Following Bill Keller’s contentious New York Times editorial in which he questioned the validity of cancer patient Lisa Bonchek Adams’s choice to share her experience with the disease and treatment of it through social media, the Internet went, well, it went wild. Responses ran the gamut, but there was definitely a large contingent of people (including Bonchek Adams herself) that were outraged at Keller’s editorial, not only because it pretty clearly posited a “right way to die,” but also because there were multiple factual errors in the piece, calling to mind the adage, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
The thing is, of course, that this is only very superficially true, because while everyone might be entitled to his or her own opinions, there are obviously countless examples of when those opinions are basically given the weight of something empirical, due to where they are published. And, as is the case with Bill Keller, the Times is a repeat offender of hiding behind the fact that because editorials are opinion, and therefore subjective, there are no ethical problems attached to running things like Keller’s piece on Bonchek Adams. And yet, it is hard to argue that these opinions carry weight and can do harm. And while there is little doubt that Bonchek Adams and countless others felt an impact due to Keller’s column (which reads more like a personal attack on how one woman is dealing with serious illness than anything else), Keller has a history of editorially promoting his opinions in such a way that they have a much larger, globally significant impact, including his hawkish stance on the Iraq War, a position for which he later, unsatisfactorily apologized.
But should the New York Times be responsible for the tone of its opinion columnists? After Keller’s column caused an uproar, the public editor of the Times, Margaret Sullivan, responded to the backlash with a piece of her own in which she addressed readers’ concerns in a way that wound up being almost as troubling as Keller’s original column. Sullivan writes, “as a columnist, Mr. Keller–by definition–has a great deal of free rein. As I’ve written before, Times opinion editors very rarely intrude on that process by steering a writer away from a topic or killing a column before it runs. It’s a columnist’s job, in short, to have an opinion and to speak it freely. That’s as it should be.” In other words, Times editorial columnists are all basically like your tenure-having geology professor who, instead of teaching you all that much about rocks, spent hours railing against Al Gore and warning against buying a house in northern New Jersey because of the freon as if you’d ever in a million years buy a house in New Jersey, all the while secure in the knowledge that he was in no danger of losing his job because there was no professional oversight and he got no feedback other than what students would write about him on RateMyProfessor.com.
But there is no RateMyProfessor.com for Times columnists (which, you know, Gail Collins would totally get the most chili peppers, right?), there is only the comments section and, of course, Twitter. And despite Keller thinking that comment sections are a “space for nuance” when really they are usually a place for people who suffer from pronounced cases of confirmation bias and/or illiterate trolls and that Twitter is “a medium encourages reflexes rather than reflection,” it seems like Twitter has taken the lead when it comes to taking public figures to task for their actions and words. While it’s not untrue that Twitter users might be guilty of unbridled enthusiasm when it comes to taking people to task (remember Justine?), it’s not a medium that should be underestimated in terms of the validity of what is said on it. While it’s natural that for every opinion (like Keller’s) there will be a counter opinion and while not every counter opinion needs to be heard, it’s still important for writers in a position like Keller to have something to keep them in check, and since that’s apparently not the job of anyone at the Times, it falls on all of us to assume the job of keeping columnists honest. Because, really, if no one is approving David Brooks’s columns, we’re just going to keep getting more pieces along the lines of “Weed: Been There. Done That.” And is that the kind of media world we want to live in? No, I didn’t think so.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen