It looks like the New York Times is reining in the Opinion section—or at least wants to be seen as doing so.
Today, following a series of embarrassing incidents, Times brass announced in an email to the company that the Opinion section will be subject to some level of counsel from the paper’s well-regarded standards editor, Phil Corbett—known, among other things, for his criticisms of the paper’s curious unwillingness to credit the work of competitors.
The email, from editor in chief Dean Baquet, Opinion editor James Bennet, and managing editor Joe Kahn, said that Corbett will “formally work with and advise the Opinion department in addition to the newsroom.” It continued:
“While our news and opinion journalists will continue to have separate, distinct missions, their work is rooted in common standards for accuracy, fairness and integrity. Phil will work with the three of us to take on this role while ensuring we maintain our strict separation between our news and opinion journalism.”
The email, now posted to the Times website, also announced changes to the Times’ work on audience and engagement.
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The Opinion section is regularly slammed for running lazy, pointlessly provocative, and/or embarrassing columns. This weekend, in a singular fuck-up, they mounted a reality TV show to announce their endorsement of a Democratic presidential contender and then somehow endorsed two people. The change (interestingly, two days ago the Times posted a job opening for managing editor for the Opinion section) thus doesn’t come as a huge surprise. However, today’s email from Times honchos seems to contradict what it told VICE just last month—that standards were the same for Opinion and the newsroom.
On Dec. 19, 2019, a Times flack told VICE, in response to a question about the Opinion section’s Privacy Project—an ambitious reporting effort that was carried out under the Opinion banner—that the “standards for accuracy are as rigorous for our Opinion journalism as they are for the newsroom.”
Just over a week later, the Opinion section published a column called “The Secrets of Jewish Genius” by Bret Stephens, which argued for the genetic superiority of Ashkenazi Jews. It cited a discredited 2005 study co-authored by Henry Harpending, a racist who repeatedly advanced the idea that Black people are genetically less intelligent than white people, and Gregory Cochran, a man who has expressed the belief that homosexuality is a disease caused by a pathogen. Before long, the column was heavily edited and the argument reframed, with an unbylined editor’s note added to the top of the piece chiding readers for not understanding what Stephens was saying. The Times flack did not answer VICE’s questions about whether peddling race science met the newsroom’s rigorous standards of accuracy.