The Op-Ed Racket

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As editor of Mises.org, I receive outstanding article submissions from people all over the world. From time to time, an author will suggest that, while he or she is pleased that Mises.org would like to run the piece, shouldn’t I first submit it to the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times or some syndicate? The conviction behind the request is that the article is excellent, timely, and important, and hence a big media outlet ought to snap it up.

Only the conclusion is wrong. Editors will not snap it up. If they do, they will more than likely butcher it before it is printed. Once it is printed, you will have little evidence that anyone will have read it, and you will have wasted massive amounts of time in retrospect. No, a book contract will not be forthcoming. Finally, you won’t be paid.

Surprised? Here is a primer for outside submissions to newspapers. Remember, as I blast away at op-ed editors, that some papers are better than others. The Washington Times, the Orange County Register, and the Christian Science Monitor have a fairer process than most. Your local paper will probably consider your piece just because you are local.

In any case, before you even consider submitting something, you must know the quirks of the newspaper. The New York Times, for instance, will never publish an op-ed on a subject the paper has not covered. What’s more, it is always best for the op-ed to stick only to the facts mentioned in the story or in some other article in the New York Times. This is a paper that not only seeks to be the paper of record. It seeks to operate within its own autonomous editorial universe, and doesn’t at all appreciate being reminded that there are, after all, other sources for news.

I could go on about the quirks, but there are some characteristics most all op-ed editors share in common, and these are the least understood aspects of the industry. First, they are not brilliant but rather people with thin, narrow educations and average intelligence. Second, they are radically risk averse, and will do anything to avoid being called on the carpet. Third, publishing well-written, timely, and important articles is a low-priority concern; indeed, merit is weakest of all considerations. They have 200 pieces cross their desk every day, and many are excellent, timely, and important. In the end, 198 of them are thrown out.

What are the priorities of editors? What are the grounds on which they tend to make decisions concerning the work of outside writers?

First, these editors want to run pieces by people who seem to have a right to say what they are saying, a right that is determined by one’s credentials, experience, or position in the field. If you are an economist, for example, you may write on economics but you may not write on foreign policy. If you are a psychologist, you may write on the latest fad concerning psychology but you may not write on the federal budget. You may only write about the internal affairs of government if you have worked for government (but the same is not true of business).

If you are just a guy with an opinion, you may not write on anything. If you are a “policy analyst” at a think tank, you are only a slight notch above a regular guy. In a nutshell, that sums up the right-to-write rules.

The purpose here is to build in a safeguard that protects the editor himself. With so many pieces to consider, and the high risk that the editor may inadvertently publish the work of a crank (a fate that amounts to professional death), the right-to-write issue becomes a first principle. Once that issue is settled, if the opinion is misinformed, factually incorrect, or riles the wrong people, the editor is always in a position to shoot back: Hey, this guy was in the State Department 10 years, so it’s no wonder I thought he knew something about diplomacy!

Second, the opinion held by the op-ed writer must fit within the bounds of currently respectable opinion. How is one to know with certainty what those bounds are? That, and not intellectual creativity or taking journalistic risks, is the job of the op-ed editor. In fact, that is the very essence of his job. He is not there to provide a forum for the airing of a wide range of opinion. He is there to find people who reflect the range of opinion that those in the industry regard as permissible.

By a sheer fluke, an open-minded editor with an eye for good copy came to be in charge of the op-ed page of a certain Manhattan financial daily. He ran a series of articles distinguished because they were interesting, timely, topical, fresh, and challenging. He was open to new writers and new ideas. He was curious about the line of argument, not the right-to-write of the writers. Indeed, he was something of an intellectual, and during that time, I had great success in placing articles with this newspaper. Of course he was pressured out in less than a year and replaced by what became the current dreary regime.

Third, most op-ed pieces are commissioned. The editor picks the writer, based on who the writer is and on what the editor believes he is going to say. The idea here is that the op-ed should not stand alone but be part of an overall editorial strategy, an arm of the newspaper and its editorial agenda. The editors will ring up, for example, a person who has been critical of the fast-food industry and say, hey, can you write an article blasting McDonald’s for price fixing? Of course the writer will say yes, even if the person has no particularly strong emotion about price fixing, or knows anything about the subject at hand.

These three rules are fundamental at top newspapers, but if you know anything about the culture of mainstream journalism, you know that even the smallest local daily takes its cues from the editorial philosophy of the big guys. That is because no one in journalism is happy with his or her current assignment. They all have career goals which always involve moving up to larger and more prestigious papers. Might as well start acting like the big guys if you want to become one someday.

Discouraged yet? Let’s say that you would still like to try your hand at submitting op-eds. You don’t know anyone at the paper, so you send it via mail, fax, or email to the address listed on the website. What is likely to happen? In 100 submissions like this, you will hear nothing 99 times. Your piece will drop down the memory hole. If you call and persist and bug them, you will eventually get a “no” and the fact that you called and bugged will be counted against you in your next submission. In the meantime, your piece is rendered worthless because it is now dated.

But let’s say your piece is noticed, and you get a call back. If you pass the interview stage — the editor wants to know that you are for real, that you are sober and serious and the like — the editing stage begins. I have shepherded a number of pieces through this process for friends, and I am astonished what people will put up with. What comes out at the end in publication may not look anything like what was originally submitted. In fact it may say the opposite. Most incredibly, you will have been coaxed into approving every edit. The editors have effectively written your article but you must bear the responsibility for it.

Here’s how it goes. You first receive the call, and your heart races at the very idea of being published in XYZ Times, a highly prestigious paper. Wow, you think. This is my moment in the sun. Then the editor zeros in on a particular point that, in the editor’s judgment, clearly has to go. The editor will say something like, “wonderful piece, except for the sixth through eighth paragraph; the point you are addressing here doesn’t seem at all necessary, given that you are dealing with so much else.” Ah, the voice of reason! Even though you liked those paragraphs, and even considered them essential to your argument, you quickly agree to cut them. Having demonstrated your willingness to be edited, you have now opened yourself up for wholesale rewrite.

More and more paragraphs are taken out. The editor then suggests that you address another point instead, and even suggests the wording. You agree. You are starting to feel queasy — only half of what you originally wrote survives — but what are you going to do? Withdraw the piece? That would be unsporting. In any case, you are developing quite a relationship with this editor, one that could be mined down the road, you believe, even if this particular op-ed isn’t entirely to your liking.

Ok, it’s Monday and your distorted op-ed is scheduled to be published on Thursday. All is well, until Wednesday morning when the editor suddenly calls with breaking news. Something has come over the wire that directly impacts your piece (and, truly, something is always coming over the wire). Clearly, then, a few more paragraphs must go and new ones addressing this new material must be inserted.

The speed, the excitement, the sense of being up to the minute — you are caught up in a swirl by now, and the content of your piece is now the last thing that matters to you. In any case, you have been so thoroughly worn down, and compromised so many times, that you have no basis to object. There is simply no way that you will consider withdrawing it at this point, because you have invested so much of your own time (you have done nothing else for days!) and you would make an enemy out of your new friend, the editor.

I have seen the process operate so many times that I have good reason to believe it is the not at all uncommon. This is why I can’t take seriously too many of the op-eds seen in these large papers. For the most part, the writer was unable to dictate the editorial terms. Sure, he agreed to them but that is mainly because he really wanted to be published — a point demonstrated in his first act of submitting the piece. The editors count on this, and generally use writers as mere fronts for a much larger editorial agenda. In other words, the author is a sucker, and the editor — the gatekeeper, the person with the real power over the author — thinks of the writer as such.

Finally, let’s say your piece appears. The thrill lasts about 7 minutes, 10 minutes tops. Then it is old news. You will hear very little about the piece, except from people who know you and know that you trimmed your sails in order to get in the paper. They will lose just a modicum of respect for you, wrongly believing that you were the sole initiator of the article’s final content. You could tell them otherwise, but that reflects rather poorly on you, doesn’t it?

In any case, with your article having been gutted of all important content, you do not even enjoy the satisfaction of knowing you achieved your original goal of getting your message out. At some point in the process, the goal of publishing became an end in itself. In retrospect, this alone isn’t worth much at all.

Consider, too, the opportunity costs of all of this! Is it really worth it? Sure, you might say, because getting in the XYZ Times just once gives you a foothold. But how does one keep the foothold? One must repeat the whole scenario each time one publishes, except now you are something of an expert in the process. You can anticipate the points the editors will strike and you begin to insert the points you know the editor will want inserted. Keep it up and you might become a regular writer for this paper. But you will have also become a trimmer, having lost sight of the whole reason you wanted to be published in the first place.

Now, there was a time when this procedure was the only option a writer had. If you wanted to address public affairs, this is what you had to do. It was time consuming and degrading. But thanks to the web, and to other independent outlets, this is no longer necessary. Outlets like LewRockwell.com and Mises.org offer the chance to say what you believe and reach a vast international audience. Your piece will be read, linked, reprinted, and permanently archived and available to every Google user the world over. In the end, it is probably more widely read in these places than they would be in the big-city newspapers.

All Hail the Web! Exactly as Hillary Clinton used to complain, the old gatekeepers have been brushed aside by an army of writers and thinkers who refuse to be controlled and used. Yes, your writing is excellent, timely, and important. That is precisely why it shouldn’t be wasted. It should appear in an independent venue where it can do some good for the world.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is vice president of the Mises Institute.

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