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To our colleagues

:

There’s a thought in Adolph Ochs’s original mission statement for The Times that we
don’t talk about so much — “without fear or favor” is the go-to, for good reason — but
that I particularly love. It’s in his closing line, about the role of Times Opinion; he says
we’re supposed to help “assure the free exercise of a sound conscience.” Please bear
down on those words and I think you’ll see what I mean. Could there be a more elegant
expression of the thought that we’re supposed to protect the freedom of people to think
for themselves, and to help them put that freedom to work?

There’s no reason to hang on to any tradition for its own sake, or to dust off any
statement unless it serves our purposes today and helps us look ahead. I think this
statement does both, and it helps explain what we’re up to these days here in Opinion.

It’s a commonplace borne out by social science that Americans are sorting themselves
by party or convictions and losing the ability to engage respectfully — even if only to
disagree — across those tribal lines. Most people seem to think this is a bad thing, but
very few institutions are trying seriously to do anything about it. We are trying. It’s what
The Times is supposed to do, and it’s what democracy needs.

Surely one of the most basic principles of The New York Times is that we don’t have all
the answers. That’s why Times reporters go out into the world, often taking great risks,
to try to figure out the truth. It’s not my place to speak for the newsroom, but from where
I sit it seems like the authority of The Times is earned every day through the honesty
and determination of that struggle — to understand how people think, and what they’re
up to, and how the forces at work in our era are reshaping their lives.

This principle applies equally to Times opinion journalism. In Opinion, our collective role
is not to tell people what to think. It’s not to simply reflect back to them what they
already think. It’s to help them — as best we can — to do what they want to do, which is
to think for themselves.

If the newsroom’s fundamental role is to describe the world as it is, ours is to envision
how it could be made better. And when it comes to that work, no one — not any of our
columnists, who are the best in the business; and not the editorial board, a hive mind of
experts; and not any of our outside contributors, who are original thinkers; and also not
anyone else on this earth — has all the right answers. We may be right about many of
them; we may be partially right about others; and we may be dead wrong on still others.
History will have to sort out who had it right in the end. In our time, we owe our readers
an honest struggle over the right paths ahead, not a pretense that we’re in possession
of God’s own map.

That means being willing to challenge our own assumptions; it means being open to
counter-arguments even as we advance our own convictions; it means listening to
voices that we may object to and even sometimes find obnoxious, provided they meet
the same tests of intellectual honesty, respect for others and openness. It means taking
on the toughest arguments on the other side, not the straw men. It means starting from
a presumption of good faith, particularly on the part of our colleagues, including those
we disagree with. It means having some humility about the possibility that, in the end,
the other side might have a point, or more than one.

It means having a far richer array of perspectives — richer in terms not only of ideology
but of identity and experience — than we have today. Diversity for us is not just a moral
necessity but the only road to fulfilling our purpose of enlarging human understanding.

Inevitably, it also means sometimes falling short and making mistakes. (Remember:
we’re not pretending to be right about everything here in Opinion.) We’re taking some
chances, recruiting voices that are new to The Times and publishing pieces that press
against our traditional boundaries. Sometimes you — or we — might judge, in
retrospect, that we’ve made the wrong choice and put a foot over one line or another.
I’m very sorry when that happens. I’d be far sorrier if we never tested the limits.

This was the mission for Times Opinion that Adolph Ochs laid out in 1896, declaring
that he wanted to “invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.” It was the
mission The Times rededicated itself to in 1970, when it launched the Op-Ed page to
further “our belief that diverse voices in our society must be given the greatest possible
opportunity to be heard.” The editors explicitly wanted the Op-Ed voices to disagree with
the editorial line of the paper, to keep it honest. A rich and searching and at times
challenging breadth of arguments and ideas is also what society needs from us now,
however imperfectly we might realize this vision, day to day, as we strive toward it.

Don’t get me wrong: We’re not just letting a thousand flowers bloom. We are picking our
contributors with care, looking for people who share Times standards for fairness and
intellectual honesty and originality, who believe in empiricism and the essential equality
of all human beings. We are, as ever, editing and fact-checking our work. And we’re not
indifferent to the question of who’s right and who’s wrong. As debates ripen or the news
demands, The Times editorial board is rendering its best judgment on consequential
matters, consistent with the progressive values that have shaped its reasoning for many
decades.

What our readers do with any of our arguments is, of course, up to them. Maybe they’ll
change their minds; maybe they’ll sharpen their existing views against a surprising and
formidable counterargument. But at a minimum this running, noisy debate will help them
understand the clash of ideas that’s shaping the world.

A lot of the work we get to do in Opinion is fun: We get to tackle big ideas, write with
verve, experiment with new forms and ways of making arguments. But this is also a real
struggle we are engaged in. It’s not easy to believe passionately in certain positions and
then work with people who see the world very differently. This is one reason, I think, that
departments like ours, and even many newsrooms, have always been at risk of
becoming homogeneous in various ways over time. It’s particularly hard now, when an
echo chamber in social media grabs hold of one piece we publish and treats it as the
whole, rather than one of dozens of opinions we publish in running arguments across a
week. It’s particularly hard now because, even as we keep getting attacked from the
right, left-wing sites are insistently telling the same story — that we’ve added
conservative voices in a rightward frogmarch — while ignoring inconvenient realities like
the powerful new voices from the left that have also joined our ranks. It’s hard because
some of the critics like to resort to labels without actually contending with the arguments
our people make. (The good ones contend and sometimes out-argue us. They’ll make
us better.)

It’s hard because this is a work in progress and, as our critics rightly point out, we are
still far from realizing our ambitions for a fuller range of voices. We are still far from it.

But we are making progress, not just in the range of our viewpoints, but in the range of
our storytelling, the breadth of our subject matter, and the diversity of our team. I want
to emphasize: We have a long way to go. But thanks to the fierce intellects and hard
work of your colleagues in Opinion we are moving forward. Far more people than ever
are reading all of our work. Great journalists want to be part of this project. Great and
brave thinkers and doers and survivors and artists want to make their case in The
Times because they know they can have their biggest impact here. They know they can
be part of a searching argument about how to make the world a better place. That’s an
argument that can never end, and it’s our great privilege, in this angry and vengeful
time, to have the chance to help give it new vitality.
I’d like to close with an ask of you: Criticize our work privately to each other as you see
fit. Please also let me or our other Opinion colleagues know when you think we have,
indeed, put a foot over the line. But please also understand that our folks are acting in
good faith. Whether you disagree with some of our many viewpoints or not — surely you
will — please understand that your colleagues in Opinion are committed to ideals that
matter, to fair play, tolerance, pluralism, the free exchange of ideas and intellectual
challenge. They, like you, are committed to helping The Times achieve its highest
purposes.

We’ll be holding a series of open meetings next week to talk more about our work and
we hope you’ll join us.

Allbest,

James