The Op-Ed Page's Back Pages
A press scholar explains how the New York Times op-ed page got started.
What the page expected from its contributors was not easy to communicate. Socolow quotes from a note from Mitgang to novelist Walker Percy: "The most successful pieces have been highly individualistic, opinionated and pungent. … [Y]ou will not get arrested if the piece is also witty."
One early criticism of the page was that it was too devoted to "name" authors. In a 1971 internal report about the page, David Schneiderman (who would go on to serve as editor and publisher of the Village Voice) griped about having to "run so much junk by the famous." As proved by the drool of Bono's narcissism, the impulse to recruit names for the page is unkillable.
Socolow's piece wouldn't be a complete work of journalistic history unless it included a huge pissing match, which it does. John Oakes, who battled the paper's bureaucracy for more than a decade to start the page, took a proprietary interest in it. In 1976, after hearing a rumor that Harrison Salisbury had told the Los Angeles Times that he, Salisbury, had created the page, Oakes blasted his former colleague with a letter. In a 1978 oral history conducted by Columbia University Libraries, Oakes flies off the handle. He was very willing to credit the New York World's contribution to the form, but he said, "I'm sick and tired of the distortions regarding origins of the op-ed page."
The wound was still festering in 1996, when James "Scotty" Reston wrote in Deadline: A Memoir that the page had emerged "by slow growth, like flowers from the sea." You can almost hear Oakes growling in the oral history transcript:
The point that I'm trying to establish is that the originator of this idea and the guy who fought for years—beginning in the very early '60s, during the time when Orvil was still publisher—was myself. While I've never tried to grab the spotlight of credit for that, I do resent the idea of other people taking, either by inference or directly claiming, the credit for what has undoubtedly been one of the great newspaper innovations of the century, as far as newspapers go.
Socolow calls Oakes the "prime mover" behind the page but writes that others "took his outline and filled it with ideas of their own."
For all the influence the Times' op-ed page has had on other newspapers, I don't find the writing to be as memorable as the page's brilliant use of type, art, and design. I feel a strong affection for its "Op-Art" and "Op-Chart" features and admire the page for having refused to run editorial cartoons. When you've got a few minutes to kill, view the documentary produced by the Times about the page's art. Or better yet, use Amazon's "Click To Look Inside" feature to browse Jerelle Kraus' 2009 book All the Art That's Fit To Print (And Some That Wasn't): Inside the New York Times Op-Ed Page.
Better still, buy Kraus' book. And one for your friend. And his friend.
Addendum, Sept. 27, 2010: This piece was updated at 7:35 p.m.