In today’s highly-charged political environment, it can seem like everyone has a forceful opinion on just about everything. So what does that mean for someone who publishes opinions for a living? New York Times Editorial Page Editor James Bennet spoke at Harvard Kennedy School recently about the role of opinion writing in the current climate, the perils of social media for his craft, and what he’ll do if his senator-brother runs for president. The event was hosted by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and moderated by Nancy Gibbs, the Visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice and former editor of TIME. Gibbs called Bennet, who joined the Times in 2016 after guiding The Atlantic back to profitability as its president and editor in chief, “one of the legendary journalists, magazine editors, and ... opinion shapers of our time.”
Bennet on the difference between opinion and news:
It’s something that we all wrestle with continually at the New York Times. The broadest way I think about it is that the newsroom really exists to describe the world as it is and opinion exists to describe the world as it could be. There is broad overlap in what we do. We both report. We have the same standards for factual accuracy. But where opinion differs is being able to advocate for specific outcomes.
On his attempts to add “diversity of opinion” to the editorial page, sometimes with controversial hires like conservative columnist Bret Stephens:
When Adolph Ochs made his original mission statement about the New York Times in 1896, what everybody remembers and for good reason is the “without fear or favor” part. But in the next breath he talked about the role of opinion, and he said that the New York Times would promote intelligent discussion from all points of view—and he said that it would do this, and I love this expression—“in order to ensure the free exercise of a sound conscience.” And the way that we do that is convening lots of different points of view. We’re trying to make the world a better place by encouraging respectful debate on really big questions.
On why he’s given up Twitter:
I used to love Twitter. I have kind of run away from it and given up on it in the last year or so. I worry it’s making opinion journalism less interesting and opinion writers less interesting. The rewards for saying the thing everyone wants you to say—everyone being your particular followers or community—there are tremendous rewards for saying what they want to hear, and tremendous punishment for confounding their expectations for what you are going to say. That’s making us all, I worry, become more predictable. And it’s contributing to an environment where people aren’t engaging with one another ... and it discourages the kind of debate that I think you need in a pluralistic society.
On how opinion is driving the economics of news:
We know opinion drives what is now referred to as engagement. People attach to particular writers, or they attach to the debate, and they come back. And in the model that we now have that’s valuable, and I would say in general that’s valuable. What’s wonderful about the business model that the New York Times is moving to—the subscription-based model and away from an advertising-based model—is that the foundation of our business is our relationship with people who want to pay for our journalism. Which means that all the incentives kind of align. It means the journalism has to be good.
On what he’ll do if his brother, Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, runs for president:
I don’t know of a precedent for this situation, and if Michael does form an exploratory committee and chooses to get in, I will recuse myself from all our political coverage. Fortunately I have two partners in running the opinion operation, Katie Kingsbury, who oversees the editorial board, and Jim Dao, who oversees the Op-Ed team. The three of us kind of do a little bit of everything, and they are more than able to manage without me interfering.
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