President Obama’s op-ed article Wednesday on fighting violent extremism drew hundreds of online comments and letters, most responding specifically to the points made by the president. But among the responses were several comments that skipped over the substance of Obama’s piece; those readers wondered why The Times published an article by the president in the first place.
UC Irvine history professor Jon Wiener and Nick Goldberg, The Times’ editorial page editor, had an exchange over e-mail addressing this question. Wiener wanted to know why The Times, which already devotes significant coverage to the White House, would give op-ed space to the president.
Here is their exchange.
Jon Wiener’s message to Nick Goldberg:
I’m curious about why you ran Obama’s op-ed article. I’m sure you know the arguments against doing it: He has the biggest megaphone on the planet, he is on Page 1 every day of the year, and the op-ed page is for other perspectives. And this piece presents thoroughly familiar liberal common sense — denial of human rights encourages extremism. So true.
So how come you did it?
Interesting question. First of all, I don’t think we take the size of someone’s megaphone into account. We publish things by prime ministers, by U.S. senators, by famous writers, by professors, by nobodies, by rich people and poor people — and I don’t think we should disqualify some of them because they have other outlets or appear on the front page every day.
As for the notion that the op-ed page is for “other” perspectives, we run about three pieces a day — every day except Saturday — so running the occasional piece by, say, a prominent politician doesn’t really take away, in any meaningful sense, from the publication of “other” perspectives. And besides, I’m not sure the page is for “other” perspectives — at its best, it’s for a wide, broad range of perspectives, from the common sense to the counterintuitive to the conventional wisdom to the radical to the ironic and so on. And, in my opinion, it should be written by a broad range of writers as well.
I think we should use a number of criteria in selecting what we run. One thing is strength of the argument, another is whether the argument is new, another is whether it’s well written or surprising or whatever. But we should also be considering whether people want to read a particular subject and whether the argument comes from someone people want to hear from. I think that Obama is someone people want to hear from on the subject of Islamic extremism.
You may say he’s not all that interesting on the subject because people already hear from him enough — but if that’s the case, why are more people reading this piece than anything else we’ve published in recent days?
Just to be clear, we’ve turned the president down in the past. In fact, I think we’ve turned his people down the last two or three times they submitted.
In this case, I thought we should run it.