Steve Sachs Duke


Friday, June 06, 2003


Petition signatures. I have nothing particularly original to say about the recent goings-on at the New York Times. But I have noticed something strange there lately, namely an unusual piece published on their op-ed page on April 9. Entitled "No New Tax Cuts," it was supposedly submitted by six influential figures in American economic policy: former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, Concord Coalition president and former Commerce Secretary Peter Peterson, and former Senators Bob Kerrey, Sam Nunn, and Warren Rudman. I generally agreed with the authors' position--the tax cut seems to have been a pretty lousy idea all round--but I was greatly surprised to see the Times allow all six of them to sign the same op-ed. When I was at The Crimson, we had a policy (still in effect, it seems) against printing "petition" signatures on op-eds or letters. Instead, "multiple authors (generally three or fewer) [would] only be listed if each individual contributed equally to the writing of the piece."

Personally, I think a policy of limiting signatures makes sense. The point of an op-ed is to present argument and information for the reader's consideration, not to attach a bunch of famous names to a banner headline (like "No New Tax Cuts"). Plenty of opinion pieces, it's true, serve to advance a position based on the celebrity of the author. Had only one of these notables submitted the op-ed, the byline would have still concealed the true author, who I'm sure was an anonymous staffer in one of their offices. And some op-eds, such as Kissinger's controversial (and famously opaque) Iraq piece in the Aug. 12 Washington Post, are more intended to reveal a famous author's position than to argue for its adoption.

But editors should always base their judgments on the content of the printed page. The policy stance of a famous person might be interesting to hear about, but an op-ed page with more bylines than content isn't quite as interesting to read. If Volcker et al. had wanted to advertise their views on the topic, they could have put out a joint press release that would be reported on the news pages--a list of names like theirs would get quite a bit of attention. Or for that matter, they could have just bought an ad.

This piece was unusual in part because, despite the petition signatures, the argument is pretty decent. Yet as a matter of policy, I would be concerned if the Times has decided to open the floodgates and allow any number of authors to sign on. The more effort that goes into collecting names of additional authors, the less effort will go toward a piece's logical and rhetorical force--which should be the core concern of any opinion page.




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