An Outside Job

I guess I’d better go ahead and admit it now: One of my more minor goals in life is to someday write a guest op-ed. Perusing the ranks of the guest op-eds in the Times, however, it becomes clear that I have a ways to go before that happens.

It seems to me that to have this privilege bestowed upon you, you either have to be 1) very important, or 2) very knowledgeable about some particular pertinent subject. If possible, it would be ideal to be both.

Actually, one thing that makes this more complicated than it needs to be is that it’s difficult to pin down exactly what makes a good guest op-ed. Some of them move deeply into argumentation and persuasion, while others are difficult to distinguish from what the Times calls “News Analysis”.

As one would expect, the Times does have a page on how to submit guest op-eds, but it is not extremely illuminating. Mostly, it indicates that they will consider pretty much anything, but that the volume of submissions is so high that most material will be inevitably passed up. All in all, though, this is positive for my prospects: Anyone can write an op-ed, about anything! The only thing is that it probably won’t get published.

But really, I’m deluding myself. It’s clear that anything that gets published is of much higher quality than something I could hope to produce. Most of the people who write seem to be experts in the area they’re writing on. (Unfortunately, the articles don’t seem to provide links to bios of the contributors, so it’s a little difficult to verify this.)

I find myself realizing that the whole system of guest op-eds is kind of odd in the first place. In the olden days, the newspaper was essentially offering up space in its pages for free, space that could otherwise be filled with its own content and advertisements. Including pieces by normal people, then, seems counterproductive from a business point of view. It seems to me plausible, then, that the system could perhaps have emerged as a way to gauge audience reactions and interests in the days before one-click user analytics.

Even if the system is designed to do that, however, it’s unclear exactly how effective it is, because you can bet that anything that ends up on the op-ed page undergoes heavy filtering. In most cases, this is probably justified, as most likely, many submissions present incoherent arguments or are examples of just plain bad writing. It is not inconceivable, however, to consider the editors subtly skewing, either consciously or unconsciously, the opinion page contents to align well with their own opinions, values, and ideas. In that respect, guest op-eds are sort of a fake public forum, a place where we can air our opinions, but only those that pass editorial muster.

It’s hardly worth making a big deal out of, though, especially in the internet age, when most of the forums we consider “public” are in fact controlled by large, private companies, who not only have essentially limitless bandwidth to police their own content, but are also frequently compelled to carry out the demands of the government. Seen in that light, then, at least the opinion pages are a lot more coherent.


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