Behind the Ballot: James Dao

thanks Len I really appreciate the kind
words and thank you all so much for having me here it’s really quite an
honor I have been in Baton Rouge a couple times I was here the day after
Katrina’s landfall and because I couldn’t get into New Orleans I ended up
in Baton Rouge for a couple days before I got to New Orleans and came back a
year later when The Times actually opened a Bureau Chris my old friend
Chris drew I think was in that Bureau for a while where we we we sent a bunch
of reporters and we were in Louisiana for well over a year I guess covering
the aftermath of that terrible hurricane. it’s really an honor to be here LAN has
put my concerns at rest I understand you still have a tiger and that was that’s
really great and you know I’m here I was asked to come and talk a little bit
about anonymous I’m gonna I’m gonna sort of leave a lot of that conversation to
my talk with Landon to your questions which I’ll probably try to mostly evade
but I would like to talk a bit about the the op-ed page what it means to the New
York Times what it means in journalism today and out of that I hope maybe
you’ll get a better understanding of the significance of not just anonymous but
but opinion journalism right now in this moment this very sort of divisive moment
in our nation’s history so let me start with a little bit of history and I’m
gonna tell you about where this page came from the New York Times is 170
years old the apid page is only 48 years old so
it’s it’s kind of a young adult still there was a great history of it written
by a journalism professor named Michael Sokolow and as he pointed out the New
York Times didn’t really invent the idea of an event of a page opposite the
editorial page that would have outside contributors this idea had been kicking
around at other newspapers but the Times really revolutionized it and made it a
thing others copied and this was all the
brainchild of a New York Times editor named John Oakes Oakes was an editorial
writer and a member of The Times ruling family the Oakes family he believed in
the power of analytical journalism he wanted to go beyond the straight
reporting of news and he also believed that it was very important for The Times
to diversify the voices of opinion on its pages and that’s how he came to this
idea to allow outside writers to contribute to the page his goal was to
open a bastion of the times to novelists poets academics politicians factory
workers prisoners soldiers ministers and pulpits doctors and operating rooms
anyone with an interesting experience to describe a compelling voice to a pine
with in the ability to construct a good sentence and a strong argument he
believed that there was a universe of ideas floating around out there that The
Times itself and its editorial board that wrote the the papers unsigned
editorials were not able to always articulate and that it was worth
publishing these opinions right next to our editorials his explanation for
creating the page was just that to diversify and even challenge the times
his own opinions sometimes people think the op-ed page sometimes the goal of the
op-ed pages to say the opposite of what our editorials are saying but there was
another explanation he gave that I think is more important and one that I hold on
to dearly it’s and it’s one that Oakes had described years before in a speech
at Columbia Journalism school back in 1954 and in that speech he said that the
responsibility of newspapers was the same as for colleges and that is to make
people think he said this quote the minute we begin to insist that everyone
think the same way we think our democratic way of life is in danger to
make people think it sounds really simple but sometimes it’s not for years
Oakes lobbied for this brainchild of his and finally on September 21st 1970 after
years of study which is a time’s tradition study things to death
it became reality in its inaugural op-ed page they have three columnist three
outside contributors excuse me a guy named WWE roster Oh Rostow who is a
Foreign Affairs adviser to President Johnson NSA by the very famous Chinese
writer Han su yen and a critique of vice president Spiro Agnew’s anti-liberal
vocabulary by a journalist an editor’s note introduced the page this way quote
as the world has grown smaller the nation more powerful the problems
besetting man infinitely more complex the pressures more intense the health of
this democracy has increasingly depended on deeper public understanding of
difficult issues in the first year of its existence the page published two
future presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter it published the liberal
theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and the conservative preacher Billy Graham how
did it go over by one measure imitation really well other people’s other papers
quickly adopted the innovation but not everybody was impressed this was a time
he’ll have to remember of extraordinary turmoil turmoil excuse me a political
divisiveness and social conflict a time some would say not unlike our own today
questions were growing about Richard Nixon’s fitness to govern amid emerging
evidence of abuses of power and even criminality yet a large percentage of
voters continued to support him dogged Lee loyally the civil rights movement
was in full gear and debates about race relations race relations raged the war
in Vietnam was still underway and the country was torn by protests abortion
drugs sexual revolution the country was reeling and debates that touched every
facet of our lives and so there wasn’t yet an internet and the only social
media were newspapers televisions radio and telephone but people did live in
their own bubbles at that time maybe not as constrained as our bubbles today but
bubbles nevertheless and so what some readers read on that op-ed page that
they considered interesting reasonable even obvious opinions many others
thought were absurd distortions falsehoods or propaganda some early
critics of the op-ed page complained that it reached for deliberate outrage
as they put it we might call that rolling today an internal review
wondered whether the page is relying too heavily on extremists well alternatively
some questioned whether it really offered a true diversity of opinions
still another person asked if the section relied too heavily on name
writers as opposed to just good writing 48 years later how familiar those
complaints sound to me yet today John Oakes’s innovation is it seems a
smashing success almost every newspaper and news website in the world publishes
opinion essays by outside contributors op-eds are now done as short films
videos podcast graphics cartoons and photo essays a virtual op ed industrial
complex has emerged that channels essays from academics writers filmmakers and
celebrities to people like me the forum is so popular that even news
pages have gotten to the business of running first-person narratives once the
province of the op-ed page our section has evolved as well we produce satirical
videos short documentaries op-eds built on charts instead of sentences last year
The Times won its first ever Pulitzer in editorial cartooning for a series in our
sunday review chronicling the first months of to Syrian refugee families
families in the United States titled welcome to the new world since I joined
the page in 2016 we’ve hired two right-of-center writers from The Wall
Street Journal Bret Stevens and Barry Weiss
but we’ve also hired true progressive colonists Michelle Goldberg and Michelle
Alexander we continue to publish famous names last week alone I edited pieces by
George Schultz on nuclear weapons Bernie Sanders on Yemen and James Baker on
Saudi Arabia and in the early days of the me2 movement we published
first-person essays by about sexual harassment and assault
by Salma Hayek uma thurman and Lupita Nyong’o but I’m just as proud of the
things we’ve published by unfamous names the little-known up-and-coming writers
the people who live in the shadows the average joe’s and Josephine’s we’ve
published pieces by dissidents from Syria North Korean China a political
prisoner in Egypt undocumented immigrants in the American West one of
our videos describe the plight of teachers who make so little money that
they have to live in their cars a heartbreaking essay by the wife of a
former NFL player chronicled his battle with severe brain injuries caused by the
violence of football each of these pieces in my view has been in service to
John Oakes’s dictum show people ideas experiences and opinions that make them
think and that brings me to the reason you all brought me here today the
anonymous op-ed his plan is noted September 5th is amazing he remembered
that date I can’t tell you much of the backstory of the piece so though Len
will try to get me to but I can say this the writer he or she is a real person
not a creation of our imaginations and she or he is indeed in a position to
know the things that she or he described in that piece the response to the essay
which was titled I am part of the resistance inside the Trump
administration was swift and furious there was some applause for the writer
but as much and probably more was criticism the president complained that
the piece had compromised national security so it’s a little hard to quite
see how that might be the case conservatives described the author as a
coward and of being part of a quiet coup d’etat
as one put it liberals were no less scathing some questioned why the writer
hadn’t had the courage to stand up be named and quit the administration in
protest former President Obama weighed in on social me
asserting that secretive resistance to the President’s agenda was not the right
way to protest it Bob Woodward known for his use of anonymous sources complained
that the piece lacked enough detail to be worth publishing masa Masha Gessen in
The New Yorker of an occasional opinion writer for the New York Times or she
used to be said that the piece was quite quote a ploy by someone who wants to
distance himself from what he it’s her use of the male pronoun that mine
perceives to be an imperiled administration while capitalizing on
whatever credibility and popularity the presidency still retains the article
added little to the public’s understanding of the administration and
understanding that has already been shaped by seemingly endless leaks in
rumors from within the White House unquote there had been a few voices in
support I’ll just quote one Michael Sokolow again the guy who wrote their
history of our page he had this to say in Politico the op-ed page he said quote
was designed specifically to give Times readers an opportunity to a judge for
themselves the value of unmediated communication that’s unique in the
newspaper and because newspapers exist to print news he noted quote had this
senior official come forward and The Times rejected the publication of the
essay without identification it would have committed journalistic malpractice
he went on quote had The Times not published the anonymous op-ed we never
would have been able to have this debate that in itself vindicated publication
and redeems the vision of John B Oakes unquote not surprisingly I think Michael
Sokolow gets it but but I have no problem with the criticism and here’s
why just as Sokolow points out it showed that the piece had made people think
consider the debate that blossomed perhaps exploded is the right word
around the essay let’s get away from speculation about whether the essay was
intended to signal a coup or a collapse or
pending tide of resignations at its core the piece was about how one person and
perhaps others were dealing with a president whose agenda they partly
supported but whose behavior they had come to find reckless ill-informed and
amoral the writer and the others that he or she was purporting to represent were
wrestling with fundamental moral questions was the choice to stay in the
administration the right one were they traitors were they heroes was
the writer as one of my editors put it Seneca trying to remain an ethical
person while serving a corrupt emperor or was the writer and the others
the writer talked about as masha gessen writes an active perpetrator in the
degradation that they claimed to abhor I have my own a view on these things but
it’s really not relevant I think these are all questions worth debating whether
about this administration or any future administration we on the op-ed page
don’t expect people to agree with all the pieces we publish that would be a
sign of op-ed malpractice we are as the media critic Jack Schaeffer put it not
meant to be anyone’s safe space indeed as I somewhat sometimes tell our staff
it is our role to publish things that we sometimes are uncomfortable with
ourselves we strive to make our pieces as factual as possible as clearly
written as possible and to have as good a faith an argument as possible but we
cannot in this time of political division and growing intellectual
intolerance when people only want to listen to views they already agree with
publish only the things that fit our personal views of the world we don’t
have all the answers and neither does any single reader or writer it is only
in our national conversation in the Battle of our collective ideas and the
roiling arena of our civic life that the truth can emerge so I leave you with a
quote from one of our columnist David Lee and heart and y opinion
wasn’t matters particularly now quote these days he wrote it’s more important
than ever to listen to people who disagree with you
maybe they’ll teach you something new or maybe they’ll just teach you how to beat
them thanks for having me

About the author


  1. This is the NYT editor who is accused of screwing up the inflammatory Justice Kavannaugh story.
    Should he keep that job?
    If so, why?

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