Writing a weekly opinion column for The Cavalier Daily during my college years was an invaluable lesson in organizing my thoughts. Editing the opinion page taught me something less tangible: Where is the line between your right to an opinion and your readers’ right to respect? Reading two pretty appalling opinion pieces recently brought those lessons to mind — Ramin Setoodeh’s Newsweek column that argued gay actors can’t play straight, and this week’s column from Time‘s Joel Stein, which lamented the influx of Indian immigrants to his hometown.
Once, during my tenure at the CD, I approved a column by a freshman writer that criticized the campus dining hall for offering rebates to Jewish students during Passover. I knew I shouldn’t run the column. I made the author rewrite it three times to tone down the sense of entitlement and misplaced outrage. But in the end, worn down and without something to run in its place, I published it. I will never forget the sheer terror I felt sitting at my desk in the basement of Newcomb Hall, waiting for the president of the Jewish campus life association to come down and talk with me, as he demanded to do after reading the column. (It was almost comical when he showed up, as he seemed just as nervous as I was. But we had an honest and enlightening conversation.) After that, I pulled columns that I thought were written in an insensitive manner. I stood up to their indignant writers, which wasn’t fun, but was nothing compared to the feeling that I’d betrayed my editorial judgment.
I share this story partly to empathize with the editors and writers in question, who are only human, and stretched increasingly thin. But I also mean to emphasize that I learned this lesson when I was 20 years old. It’s a rookie mistake, and not what you expect from institutions like Newsweek and Time. (Actually, there’s a whole other blog post in here somewhere about the demise of the weekly news magazines. If analysis is what they’re best suited to contribute — seeing as how “newsweekly” is now a contradiction in terms — they have to get a better handle on their tone and standards.) A good editor knows where the line is, when you’re not making a well-reasoned, fair argument but simply taking cheap shots. And humor writing in some ways requires even stricter scrutiny than straight opinion pieces, so easy is it to make the lazy joke.
Most days I’m relieved I’m no longer an opinion writer by trade (except here on this blog, of course). It’s hard work, and requires you to both make yourself more vulnerable, and keep your passions firmly in check. But I do miss the sometimes brutal lessons it taught me every week. OK, so the bumper sticker on my ’94 Honda cheekily proclaimed, “Everyone is entitled to my opinion.” But even then, I knew that platform was a responsibility, not a right.