Every time the New York Times hires a new opinion writer, there’s a lot of discussion about how they’re doing it wrong (they are doing it wrong). This time is no different. The New York Times hired Bret Stephens, which was stupid because “anti-Trump neocon” is not an underrepresented position in the media. Nor is Bret Stephens a particularly talented writer or someone with particularly interesting ideas. So the griping makes sense. However, there is a couple of new wrinkles this time. One is that, driven by ever-ratcheting polarization and stakes-raising of our discourse, rather than just griping, many called for a boycott of the paper and a cancellation of subscriptions. The other is that, given the existence of “news analysis” sites such as fivethirtyeight and the NYT’s own Upshot, some questioned the idea of opinion writers at all. After all, now that there is factually informed news analysis, what’s the point of opinion writers? For factually-uninformed news analysis? That certainly seems to be the thing that Bret Stephens was providing, with his inaugural column, on climate change.
However attractive that point sounds, though, I think there is a niche that opinion writers are important for. However, I do agree with the point that interpretation of daily news is best done by the news analysis team. I think a great solution would be to have opinion writers who are less focused on specific items of daily news. An ideal opinion columnist is someone like Dmitry Bykov is for russophones — a person with opinions about everything, some of which are bizarre, who is good at writing and likes to provoke and challenge the readers. This job isn’t as important as news analysis, and the “stature” of opinion writers for a paper should probably be lower than that of news analysts, but I still think this is a valuable role to play.
An example would be someone like Nassim Taleb (but less psychologically damaged) or Sady Doyle (ditto). I obviously don’t expect or want to agree with the opinion writers often. I also make no real claim to prescience as to who would actually make good opinion columnists, since some people are good at one type of non-fiction column writing and terrible at another. For instance, Mallory Ortberg is a fantastic humorist (one of the best!) but an absolutely terrible advice columnist (one of the worst!). But that’s the type of thing I am hoping opinion writers do.