Opinion: Is opinion journalism rising to the moment right now?
Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, July 16, 2022. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.
And I really mean it this time: Let’s look back, at everything — not in great detail, but in a big-picture, James Webb Space Telescope kind of way. Go to latimes.com/opinion (which, since you’re receiving this newsletter, you are probably already familiar with), or really any newspaper opinion section. On our site, you’ll see a constellation of articles on various topics, strung loosely together by whatever themes the editors favor. There’s the marvelous piece by Times editorial writer Tony Barboza on the aforementioned space telescope image, a stunning look at a cluster of galaxies as they appeared more than 4 billion years ago, seemingly reminding us of our insignificance in this vast universe, but which, as Barboza put it, should reinforce our celestial home’s singular importance to us.
It is with this “big picture” perspective that I invite you to look at everything else and try to identify: What’s important today or this week? Or what’s the most consequential thing for me to know, given everything that’s going on? I’d argue that climate change — really, the ability of complex and fragile ecosystems to survive the increasingly irreversible atmospheric changes caused by humanity’s fossil fuel pollution — takes primacy over all other subjects. There are two pieces on that: an editorial lamenting the disappearance of California’s iconic trees (a subject regular readers know is dear to my heart), and an op-ed article slamming the Biden administration for potentially allowing a new oil-drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope. You have to dig a little to find more pieces on climate change; this shouldn’t evince a lack of recognition on our part of this crisis’ urgency, and unrelenting alarmism tends to make people stop listening. But casual readers could be forgiven, at least this week, for coming away with a skewed sense of the problem’s seriousness.
The second issue demanding our attention right now, I’d argue, is the Jan. 6 insurrection and the continuing assault on representative democracy by much of the Republican Party. And it’s on this subject that I have concerns about the role of opinion journalism, and whether it can convey the gravity of this situation.
To wit: This week, the House Jan. 6 committee painted a vivid picture of how former President Trump himself orchestrated an attempted coup (recall the testimony of that remarkable, “unhinged” White House meeting that immediately preceded his Dec. 19 tweet promising that Jan. 6 “will be wild”), and if that coup had succeeded, according to witnesses, it almost certainly would have set off a bloody civil war. This is jaw-droppingly remarkable — the stuff of history that defines an era, and will likely be studied either as an inflection point in American democracy’s survival or another missed signal on the way to its demise. Our legal affairs columnist Harry Litman wrote a piece flagging the significance of this moment, one in which Trump was identified as the “bad guy in the drama of democracy’s narrow escape.”
There were other pieces too on national politics — but not this. Jonah Goldberg wrote about the Biden administration facing stiff headwinds because of a poll showing dismal approval ratings and the wish among Democrats that someone else runs in 2024 (and not because, I don’t know, a former president is running around peddling election conspiracy theories). In a column tracking the Republican Party’s descent into anti-intellectualism and faux populism, LZ Granderson declared Georgia Republican Herschel Walker unfit for the Senate. Opinion intern Isaac Lozano smartly seized on Dr. Jill Biden’s “breakfast taco” gaffe (which I have a hard time admitting was really much of a story at all) to remind Democrats that Latinos want real policy changes and not more platitudes to win their support.
This critique applies across the punditry profession. Look at any newspaper opinion section or policy and politics magazine, and you’ll see a similar dynamic: There was another bombshell hearing detailing the ongoing assault on American democracy, this one suggesting we narrowly averted a bloodbath on Jan. 6, and it’s just another topic taking its place alongside run-of-the-mill political commentary. I was especially incredulous, perhaps undeservedly so, tuning into the New York Times “The Daily” podcast on July 13 and listening mostly to a discussion on midterm election polling. This may be suitable for “normal” times, in which many commentators learned to do their jobs, but in a time of extreme national and global peril, shouldn’t we choose to elevate one or two overriding concerns in our collective consciousness?
I ask these questions because I have no answers, only concerns. None of this is to say we should be ignoring issues outside climate change and the decline of American democracy, or that our coverage of deeply rooted problems like homelessness, housing and racial discrimination should take a backseat in these times. As the letters editor, I regularly publish reader opinions on those topics and will continue doing so. But I do hope we find a way to focus readers on the most exigent crises that demand their participation. Put another way, when historians look back 100 years from now, will they be able to glean from our coverage that we understood the seriousness of this moment?
For now, maybe I’ll do something similar to what I did with that stunning space telescope image: Gaze for a while at the variety of commentary and try to find in it something meaningful that ties it all together.
I debated lumping in abortion with the decline of democracy, since the overturning of Roe vs. Wade comes as a direct result of Republicans winning the White House without popular vote mandates and using procedural gamesmanship to remake the federal judiciary. On abortion, there has been plenty of discussion in Opinion: In our “Hear Me Out” series, several readers wrote letters about their long-ago unplanned pregnancies and abortions, and some of them told their stories in a video. Psychologist M. Antonia Biggs expressed concern for the mental health consequences of overturning Roe. The editorial board, after saying that the fight in court over abortion is far from over, called on the Biden administration to declare a public health emergency over access to reproductive medical care. Christa Parravani wrote of finding herself pregnant in a red state and wanting an abortion, but having to carry her son to term against her will. For more commentary on the end of Roe, visit latimes.com/opinion.
She inherited a 4-pound, furry ball of destruction. As a proud cat person, I found Robin Abcarian’s column on the 22-year-old feline she took in after her father died utterly delightful: “When I attempt to make any sort of meal for myself, she violates my personal space. If I move to a different part of the kitchen, she leaps from countertop to countertop, right over the dog’s head, in pursuit. I’ve given up making tuna salad because it takes too much time and energy to fend her off. Sometimes I hate her so much. And then she sidles up to me, purring and asking for love. And I give it to her. I can’t disappoint my dad.” L.A. Times
New COVID variants like BA.5 are dominating us — we can do more to prevent this. Dr. Eric Topol, whose Twitter feed is a must-follow for anyone seeking steady and reliable information on the pandemic, recommends a new Operation Warp Speed: “The ‘leakiness’ of current vaccines and boosters for preventing transmission can be patched up by nasal spray vaccines, for which three candidates are in late-stage randomized clinical trials. Such vaccines achieve mucosal immunity, protecting against the entry of the virus into our upper airway, which shots are incapable of achieving for any durable basis, especially as the virus has evolved. Nasal sprays, like a variant-proof vaccine, deserve an Operation Warp Speed-like program to accelerate their success.” L.A. Times
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Legal pot needs better warning labels. There’s a growing body of scientific research linking heavy marijuana use to mental health issues; problem is, you won’t find that information on the state-mandated warning labels for legal cannabis products, which are so tiny that they’re difficult to read at all. A bill to fix that isn’t perfect, but the editorial board calls on the Legislature to pass it: “Giving consumers more information about the risks of using cannabis is smart policy that will ultimately help legal actors distinguish themselves from the thriving black market. The Legislature should send Gov. Gavin Newsom SB 1097 so he can sign it into law.” L.A. Times
Biden saved what Trump dismantled in Utah. But what will “save” mean? Stephen Trimble and Carolyn Z. Shelton praise the Biden administration for restoring boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, but the details are what’s really important: “With restoration, monument advocates celebrated. Bears Ears was again protected, Grand Staircase saved — but just what does ‘protect’ or ‘save’ mean? At both monuments, the development of all-important new management plans is in the works. These will determine how protection works day to day on the ground.” L.A. Times
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