On Oct. 27, the Wall Street Journal published a letter to the editor from former President Donald Trump regarding an editorial that the paper had previously published which stated that he lost Pennsylvania by 80,555 votes. In his letter, Trump reasserted that the 2020 election was fraudulent, rigged and corrupt, and therefore The Journal’s editorial was incorrect. After publication, some objected to The Journal publishing this letter at all, leading the newspaper to publish a statement on their decision. This statement conveyed their belief that their readers could come to their own conclusions, and then debunked some of the lies that Trump wrote in his letter.
Personally, I don’t think that The Journal should have published Trump’s letter. Lies should not be tolerated in newspapers, especially not in one of the most reputable newspapers in the country. Allowing a lie of this magnitude to be published as an opinion piece in a paper with this level of prestige legitimizes it in a way that a tweet or a Facebook post does not. But, in their piece defending publishing the letter, The Journal’s editorial board raised points worthy of consideration. For example, Trump says these things elsewhere, and trying to censor him doesn’t hinder his ability to share these views. It begs the question — what should the role of an opinion page be in publishing speech that is deemed offensive or blatantly false?
Traditionally, opinion pages publish pieces from two main sources: people who are hired to write for the paper (columnists or editorial board members) and people who write as guests — they typically write guest op-eds or letters to the editor. The purpose of guest op-eds is to highlight perspectives of those who do not write for the paper. The purpose of letters to the editor is to allow members of a paper’s audience to engage with their content, whether that engagement is in support or criticism.
Many newspapers allow for a wide variety of people with a range of opinions to write op-eds in their opinion sections, including people who many would consider as having values that are antithetical to a democratic society. For example, The New York Times has published op-eds from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Taliban deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, both of whom are enemies of the United States. The Times also published an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., in June 2020 that called for the president to send in the military to combat Black Lives Matter protests.
Readers reacted strongly (and negatively) to the op-eds by Haqqani and Cotton, and for good reason — Haqqani has been involved in strikes that have killed American soldiers and Afghani citizens, and Cotton’s position is un-American at best and fascist at worst. But do our opinions and feelings about these beliefs and these people mean that we shouldn’t hear about them? Putin, Haqqani and Cotton are three people who matter. The actions of Putin and Haqqani directly influence American foreign policy. Cotton is a U.S. senator, and has aspirations to be the president of the United States. Their views have a real impact on the way the world works and for that, we’re better off knowing what they think, as appalling as their opinions may be.
Readers of The Journal and The Times rightfully want to hear nuanced, informed opinions in their newspapers, not lies and un-American rants. But it might be even more important that these readers hear these opinions, no matter how scary or deluded they are. While some may prefer to ignore it, others may want to learn more about the sentiments expressed by Haqqani or Cotton. That doesn’t mean that anyone should be able to write an op-ed about such a topic. But, since all three men have the ability to make their ideas into policy or social norms, it’s necessary that the public is aware of what their ideas are.
The distinction between the pieces The Times published and the letter to the editor that Trump wrote is that the Times pieces were opinions, meaning that readers could oppose them on the basis of disagreement, but couldn’t dismiss them as wholly untrue. Trump’s letter was based on lies, which made it unfit to be in a newspaper. To me, this is where the line should be drawn — media sources should not, as a matter of ethics, publish something that is based on clear falsehoods.
We can disagree with Putin, Haqqani and Cotton on the basis of their ideas, but a lack of decency or adherence to democratic ideals cannot be disparaged in the same way as lies. Knowledge of the opinions and ideas of important policymakers and figureheads — told from their own perspective — is necessary in order to combat bad or dangerous ideas. Opinion pages have an obligation to publish a diversity of opinions, even when those opinions will be unpopular with readers. But readers should not have to read unchecked falsehoods directly from the mouth of their main purveyor.
Lydia Storella is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.