Public Editor: On Op-Eds, partisanship and policies

March 2, 2021, 12:56 a.m.

Last week, the Stanford Review published an article by three Hoover fellows. The authors suggested that The Daily — “widely perceived to be authoritative” — had a fundamentally anti-Hoover bias and had become the mouthpiece of Stanford University’s largely left-leaning population. The article suggested that this publication and its opinions section represented the very stifling of free speech the authors feel is endemic to this campus.

I’m not going to further litigate the faculty-centered debate on the role of the Hoover Institution — it’s already been exhausted in almost every campus publication’s editorial section and has found its way to the opinions sections of national publications. But what the Hoover fellows’ article does demonstrate is one of the fundamental issues plaguing The Daily’s opinions section today: what exactly are its publishing policies, and does it have an intentional and obvious left-leaning bias? 

In many ways, Opinions is The Daily’s riskiest section. As a section that publishes not only regular columns — article series written by internally selected authors — but also op-ed submissions from the community, our editorials come from multiple sources with varying degrees of connection to the publication. Columnists, most of whom are undergraduate staff writers, have authored articles on relatively benign topics like Stanford’s flaky culture, while others have taken on serious institutional issues surrounding the support for Black Studies and the departmentalization of AAAS. 

But Op-Eds are often one-off submissions, written by community members reacting to issues like the removal of a Cantonese lecturer or the University’s axing of 11 varsity sports. While this allows us to publish a diversity of opinions from a wide range of sources, the op-ed submission process is often the root of the publication’s most fervent critique.

A lack of clarity on how The Daily’s Opinion section chooses and publishes its externally submitted op-eds has caused the most community misunderstanding and frustration — as evinced by the Hoover fellows’ rebuttal. The following misperceptions are most apparent: that The Daily has a uniform set of editorial practices that apply to both its newsroom and opinions section, that The Daily actively and solely rejects conservative opinions, and that The Daily’s editorial practices are generally unclear and inconsistent. 

Confusion about the form and function of the opinions section often stems from the fact that community members link The Daily’s Opinions section practices to its newsroom — two separate entities with different aims and standards. The claim that The Daily “published attacks on Hoover fellows without contacting them and giving them a reasonable amount of time to respond” criticizes the opinions section based on a standard relevant to the news section. While articles in the news section aim to report verified new information, articles in the opinions section present perspectives, exhortations, and value judgments based on already-available information. Because opinions pieces do not tend to break new information, it is not standard practice to reach out to relevant parties to verify any information. This is an important but often subtle difference. 

Moreover, some authors outside of The Daily have claimed that the publication actively rejects their article submissions simply because they present conservative viewpoints. But within the last year, The Daily published an op-ed by Hoover fellow Victor Davis Hanson in defense of his institution; the Vol. 258 opinions staff published a Frankly Speaking column that included multiple perspectives arguing in support of the Hoover Institution; and last volume’s opinions editors controversially allowed the publication of an anti-BLM article that recycled far-right talking points against the movement. While the section clearly publishes more left-leaning articles — as the majority of the publication’s Op-Ed submissions, just like the majority of campus, hold left-leaning political beliefs — this does not mean that conservative voices are actively suppressed by The Daily’s opinions leadership.  

Affiliates of the Hoover Institution and some community members have submitted articles to The Daily but then refused to undergo the opinions section’s editing process, whether it be in tempering an article’s tone or substantiating claims within. Niall Ferguson, Scott Atlas, and Victor Davis Hanson submitted the article eventually published in the Review to The Daily for publication, but refused to undergo our editing process when the Opinions leadership communicated that the authors needed to further substantiate claims made within. 

Similar incidents have occurred with the Stanford College Republicans, who have submitted op-eds with explicitly racist and transphobic content under the guise of advancing conservative conversations on campus. In the editing process, this organization has refused to work in good faith with opinions leadership to edit articles to meet our publication standards. Framing their own refusal to comply with Daily editing practices as “suppression of free speech” is irresponsible and misrepresents the practices of The Daily’s opinions section. 

And with regards to its perceived leftward partisanship, should the opinions section openly align with a particular political slant because its op-ed submissions often lean that way? The Review almost exclusively publishes contrarian and right-leaning editorials and the Sphere promotes “non-doctrinaire left-wing” discourse — both publications thus avoid the accusation of “censorship” by way of aligning their organization to a set of ideological positions. The Daily’s opinions section is a forum for opinions, and it would be inappropriate to artificially control the ratios of articles in the name of balance. But the mere preponderance of left-leaning opinions in the section does not make it a partisan section, only one representative of its community.

Yet, it is true that Daily leadership has made difficult and questionable decisions when publishing opinion articles. In the past, The Daily has published left-leaning opinions articles in need of far more editing and critique; it has allowed authors to publish op-eds with unnecessarily harsh rhetoric. And, to the point of the Hoover fellows, The Daily’s opinions section has since the start of the school year published no fewer than a dozen op-eds critiquing the Hoover Institution. Opinions editors can and should be more cautious in editing the tone of incendiary articles. Fact checking should be conducted rigorously and by third parties outside of authors and desk editors alone, deeper investigative reporting in editorial pieces should be encouraged, and the section leadership certainly should hold all opinion articles to the same editorial standard — regardless of political lean in the argument at hand. 

Many of these issues could be mitigated if the opinions section publicly released a set of Op-Ed submissions guidelines to make their intentions and standards absolutely clear. The current policies and standards page on The Daily’s website is insufficient, since it almost exclusively deals with the newsroom’s editorial practices — practices that do not entirely align with or apply to the opinions section. Repeated accusations about bias or unfair editing indicate that more explicitly worded guidance is necessary, especially as our opinions writing content has increased significantly as a result of COVID-19. And given the fact that community members often view The Daily’s opinions section as representative of the broader organization, further information and boundaries on the section’s position within the publication is warranted. 

In order to address these many concerns, an opinions section-specific policies and standards has to include at least the following: 

  1. Basic requirements of an opinions piece. What constitutes an opinions piece? Editors should explain what is necessary for an article to qualify for publication in the section, including argumentative quality, length, tone, and more. 
  2. A list of values guiding what submissions are accepted. Editors should elucidate what articles will or will not be published based on an author’s/article’s compliance to the section’s values, such as: The Daily will strive to publish articles that advance important, timely, and respectful campus discourse; The Daily will not publish discriminatory content, arguments or language; or it will not publish works that put a Stanford community member in danger, for example. To this end, The Daily should also outline the general terms of its rejection policy. 
  3. Clear guidance on the editing process. The opinions section should communicate to authors that their articles will be accepted for publication on the condition of revisions, which is standard and expected of all editorial content. Editors should note how editing will be communicated, as well as what edits are absolutely necessary in order to accept an article for publication. 
  4. Establish clear lines between newsroom practice and opinions practice. While the opinions section should be encouraged to engage in more news reporting practices, it needs to draw a firm line between itself and the newsroom — as is already evinced from the existing policies and standards. 
  5. Anonymity policy. Because many op-ed authors request anonymity for their articles, the section should explain its general stance on anonymity. While granting anonymity often changes based on an individual source or author’s circumstances, a set of guiding rules will help both editors and audience understand why and how anonymity is applied throughout the section. 

This list is not exhaustive, nor will it solve all of the miscommunications and distrust between The Daily’s opinions policies and a critical audience. And any set of section-specific policies should not be wholly binding nor exhaustive to the point that editors feel hamstrung by arbitrary rules. But if the opinions section wants to move forward with more transparency and honesty on its editorial practices — especially those concerning its editing practices and submission rejection policies — it actively needs to communicate the contours of its internal policies with the broader Daily audience.

Contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at liz ‘at’ stanforddaily.com. 

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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Elizabeth Lindqwister is a senior from Peoria, Illinois, majoring in history. She is the Vol. 259 Public Editor, having previously served as the Vol. 257 Executive Editor and Vice President. Find her at CoHo or liz 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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