The op-ed cartoon that ran on December 23.
Back in July, The Providence Journal posted an interactive online package of text, photos, and videos entitled “WHO WE ARE. WHAT WE DO.” The series — or “eModule,” as it was technically called — was stirring, even for the most hardened and cynical Journal observers. There were slideshows of historical front pages from the Journal and its bygone sister paper, The Evening Bulletin, covering the beginning of the Civil War, the sinking of the Titanic, the first moonwalk, the 9/11 attacks. There were interviews with various staffers, including state house bureau chief Kathy Gregg (“We’re the eyes and ears for the public”) and executive editor Karen Bordeleau (“Journalists are really important to a democracy”). There was swiftly edited footage of reporters scribbling in notebooks, tweeting from smartphones, snapping photos, typing at computers, and interviewing public officials. Viewed through that eModule’s lens, the paper was an energetic, tech-savvy, and vital 21st-century news outlet hell-bent on scouring the state on its citizens’ behalf.
But at least one thing was missing from “WHO WE ARE. WHAT WE DO”: any substantive mention of the paper’s opinion pages, where hundreds of editorials, columns, op-eds, letters to the editor, and political cartoons are published every year. This could have been to preserve the anonymity of the writing process behind Journal editorials, which are published, of course, without bylines. Or perhaps it was because the work of an opinion pages editor — selecting op-eds and cartoons from around the country, sifting through letters to the editor — doesn’t exactly sizzle in a video. Or maybe it’s because the Journal’s opinion pages simply don’t live up to the relevance and liveliness portrayed in “WHO WE ARE. WHAT WE DO.”
Consider a few examples.
In recent months, the opinion pages have made a conspicuous habit of publishing op-eds that a) blatantly oppose plugged-in, non-newspaper forms of communication, and b) don’t acknowledge the Journal’s obvious financial interest in publishing such articles. This fall brought op-eds with headlines like “Internet Gadgets More a Hindrance Than a Help” (November 25) and “Complex Ideas Just A Wee Bit Difficult for Twitter Nation” (December 10). It brought an Indiana-based communications professor opining, “Social networking, trolling for YouTube videos and checking out NFL fantasy team stats hardly prepares one to engage in today’s political, economic and cultural debate.” It brought Caroline Little’s op-ed reminding readers that “[N]ewspapers remain the most trusted source in communities, large or small, that cut through the clutter with the news that you need to know. . . Newspapers remain the most reliable way to reach the American public. . . [and] Newspapers inform the public of important stories.” Little, we were informed at the end of the op-ed, is the CEO of the Newspaper Association of America.
It gets worse. While this “Let’s Use Indirect Arguments and Scare Tactics to Convince You to Keep Buying Our Product” series was merely amusing, other op-eds were uncomfortably absurd. One September essay argued bizarrely, “In the 21st century, the cross is in the crosshairs, and the most brutal attacks are reserved for those who follow Jesus,” and concluded, “Wake up, people. It’s 1939 all over again.” Speaking of hyperbole, an anti-marijuana legalization essay published last week read, in part, “Legalizing pot may take us to a place we will not want to be in a few short months and years. Hundreds of thousands of American kids may find themselves without the intellectual maturity to contribute to the greater society or to even feed and clothe themselves.” Huh?
Worst of all was the nauseating political cartoon published on Monday, December 23. On one side of the cartoon was an image of Earth, with arrow labels pointing to “Growing Arctic Sea Ice,” “Record Low Temperatures,” and “Less Extreme Natural Disasters,” while, on the other side of the cartoon, scientific papers were shown “melting away” into a puddle under the label “Global Warming ‘Proof.’ ” This came one day after the Journal reported a state record high temperature of 64 degrees on December 22.
It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly why this sort of material is such — pun alert — bad news for the paper. Does it taint the numerous well-argued and politically diverse opinions that also appear on the Journal opinion pages? Yes. Do Rhode Islanders — who, according to a 2013 Stanford University study, are the most inclined in the nation (at 92 percent) to believe global warming is caused by humans — deserve better than science-denying horseshit presented as a legitimate point of view? Yes. Do laughably out-of-touch op-eds — “Too many pot smokers simply divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Those who do not smoke are often dismissed as ‘the Man’ and not worth knowing,” the anti-pot legalization essay read — in fact defend policies that are enforced in systematically racist ways? Yes.