Continuing in the recent vein of media criticism, the NYT has yet again provided a gem of an article on issues that are pertinent to all who work with the output of the media industry.
Charles Hoyt, “Public-Editor: The Dangers of the One-Sided Debate,” New York Times (NY: June 24, 2007).
The op-ed page of The New York Times is perhaps the nation’s most important forum for airing opinions on the most contentious issues of the day — the war in Iraq, abortion, global warming and more.
”We look for opinions that are provocative,” said Andrew Rosenthal, the editor of the editorial page. ”Opinions that confirm what you already thought aren’t that interesting.”
But some opinions provoke more than others. Two very different columns by guest contributors, one last week and one last month, caused enormous reader outcries and raised important questions. Are there groups or causes so odious they should be ruled off the page? If The Times publishes a controversial opinion, does it owe readers another point of view immediately? And what is the obligation of editors to make sure that op-ed writers are not playing fast and loose with the facts?
The most recent column was by Ahmed Yousef, a spokesman for Hamas, the party elected to lead the Palestinian government and a group dedicated to the destruction of Israel. He wrote Wednesday about ”What Hamas Wants.”
Many readers were outraged, complaining that The Times had provided a platform for a terrorist. One, Jon Pensak of Sherborn, Mass., said that allowing Yousef space in The Times ”isn’t balanced journalism, it is more the dissemination of propaganda in the spirit of advocacy journalism.”
Well, yes. The point of the op-ed page is advocacy. And, Rosenthal said, ”we do not feel the obligation to provide the kind of balance you find in news coverage, because it is opinion.”
David Shipley, one of Rosenthal’s deputies and the man in charge of the op-ed page, said: ”The news of the Hamas takeover of Gaza was one of the most important stories of the week. … This was our opportunity to hear what Hamas had to say.”
I agree that Yousef’s piece should have run, even though his version of reality is at odds with the one I understand from news coverage. He wrote blandly, for example, about creating ”an atmosphere of calm in which we resolve our differences” with Israel without mentioning that Hamas is officially dedicated to raising ”the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine,” which would mean no more Israel.
Op-ed pages should be open especially to controversial ideas, because that’s the way a free society decides what’s right and what’s wrong for itself. Good ideas prosper in the sunshine of healthy debate, and the bad ones wither. Left hidden out of sight and unchallenged, the bad ones can grow like poisonous mushrooms.
Rosenthal and Shipley said that, over time, they try to publish a variety of voices on the most important issues. Regular op-ed readers have seen a wide range of views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have a lot of other information to help judge Yousef’s statements.
This wasn’t the case, however, with a May 21 op-ed by Nina Planck, an author who writes about food and nutrition. Sensationally headlined ”Death by Veganism,” Planck’s piece hit much closer to home than Yousef’s. It said in no uncertain terms that vegans — vegetarians who shun even eggs and dairy products — were endangering the health and even the lives of their children. A former vegan herself, Planck said she had concluded ”a vegan pregnancy was irresponsible. You cannot create and nourish a robust baby merely on foods from plants.”
Her Exhibit A was a trial in Atlanta in which a vegan couple were convicted of murder, involuntary manslaughter and cruelty in the death of their 6-week-old son, who was fed mainly soy milk and apple juice and weighed only 3.5 pounds. The column set off a torrent of reader e-mail that is still coming in — much of it from vegans who send photos of their healthy children or complain bitterly of being harassed by friends and relatives using Planck’s column as proof that their diet is dangerous.
If there was another side, a legitimate argument that veganism isn’t harmful, Planck didn’t tell you — not her obligation, Rosenthal and Shipley say. But unlike the Middle East, The Times has not presented another view, or anything, on veganism on its op-ed pages for 16 years. There has been scant news coverage in the past five years.
There is another side.
Rachelle Leesen, a clinical nutritionist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told me that Planck’s article ”was extremely inflammatory and full of misinformation.” She and her colleague Brenda Waber pointed me to a 2003 paper by the American Dietetic Association, the nation’s largest organization for food and nutrition professionals. After reviewing the current science, the A.D.A., together with the Dietitians of Canada, declared, ”Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence.”
Planck said she was aware of the A.D.A.’s position but regarded it as ”pandering” to a politically active vegan community.
I won’t rehash the scientific dispute in a case in which Planck has her experts and the A.D.A. paper cited more than 250 studies, but I think The Times owes its readers the other side, published on the op-ed page, not just in five letters to the editor that briefly took issue with her.
I even question Planck’s Exhibit A, poor little Crown Shakur, who was so shriveled at his death that doctors could see the bones in his body. His death, she wrote, ”may be largely due to ignorance. But it should prompt frank discussion about nutrition.”
Maybe, if by nutrition you mean a discussion about whether you feed a baby anything at all.
The prosecutor argued — and the jury believed — that Crown’s parents intentionally starved him to death. News coverage at the time said that the medical examiner, doctors at the hospital to which Crown’s body was taken and an expert nutritionist testified that the baby was not given enough food to survive, regardless of what the food was.
Charles Boring, the Fulton County prosecutor who handled the case, told me it was ”absolutely not” about veganism. Planck and Shipley said they were aware of the prosecutor’s contention. Shipley said, ”We were also aware, though, that the convicted couple continues to insist that they were trying to raise their infant on a vegan diet.”
But the jury didn’t believe them, and leaving that out put Planck’s whole column on a shaky foundation.
Op-ed pages are for debate, but if you get only one side, that’s not debate. And that’s not healthy.