The Op-Ed Page
VTR Date: January 22, 2009
David Shipley discusses the place of the Op-Ed piece in public opinion.
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GUEST: David Shipley
I’m Richard Heffner your host on The Open Mind.
And some time back, when I had the occasion to be with my guest today, David Shipley, Deputy Editorial Page Editor of The New York Times and its OpEd Editor, I suddenly thought to ask him not the usual thing people must all the time ask of him…to publish something I would like to have appear on the Op Ed Page of my favorite newspaper…but rather to join me here on The Open Mind to examine the perhaps crazy notion I have that whatever wanna-be Op-Ed pieces do come over the transom at the New York Times are perhaps rather much a barometer of what America’s chattering, high-dome, rather intellectual classes are thinking about the major issues of the day.
After all, we’re always polling American public opinion. The Times reports on or publishes many of those polls. And I would ask David Shipley now whether it’s really too far out to think that the many, many pieces he receives at the Times -then rejects or prints each week – don’t themselves measure a particularly definable level of American opinion. What do you think?
SHIPLEY: I think they do. I mean I think it is a snapshot of a certain spectrum of the American population. But absolutely, I think you can look at the incoming emails … and we get probably 1,500 submissions a week … and get a sense of what America’s thinking.
HEFFNER: Now you say “America’s thinking” … I didn’t say that. I said “America’s chattering classes”. You disagree with that?
SHIPLEY: Ahemm … I, I actually … I do. I wouldn’t say … “chattering classes” seems to me to be too small of a slice of the kind of submissions we get. I mean we get pieces from people from all walks of life who … you know, it may have been chattering classes 15, 20 years ago when The Times was confined to the paper that you saw.
And if you grew up in Portland, Oregon, as I did … you know, you had to wait a couple of days for the paper before it really spread nationally to show up there.
Now the New York Times is a newspaper, but it’s also a digital journalistic enterprise. And that means anybody can log on to it for free and join the conversation.
HEFFNER: Do I detect a note here that I have to be wary about the fact that you … an important person at the Times are emphasizing the digital aspect of the paper?
SHIPLEY: Not …
HEFFNER: … do I have to worry that I’m going to have to look at it in digits rather than read it?
SHIPLEY: No. You’ll be able to do both.
HEFFNER: What do you mean “I’ll be able to do both?”. Tell me about the future of the Times? And its opinion pieces.
SHIPLEY: Well, you, you look at how OpEd has, you know … I took … came to OpEd in January of 2003 … I’d actually had one early encounter there under our … under our mutual friend Mike Levitas … in the late nineties.
But when I came to OpEd in 2003, the page was really a page. Then it became two pages, then it became three pages and then it became the page and a digital enterprise … with online only columnists, group blogs, videos and a whole range of other stuff.
So, to say OpEd and mean the page is no longer strictly true. It’s really the page plus everything going on online.
HEFFNER: Tell me, I’m, I’m an ancient … and I would imagine that some of my viewers fit … not into my old man category, but are getting on a little bit long in the tooth … what, what is the change that’s taking place. What do I have to do to keep up with the changes on the OpEd page?
I, on occasion, before I go to sleep I go New York Times dot com …
SHIPLEY: New York times dot com?
HEFFNER: … to see what’s happened.
SHIPLEY: It …
HEFFNER: … but what about opinion?
SHIPLEY: Did you click on opinion? I mean there’s a big opinion box at the upper right hand corner of the Home Page that sort of flags for readers what’s new in Opinion. You go to the Opinion front which is really one of the most trafficked fronts at the paper, after the Home Page, and you’ll see the columnists you’ll see in the paper, you’ll see the Editorials, you’ll see the Letters, you’ll see the OpEds.
But take the Inauguration which took place this week. In addition to all of that what else did we have? Well, we had an Opinion video with school children from the Bronx reading Inaugural poems that they had written. We had a new Blog called “Hundred Days” with a number of historians … Richard Reeves, Gene Edwards Smith, talking about, you know, the blog will run for the first one hundred days and it will juxtapose Obama’s one hundred days with other notable hundred days.
You had the “Opinionator” which is an online line sort of minute by minute report of opinion going on around the web. You had the Conversation with is a blog with Gail Collins and David Brooks, where they going back and forth, talking about whatever crosses their plate.
You have all of that in addition to that other stuff. So that’s what I mean by expanding Opinion.
HEFFNER: And all of that is print on video or print on visual?
SHIPLEY: Print online … some of its video … the OpEd video clearly is a video …
SHIPLEY: We run something called “Blogging Heads” which is a series of conversations done by people, you know, talking into a camera on their computer and debating an issue, whether it’s Guantanamo, which is the one that’s going up this week … that’s in the news right now.
Whether Obama is the next Lincoln. I think that was the previous one that we had. So, it’s … you know, OpEd is now, you know, wildly multimedia. In addition to that you have animations, you have, you know, a tremendous range of stuff.
HEFFNER: You mean I’ve been missing all of that?
SHIPLEY: Well, you know, that … you know, Dick, that, that’s the real hard thing about publishing on the web. Because you, you go into this thinking that the web is home for … you have infinite space. You know, all of a sudden, you’ve been spending your life on a very circumscribed OpEd Page and you only have “x” number of inches and you can’t spill over that.
And so you open up in the web and you think, “My goodness, you know, I have infinite space, I can go on and on and on.” What you discover is that you don’t have infinite display base. You don’t have an infinite number of ways to make people aware of what you’re publishing.
SHIPLEY: And, as, as someone who’s written, you know that there are few things more corrosive than spending a lot of time writing something and working on something and publishing it and having no one notice.
You know, if you publish something and no one says anything … did it really exist?
And so the thing that we are struggling with and that I struggle with on a daily basis is how to be judicious about what we put up. Because I don’t want to do more things than we can adequately promote. There’s really no sense putting up a beautiful essay or a beautiful video if I can’t find a way for people to find it.
HEFFNER: How do you find a way for people to find it?
SHIPLEY: Well, you know, you look for more and more ways. The Home Page is obviously one big way. We run refers in the paper. We get a lot of people coming straight to the opinion front. We have daily email where we let people know what’s on opinion online. You know a lot of people are reading the Times now on their phones. So mobile is another way of getting to it. And also search. You know people go into Google, search a certain issue and they can wind up on the OpEd page. But it, it’s … it’s very early days in terms of being able to find a precise way to get people to everything that we do. That’s a big struggle.
HEFFNER: Two questions come to mind. One, what then happens to the Times I knew?
SHIPLEY: Well, I think the Times you knew is still there. I mean …
HEFFNER: How long will it be there?
SHIPLEY: I hope it will be there … forever … in terms of the quality of the journalism. Now whether it comes to you on a piece of paper, or whether it comes to you on something else, you know, that’s the 64 million dollar question.
HEFFNER: But, what did you mean in terms of the quality of the journalism? What’s the difference?
SHIPLEY: What’s the difference? I’m not sure I follow …
HEFFNER: Will there be a difference in the quality of the journalism from the old days of print alone to the new days where print …
SHIPLEY: Oh, I don’t think so …
HEFFNER: … doesn’t loom as large.
SHIPLEY: … I certainly … I mean the people I work with … I, I don’t think anyone would feel comfortable with that.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but the people you work with … the people you’ve going to work with when you are my age, my friend, are going to be people who are very different, who don’t remember the good gray Times that I remember. Don’t remember in school, when the first thing that happens when you enter school is that you get The New York Times …
HEFFNER: … they’re going to be very different and don’t you think …
SHIPLEY: Well, I, I think you’re asking sort of … I’m not sure the Times will be different. I think one worry that I certainly have is that in the world of everything being free … I mean the Times is not inexpensive to produce.
You know, New York Times journalism requires having “x” number of people in Baghdad. And, you know, bureaus in Paris and around the world and sending reporters on stories whether or not, you know, it’s cost effective. Because the whole idea is, it doesn’t matter if it’s cost effective, if the story is there, you have to pursue it and you try to, you know, bring it to your readership.
The thing that is worrying in this world of free, where you can go to yahoo news for free and you can go to NY Times dot com for free is, you know, do kids know … do, do people … are people looking for a difference?
Are, are people as happy to go to yahoo news or to some other news source versus The New York Times and are they astute enough to tell the difference. And that, that’s a … making, making clear that there is something that is fundamentally different about what The New York Times or another great news organization produces, that’s going to be a … you know, that’s a huge scary thing.
HEFFNER: You say first “that’s going to be” and then you say that’s a huge scary thing. Is it in the future or is it in the present, very much in the present?
SHIPLEY: Well, I look at … you know … I go and talk to a lot of schools and you know, when you are … say you’re teaching a history class … and you are teaching kids … okay, do you go to Wikipedia when you researched this paper? Or did you go to Britannica? Or when you go to Wikipedia what do you look for? To be able to tell the difference between …I’m not going to name another news source and The New York Times, is, I think, an essential part of the curriculum. And, and so that’s what I try to talk about in schools. And I see a lot of teachers trying to do the same thing.
So, one hopes that we will continue to, you know, have generations of people like you who say, “Okay, you know, I’m going to stick with The New York Times, or the Washington Post, or The Wall Street Journal, or some other news organization because I know what I’m getting here is fundamentally different from what I’m getting somewhere else.”
HEFFNER: Okay, let me ask the key question: as you go around is your feeling that you’re winning the war or losing the war … be straight with me. Nobody’s watching.
HEFFNER; They’re reading The New York Times.
SHIPLEY: I think truth and beauty always triumph.
HEFFNER: (Laughter) Seriously?
HEFFNER: Now what makes you so serious, so determined that truth and beauty always prevail?
SHIPLEY: You know … giddy optimism. I, I really can’t answer that beyond that I think that people can discern … you know, you, you will … you know … I don’t know the … I have no, you know, crystal ball.
HEFFNER: I won’t withdraw the question …
SHIPLEY: Yeah. Okay.
HEFFNER: … but I won’t pursue it because I know it’s not really pursuable, it’s, it’s a matter hope, faith. I have to tell you that my sense of the matter is that we’re in a losing battle …
SHIPLEY: Hmmmm …
HEFFNER: That it is so difficult to understand that what’s there on the screen in front of you is either the product of an important, reputable, historic machine that is always devoted to the good things …
SHIPLEY: But, but … don’t you think …
HEFFNER: … or not.
SHIPLEY: … but don’t you think that if people get enough of the wrong information for long enough that there will be an awakening and they will realize that “Hey, you know, what you’re getting here is substantially different from what you’re getting there.”
HEFFNER: You’re really asking me the question.
SHIPLEY: I am.
HEFFNER: And the answer … my answer is “No”. No, I, I, I don’t believe that. I think the looks are so much the same …
HEFFNER: … if you talk about a source that I could change myself on the screen and a source that is changeable only by the reputable journalists whom I trust …
HEFFNER: … and put my faith in. How can you win? How can we win, because I do mean “we”.
HEFFNER: Not you. Is there an answer to that?
SHIPLEY: I think I will put that in the unanswerable category right now.
HEFFNER: Okay, fair enough. And I, I guess in those moments when I’m happier, more optimistic about the future I would at least do the same. But, let’s talk for a moment about the impact of what you discern from what comes over the transom.
HEFFNER: Do you have any sense of what’s happening now, thanks to those many, many, many, many submissions to you? Do you have any sense that there’s a difference between the, the wisdom of those or the understanding of those who look to be printed in an OpEd page and the public opinion polls, the resultS of the public opinion polls?
SHIPLEY: This is actually a very hard time to do that because I think there is this sort of Obama related euphoria right now. And for the last several months, since the election through the inauguration there really hasn’t been a huge variety of, you know, difference to enable you to discern patterns and what people are thinking. Right now it’s generally everybody is writing in saying how ecstatic they are. So there are … so it’s hard to, to answer that question at this moment, because right now everybody is just still jumping up and down.
HEFFNER: When do you think the euphoria will end? And the hard, cold thinking will take place.
SHIPLEY: You know, your guess is, is as good as mine. But we know it’ll … we know it will happen.
HEFFNER: You know it will happen.
SHIPLEY: Well, there’s going to be some fracture at some point. You know … who knows. You know the … when people feel that, you know, their expectations are not living up to their hopes. Or to the reality.
HEFFNER: What about those who didn’t start off being euphoric about the election?
HEFFNER: Of the 44th President of the United States … I mean his reaching out …
HEFFNER: … to those in the other party hasn’t been 100% …
SHIPLEY: No, but they’re rarely writing in yet.
HEFFNER: … successful.
SHIPLEY: I mean we aren’t getting a lot from, say, the Left or the far Left … the people who’d be very unhappy that he’s reaching out to John McCain, for example.
SHIPLEY: At least, you know, we’re talking about the 1,500 submissions we get a week. In just using that sample … I’m not seeing anything yet.
HEFFNER: Tell me about the pre-election period.
HEFFNER: Could you break down what you receive each week and see in it a difference from what the various general public opinion polls …
SHIPLEY: Not really.
HEFFNER: … indicate.
SHIPLEY: It was very … I mean, at least for … take the early part of the year. You know, our email was really 50/50 Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama.
Which, you know, was pretty much where the Democratic Party was at for a good long while. Ahmm, and then, you know, that began to shift as things shifted for her. Though, you know, the people who were supporting Mrs. Clinton … we … or the OpEd pieces that were again supporting Mrs. Clinton remained sort of strong and ahh, you know, forceful until the very end.
HEFFNER: Suppose we were to go back. Let’s, let’s take ourselves to, if you can imagine it, to a pre-2008 election period.
HEFFNER: I mean it seemed that went on forever.
HEFFNER: But if you went back … I, I’m just interested in this larger question. I consider it a larger question because it’s a bug in my thinking … could you see a difference, would you … do you guess that if you were to analyze the opinions expressed in the over-the-transom pieces that you …
HEFFNER: … receive and what the general public opinion polls indicate about American opinion, would you see a difference?
SHIPLEY: I think it tracks pretty accurately to what you would see.
SHIPLEY: That is my guess. I have no scientific way of knowing. My other guess would be since, you know, we tend … I mean we get a fair number of people who would define themselves as Conservative, writing, but by and large I think most of the people sending in would be Democrat … either centrist Democrat or Democrats more to the Left. So I would say that spectrum of the Democratic debate probably tracked very accurately what the polls were telling you at the time.
HEFFNER: Right. And politically, generally, do you find that your submissions are from Democratic Liberal leading persons?
SHIPLEY: I have no way of knowing. My guess is that they’re pretty much right down the middle with a little bit to the Left.
HEFFNER: So, that’s interesting because the criticism of you … and you’ll forgive me …
SHIPLEY: Of me?
HEFFNER: Of you … when the Times printed a piece by Barack Obama …
HEFFNER: …and rejected a piece by John McCain … you know that you were the center … you, you …
SHIPLEY: I, I remember something about that.
HEFFNER: You do. You do. How do you explain that?
SHIPLEY: How do I explain what?
HEFFNER: What you did … your position … and the reaction to it?
SHIPLEY: Well, I have always made it a habit never to talk about the specifics of the editing process. Because I, I think it is largely privileged. I will say this, though. I would say that the McCain piece wasn’t rejected outright. The note I sent back to the McCain people asked for certain changes … at least to have a conversation about certain changes. And regrettably I never heard back from them.
The other point I would make, is that you’re right, we did run a Barack Obama piece before that. I think the reasons for running that piece were very sound. He was making news. He was saying things in the piece that weren’t necessarily music to the ears of the Democratic base, including saying that “you know, we’re probably going to be in Iraq for a while.”
I would also add, without going into the specifics that we edited. We went back and forth as we have with John McCain in the past. You know, there were certain editorial choices that I thought were missed steps and we made various suggestions and they were more than amenable about, at least having a conversation with us. I, I wish we had had that conversation with John McCain and his people and I, I hope he’ll write for us again.
HEFFNER: I remember many, many years ago … oh, it was probably almost 60 years ago, Lester Markel, the great editor of the Sunday Times asked me to write a piece … long before there was an OpEd page. And I did. And he sent it back and I made corrections and he sent it back. And I made corrections. I think there were four times when finally I said, “Obviously I can’t please you in terms of what you think ought to appear here … let’s forget the whole thing.” And he printed it. That was the magic word. Then someone told me about a New York Times person, who had written a magazine article for Lester Markel and he sent it back so many times with so many corrections and suggestions that this person, this New York Times person, finally clipped it up …
HEFFNER: … just took a scissors and clipped it up to individual lines, put them all in an envelope, sent them to Lester and said, “You put it together whatever way you want”. So you take, not the liberty, you take the necessary step of doing editing.
SHIPLEY: Well, of course, we edit. We don’t publish anything without the official sign off of the author. But we edit. I mean that’s what, what we’re there for. We’re there to be, you know, readers and to say, you know, “I don’t think this makes sense. Could you please explain this?”
You also … for, for someone like John McCain and someone like Barack Obama … and I think any public official … someone who has another platform out there. Someone who can come on the show or be somewhere else on TV or, you know, get up in front of a camera and say what they want to say … it’s incumbent on them to say something fresh, or to say something specific.
I think it would have been absolutely wonderful for the OpEd Page to have been a venue for a debate between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain on these issues.
There’s nothing more that I would want for the Page. But I’m also very cognizant of how special that space is. It’s not, it’s not a lot of real estate and it really is incumbent on someone who’s writing for it to be specific … ideally to say something new or advance the argument and, you know, I’m really not going to give that space over to republishing things that have been said elsewhere.
HEFFNER: Let me ask you a question … just as we have a very few minutes left … why the OpEd section of the paper in the first place. It doesn’t date back a century or so. What, what brought it about?
SHIPLEY: Well, you know, the wisdom of the great John Oakes and Harrison Salisbury who thought in the late sixties, early seventies that there needed to be room within the paper for sort of the intelligence of the world to sweep across the page.
I mean OpEd was the, this … you know you hear a lot … we were talking earlier about the Internet and the Web and a lot of Web people talk about interactivity. And you forget that the Letters page and the OpEd Page were purely interactive. You know, it was the world interacting with the Times, it was the world coming in and putting its point of view in a space within the paper that had been reserved just for the paper until then. In fact the obituaries used to be where the OpEd Page is now and there was a huge internal fight about whether or not you move the obituaries or not.
But John Oakes who was the Editorial Page Editor at the time managed to get the space and the idea in this time of tremendous cultural ferment … when I was, you know, all of nine … you know, was deemed the time to open up this segment of the paper and let the world come on in. I think it was just a wonderful, wonderful innovation and I, I thank my lucky stars every day that, you know, I get to sit there.
HEFFNER: I knew John Oakes, but I didn’t know what … when he passed from the scene … he thought about the Times OpEd Section. Do you know?
SHIPLEY: I have no idea
HEFFNER: Do you think it would have been a source … do you think it would have been a source of pleasure for those who began it?
SHIPLEY: I would hope. I really would hope it is.
HEFFNER: And what changes are there likely to take place in the future.
SHIPLEY: Oh, boy. You know I have, as you know … there are always …
HEFFNER: In one minute.
SHIPLEY: In one minute? (Laughter) No changes that I can think of on the physical page. Online we’re going to continue to experiment and make our opinion report there as robust and exciting as we possibly can.
HEFFNER: Well, it seems quite clear from what you’ve said … everything that you’ve said that I’ve get to get into the … into the movement of the present and to use my computer for more than sending you emails.
SHIPLEY: Well, you should, you should visit the OpEd Page in both places. Both everything that we do online and just in the opinion section, but across the paper. And, of course, what we have on the page. I mean today we had a very exciting page, I thought, we had, you know, General Kaddafi writing about a one state solution in Palestine. And Steven Pinker, the noted linguist from Harvard writing about John Roberts’ difficulty helping President Obama through the Oath of Office.
HEFFNER: An amusing piece …
HEFFNER: … in a sense. Thank you so much for joining me today. I, I hope that you’ll come back and talk about he digitization and the computer and the others at the Times who handle news.
SHIPLEY: I’d love to.
HEFFNER: Thank you very much for joining me.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.