Against editorial boards
Newspapers are better off without unsigned hot takes and endorsements
I used to grind my teeth in late October. I was working as a journalist at the daily newspaper in town, and on top of all the other annoyances of election season, I knew that my employer was going to endorse some candidates.
I couldn’t say for sure why the newspaper continued this tradition, but like many longstanding U.S. news outlets, mine employed an “editorial board,” a deliberative body that endorsed candidates and penned “editorials,” or statements of the newspaper’s institutional opinion. They wrote unsigned opinion pieces on everything from new construction to school dress codes to presidential elections. The board was all-white and tended to consist of career journalists nearing retirement age.
The workings of the editorial board were obscure by design. The editorial board members huddled in their offices while the reporters, editors, and photographers sat out in the open newsroom. This separation is likened to the separation of church and state at some newspapers.
The editorial board was, and is, the voice of the status quo. Its opinions range from half-baked centrism to strident reactionary conservatism, in a slight improvement over its recent history as an openly racist institution. I was working in Charleston, a relatively liberal corner of South Carolina, and readers frequently asked me why the Opinions page was so out of sync with the community.
The editorial page was frequently out of sync with reality, too. In the fall of 2018 I was helping to put the finishing touches on a team project detailing how state lawmakers had strangled South Carolina’s public education system through austerity measures, only to pick up the paper one morning and find that the editorial board had endorsed every incumbent running for the Statehouse with barely a word of explanation.
When readers and sources asked me about the editorial stance of my employer, I gave the stock answer: The editorial board was a separate department from the newsroom, and its views did not necessarily reflect my own.
But even as the answer left my lips, I knew it wasn’t satisfactory. In the eyes of the reading public, it was all one brand. An unaccountable editorial board damages the credibility of the working journalists at the same company, who sign their names to their articles and put their own reputations on the line.
Privately at the time, and publicly after I left the news business, I became an editorial board abolitionist. Whatever original purpose editorial boards may have served in news media, they have long outlived their purpose and now serve as an anchor around the neck of a suffering industry.
That’s why I was thrilled to read last week that one newspaper, The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington, scrapped the tradition altogether.
“No more unsigned editorials and no more endorsements,” wrote Editor Rob Curley. “If there are times we feel our newspaper should have a traditional editorial, it will be signed by both the publisher and the editor.”
From what I can gather, the decision came after community backlash to an endorsement of Donald Trump, which acknowledged that the incumbent president was “a bully and a bigot” but urged Spokanites to vote for him anyway because Joe Biden would raise taxes on rich people. The endorsement was apparently formulated by the paper’s one-man editorial board, Publisher Stacey Cowles.
In his column explaining the decision to axe editorials and endorsements, Curley wrote that he generally didn’t read the opinion section at all — until last month.
“After I got a couple hundred emails telling me what a horrible human I was, I knew I was going to have to read the endorsement,” Curley wrote. “Dread and sadness filled me. It had nothing to do with R’s or D’s or candidates. Who you vote for is your business. These were values that didn’t align with mine or anyone else I know in our newsroom or even across our newspaper.”
Editorial pages tend to reflect the values of media company owners, who are often deranged by wealth and effectively live in a separate country from their readers. This state of affairs is no different today than it was in the 19th century when many of the legacy U.S. newspapers got their start. The long-term solution is to build worker-owned community news outlets, but in the meantime I’m heartened to see at least one newsroom reckoning with the issue. I would love to see others follow suit, from small-town weeklies to the national standard-bearers.
This brings me to The New York Times. You may remember that this august institution decided, after much buzz and speculation, to endorse not one but two candidates in the Democratic presidential primary this year. The paper backed Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, who both subsequently dropped out of the race after winning a combined zero states. The decision was not so much offensive as it was baffling.
Here’s how The New York Times’ former Opinion Editor James Bennet defended the institution of the editorial board in January:
The purpose of Times Opinion is to supply the wide-ranging debate about big ideas that a diverse democracy needs. Amid that debate, the role of the editorial board is to provide Times readers with a long-range view formed not by one person’s expertise and experience but ballasted by certain institutional values that have evolved across more than 150 years. That’s why the editorials, unlike other articles in The Times, appear without a byline.
I’ve always believed that strong institutions, like strong families, are meant to transmit principles across generations; the work of The Times’s editorial board has reflected the principles both of its members and of the Ochs-Sulzberger family, which has supplied the publishers who have overseen the board’s work — sometimes day to day, sometimes only on the occasion of momentous news — for five generations.
This is patent horseshit. If I’m looking for institutional memory and hard-earned wisdom, I’ll look somewhere other than the sons and nephews of the Ochs-Sulzberger dynasty.
When the CIA engineered a fascist coup in Guatemala in 1954 at the behest of the United Fruit Company, then-Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger ordered his own reporter to stop investigating the story as a favor to the head of the CIA. With little scrutiny from the U.S. mainstream press, the coup government committed genocide against tens of thousands of Maya natives.
Then-Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. was steering the ship in 2002 when Times reporters and opinion writers began parroting anonymous government sources about Iraq’s alleged quest for weapons of mass destruction. The ostensibly progressive news outlet’s credulity regarding the WMD propaganda bolstered the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq, indirectly leading to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
It should come as no surprise that the Times editorial board boosted the U.S. invasion of Iraq under the false premises sold by Dick Cheney and company. As the watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting has noted, the Times editorial board has not opposed a single U.S. war since Reagan's invasion of Grenada in 1983.
When reporter Judith Miller finally quit the paper in 2005 after her WMD reporting collapsed under scrutiny, someone asked Sulzberger Jr. whether he thought the paper’s reputation had been damaged. He replied, “No, I don’t.”
All this is to say that you have no reason to trust the beneficiaries of nepotism, in the news or any other industry. The cozier they are with powerful people, the less you should value their opinions.
James Bennet, for his part, isn’t around to defend the Times editorial board anymore. He resigned in June during a staff revolt after his opinion page ran a sloppy fascist incitement by Sen. Tom Cotton.
So, cheers to Rob Curley and the Spokesman-Review. Good riddance to the editorial board in Spokane, and may more of them soon be dissolved.
I’ve recommended this podcast before, but Citations Needed has an excellent episode on editorial boards as protectors of establishment ideology. Check out Episode 16 wherever you get your podcasts.
The photo at the top is from a papier-mâché project I worked on last week. My wife and I made unicorn piñatas for our kids in lieu of trick-or-treating this Halloween, and they were a hit.
If you liked today’s newsletter and want to read more about my time in the news industry, here’s a newsletter I wrote about depression and anxiety in newsrooms. A lot of friends and former colleagues connected with what I wrote, and it made me feel less alone.
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