways of the Op-Ed page, but it has room for longer pieces, as well as larger photographs and illustrations. We try to present things visually in Current in a way we often can’t do on the Op-Ed page, and we try to tell stories that can’t always be conveyed in 750 words. From time to time, Current also runs analytical pieces written by news reporters.
Until this week, Current has always included a daily Op-Ed page (opposite the editorial page; where else?). But beginning Sunday, it will no longer appear there (although columnists Jonathan Chait and Gregory Rodriguez will continue to run in the section). We decided to remove the page in order to allow more space for Current pieces.
Our job -- providing provocative, readable and substantive essays seven days a week -- is challenging, but it’s always engaging, inspiring and, yes, fun. And if we do it right, reading the pages should also be all of those things -- challenging, engaging, inspiring and fun.
Meet the columnists
A SCOTSMAN BY birth, a historian by training, a wandering scholar by choice, I take very seriously the old adage that journalism is history’s first draft. I constantly ask myself what the second and third drafts may say about the latest world news. At the same time, I take the view that history is our best guide when it comes to answering most political questions -- a much more reliable guide than any ideology or doctrine. What should we do about Iran, Iraq or North Korea? Will we poison the oceans before we overheat the atmosphere? These are questions I’ve addressed in recent columns. A rather pompous German shipowner before World War I had as his motto “My Field Is The World.” I’d like to think the world is my field too. The great thing is that every week, when I write my column, I learn at least one new thing about it.
MY COLUMN IS not for the weak of mind. In the wrong hands, it could be a dangerous tool. Sometimes I think I should soften my truths -- shield the unready masses from my searing insights -- but then I wouldn’t be so heroically brazen, and women would like me less. So I take my chances.
Basically, what I do is the opposite of “Seinfeld”: I turn something into nothing. To get that perspective, I try to find the small angle on the story no one has looked at. My column is not a place for readers to pick up facts and figures to bolster already ingrained arguments. And that’s only partly because finding facts and figures takes a lot of work.
So I don’t use my space to talk about why the president is totally awesome or completely sucks. There are other people doing that. And they annoy me. I try to report on some piece of the world you didn’t know about or were too smart to check out yourself.
But mostly I write about myself, because it is my column’s foremost opinion that I’m the most fascinating person in the world.
MY GOAL IS TO inform readers about issues relating to American national security, drawing on my background as a military historian to put current events into perspective. I try to offer provocative insights, with analysis and recommendations, pungently expressed, that go beyond conventional wisdom. My columns tend to engender strong reader reactions. I’ve been called a neo-Nazi by left-wingers and a Trotskyite by right-wingers, which tells me I must be doing something right. If I had to describe my viewpoint, I would say that I’m a conservative internationalist -- someone in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan -- who believes that the U.S. does well in foreign policy when it does good. I think that American power has been the greatest force for good in the world over the last century and that vigorous American leadership is needed to guide the world in the years to come.
Erin Aubry Kaplan
I LIKE TO THINK of a column as a civic diary that puts private thoughts into the public sphere, especially on racial matters. I like to think of myself as a grass-roots talent scout who gives ordinary but remarkable people a bit of stage time in a city obsessed with visibility, electability, celebrity and geography. I like to illuminate neighborhoods in L.A. that tend to wither in the media’s shadow -- they need a spotlight and air to grow. I often write myself into my columns because I’m often a part of the problem, or the solution, or, in any case, a character in the narrative I’m relating. I’m not interested in objectivity but participation. I want to detail people’s wrongs and people’s hearts in equal measure. I want to chart my own beliefs and disillusionments as faithfully as possible because I think they resonate for many African Americans who have always had too few outlets to speak their minds.
I’M AN IDIOSYNCRATIC conservative, not a partisan Republican. What interests me are the ideals that are supposed to drive politics, as opposed to the deals that normally do. I take particular delight in debunking the reigning cliches in Washington and deflating the hysteria in American politics generally -- with intellectual rigor, historical context and, whenever possible, good humor.
I try to avoid the talking points that tend to dominate political debate these days and come at questions in the tradition of a “small c” conservative. I rarely think there’s anything new under the sun; I believe instead that the latest Big New Thing is little more than an old idea in shiny new packaging. I don’t take myself too seriously, but I’m always serious about looking for an argument.
WHEN YOU SPEND the time I have reporting and writing on California and the West -- the astronauts, madams, polygamists, refugees, oversexed priests, politicians both admirable and detestable, artists, heroes sung and unsung, killers and the kindhearted, dog actors and human ones, desperadoes and billionaires and plain old idiots; when you’ve hung out on the Mexican border, seen old ladies catfight alongside Valentino’s grave and covered sundry inaugurations, Olympics, quakes, protests, fires and riots -- you wind up with a lot to say about this place.
California and the West can’t be completely captured or explained with “just the facts.” It takes context, experience and a substantial bit of humor. I attempt it in 800 words (give or take 50) every week, with some wit and some intellectual fiber. I’m Patt Morrison, and I approved this message -- at least, I did before it got to my editor.
I TRY TO WRITE the kind of columns I like to read -- columns that surprise readers, make them laugh, let them see connections between seemingly dissimilar things. I like the odd juxtaposition, the hidden irony, the irreverent and, occasionally, the just plain silly. I write mostly about foreign policy, national security, human rights and international law. These aren’t subjects that people generally giggle about while reading the morning papers, but as the poet W. H. Auden put it, sometimes “a laugh is less heartless than tears.” Politically, I’m a progressive, but I’m allergic to ideology; I think good ideas can often be found in the most unexpected places. In the last five years, I think we’ve made terrible mistakes in our foreign policies, mistakes that break my heart. I’d like to see the United States become, once more, what it has been in the past: A nation that stands up for human rights and the rule of law, and a true force for global stability and security.
I LIKE TO THINK of my column as social commentary with a generous dose of philosophical inquiry and, occasionally, outright satire. I cover the zeitgeist. I’m a generalist who tries not to over-generalize and a critic who hopes to avoid being a snob. By exploring current issues, ideas and the quirks of our culture critically and compassionately, my aim is for readers to identify with my arguments even if they disagree with my conclusions. Nothing makes me happier than connecting with an audience that’s willing to think as well as be entertained. By offering up my own foibles, I hope my readers will let go of their defenses too.
I DON’T BELIEVE in arguing on my own authority. I always try to offer up evidence to support my arguments. That may sound obvious, but if you think about it, there are lots of columnists out there who argue by anecdote or simple assertion.
A lot of opinion writing is an attempt to distract the reader from the lack of underlying logic. I believe in quoting the people I’m arguing with, so the reader can see that I’m not mischaracterizing their arguments.
As for my politics, I’m a moderate liberal. I probably would have been a moderate Republican 30 years ago if I were old enough (I’m 34). But the political spectrum has moved so far right that I’m now in the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. I’m very willing to agree with people on the other side, or attack my own, when I think it’s called for. I supported the Iraq war, for instance. No, I’m not bragging about that.
I’M FASCINATED by the American experiment, and I’m convinced that integration -- how “they” become “us” -- and social cohesion are the preeminent global issues of the 21st century.
In my columns, I try to balance scholarship with reporting, and humor and anecdote with analysis. I am less interested in delivering opinions and more interested in answering questions.
To understand ourselves, Americans need to understand class and race. But those two elements also tend to obscure what’s as important: ethnic, cultural and religious strains that define our society. I am astonished how little we know about our own national story, and I try to explore its details, connect its parts.
I think Los Angeles has a lot to teach the world about cultural convergence, but I’m equally interested in what the world can teach us.