The Washington Post opinion section is arguably the most underachieving real estate on the internet.
What should be a lively, thought-provoking, agenda-setting forum on public policy and other matters is instead dominated by a bevy of unoriginal right-wingers who make stuff up, defend the indefensible, and bore the tears out of you, all at the same time.
One of the many signs of moral rot in the Post’s opinion section is its all-white editorial board. As Sara Fischer reported for Axios this week, Jonathan Capehart resigned from the board under protest in December, leaving ten white people speaking on behalf of the Post.
It is inexcusable and irresponsible to have an all-white editorial board at a national newspaper in this day and age, least of all one based in a city where half the population is Black.
Capehart reportedly quit after the white people on the board couldn’t resist both-sidesing in an editorial about Raphael Warnock’s victory over Herschel Walker in the Georgia senate runoff. The board insisted on taking a gratuitous potshot at the left and the civil rights community, writing that “turnout remained high despite hyperbolic warnings by President Biden and other Democrats that updated voting rules amounted to Jim Crow 2.0.”
Even when it had Black people on it, the Washington Post editorial board was consistently reprehensible. Its long tradition of trolling intelligent people includes insisting that the U.S. should always project power across the globe and that you’re only serious about the budget if you want to cut Social Security and Medicare.
One new twist since their acquisition by mega-magnate Jeff Bezos: Defending corporate greed. Locally, the board has been outright hostile to progressives, preferring Republicans to Democrats who it says “lean left.”
But guess what? Nobody really cares about editorials anyway. The signal failure of the Post’s opinion section has been its choice of columnists and op-ed writers.
Compare it to the New York Times
The New York Times opinion section regularly publishes absolute tripe – most recently, a barrage of virulent and ignorant anti-trans rhetoric and panicking about wokeism. Several of its columnists are well past their sell-by date. Some are just trolls.
But there’s no denying that overall, it remains intellectually stimulating, ground-breaking, and consequential.
The Post’s opinion section doesn’t come in for remotely as much criticism as the Times’s — but that’s because nobody cares about it enough to criticize it.
It offers a regular megaphone to some of the most retrograde ninnies in the business, and has had no impact on the national discourse since torture ended (they were for it).
When’s the last time someone encouraged you to read a column by Marc Thiessen? Or Henry Olsen? Or Gary Abernathy? Or Kathleen Parker?
There are of course a few notable exceptions to the Post opinion section’s mediocrity. The two people closest to must-read status are Greg Sargent and Jennifer Rubin, whose voluminous work product is mostly online-only, and often on the website’s most-read lists.
Sargent, along with his colleague Paul Waldman, provides a sometimes essential reality-check to the Post’s gutless and often deceptive political reporting. Rubin’s current persona – a wild turnaround from her stint as a fanatical Obama-hating neocon – very effectively channels Trump outrage.
But pretty much everyone else is not even worth a hate-read. The op-eds are almost without exception unremarkable.
The sad state of the Post’s opinion section is mostly a testament to Fred Hiatt, whose 20-year tenure as editorial-page editor ended in December 2021 with his death at age 66.
During the tenure of Hiatt’s predecessor, the redoubtable Meg Greenfield, the Post opinion section was hugely influential in Washington. Under Hiatt, it became predictably neocon and neoliberal, slowly and unremarkably descending into irrelevance.
Hiatt’s endless war-mongering, his fondness for defenders of torture, his obsession with deficit reduction at the expense of the old and poor – they were not just wrong, they were 180 degrees wrong. He never apologized for his key role in hyping Bush’s lies in the run-up to the war in Iraq. In my view, he did more damage to the Washington Post brand than Janet Cooke.
Hiatt’s position remained open for seven months after his death, as oligarch owner Jeff Bezos and his inept, bumbling publisher Fred Ryan — who also serves as chairman of the Ronald Reagan Foundation — sought someone appropriately amenable from the outside.
They finally settled on David Shipley, who had spent 10 years keeping another billionaire, Mike Bloomberg, happy both as the top editor of Bloomberg Opinion and as a staffer on Bloomberg’s expensive, disastrous, and mercifully short presidential campaign.
Shipley has only made things worse.
You might think it would be impossible to move further and even more disastrously right when your stable includes the likes of Thiessen, Olsen, Abernathy, Parker, Hugh Hewitt, Megan McArdle, and George F. Will.
But Shipley’s marquee move thus far has been to hire two more derivative right-wingers as weekly columnists: Jim Geraghty and Ramesh Ponnuru, both of whom will also continue to serve as editors of the National Review.
Geraghty is a Ron DeSantis stan. In a column for the Post before getting his permanent gig, he wrote about DeSantis that “plenty of Americans across the partisan divide would have good reason to root for him.” Why? Because “he fights for policies, not to prosecute vendettas.” Like so much of the Post opinion offerings, that is laugh-out-loud funny.
Ponnuru was an early, fact-unencumbered culture warrior, who has written that Democrats support “killing unborn children at any stage of pregnancy.”
They join a cast of disinformation-spewers who add nothing to the national discourse.
Let’s look at some of the Post Opinion crowd, shall we?
Emerging from the Bush White House speechwriting team in 2009 as the nation’s foremost apologist for torture, Marc Thiessen should have been shunned by every decent American. Fred Hiatt asked him to write for the Post instead. His first op-ed, falsely claiming that information elicited by torture prevented several planned terrorist attacks, was so full of easily disproved lies that I felt obliged to debunk it.
(Back then, I wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post website. I was pretty active in exposing and condemning Bush’s torture regime. I was giving readers the accountability journalism they expect from the Post.)
Nowadays Thiessen yaks up stale Republican talking points and laughably bad clickbait like “McCarthy is right to kick Omar, Schiff and Swalwell off committees” and “Santos must have learned from Biden how to make up details about his past“.
How credible is he? He got “three Pinocchios” from the Post’s own fact-checker. And from his other perch – at Fox News – he once declared that “Donald Trump’s State of the Union addresses have been among the best in American history.”
Henry Olsen‘s presence on the Post opinion pages is truly inexplicable. What does he offer?
He writes columns with headlines like “Democrats are proving to be the real extremists on abortion“.
He’s a champion of know-nothingism. After news broke that Biden improperly possessed classified documents, Olsen urged the Justice Department to drop both the Biden and Trump investigations. “To the average person, Trump’s violation looks essentially the same as Biden’s,” he wrote. “Indicting Trump but not Biden would create a political uproar.”
He recently expressed admiration for DeSantis, especially for “his politically brilliant stunt over the summer of flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., a vacation mecca for elite liberals.” But Olsen wrote that DeSantis needs to do more, like give parents private-school vouchers or “require all sex-education instruction include a thorough discussion of fetal development.”
The Post continues to publish Hugh Hewitt, the discredited, sycophantic right-wing radio pundit who traffics in lunatic conspiracy theories and projection.
In a column in May, Hewitt charged that “Senior members of the administration of President Barack Obama made efforts to cripple President Trump’s ability to govern via unconstitutional methods throughout the transition and even into the first three years of his term.” He called it Obamagate, and wrote that “Those on the left who seek to diminish Obamagate should know that what they are doing is attempted censorship, an obvious effort to delegitimize the most legitimate of inquiries.”
He wrote in an August 2020 column that “The case for Trump will come down to his record. It’s a strong one.” Trump’s most significant accomplishment, he wrote, was bringing “the existential threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party into the sunlight.” Huh? And he mocked as an “aesthetic critique” the concern that Trump is “cruel and beneath the office.”
Or, you know, this:
George F. Will
George F. Will has been writing unbearably pretentious columns for the Washington Post since 1974. That’s 49 years! Enough already!
He’s virulently and admirably anti-Trump, but still utterly retrograde. He’s been ethically challenged since at least 1980, when he secretly coached Ronald Reagan in his debate with Jimmy Carter then presented himself on “Nightline” as impartial — but incredibly impressed!
In a recent column, headlined “How racial preferences feed grasping grievance groups and grow ever more absurd,” he wrote that “given contemporary academia’s susceptibility to intellectual fads and political nonsense, it is unsurprising that logical absurdities and moral contortions accompany the use of racial preferences based on almost comically arbitrary racial categories in pursuit of a ‘diversity’ supposedly beneficial to education.”
As one observer who was able to plow through sentences like that noted: “The ‘grievance group’ not mentioned in this piece is white men but the whole thing is about how unfair people are being to them.”
No one should ever take seriously a single word written by neocon warmonger Max Boot.
I recognize that some of his views make a certain amount of sense these days, but he was so wrong for so long! At some point you’ve just got to have standards. He has switched horses from Republican to Never-Trump, but only in pursuit of his continued lust for American empire and constant war.
Megan McArdle, a Koch-trained libertarian who used to make a lot of people angry by being excitingly wrong about a lot of things, now traffics in tired right-wing tropes and false narratives. Consider a March 2022 column in which she mistook an exercise of free speech at Yale Law School as evidence of “cancel culture.”
She also boldly defended the guy who pays her paycheck in a column headlined “Think twice before changing the tax rules to soak billionaires.” She argued that a small tax on wealth gain would “destroy” billionaires’ fortunes.
She recently wrote a column suggesting that “both sides” of the debate over gender-affirming medical treatment for youths are mistaken. Transgender journalist Evan Uruqhart described it as “one more example of a cisgender writer for a large mainstream organization, one with no background or base of knowledge on trans issues, assuming that there must be a solution halfway between the armed white supremacists shutting down drag shows and trans people politely saying we should generally lean towards the side of believing trans youth.”
[Update: A reader reminds me of McArdle’s 2022 column in which she castigated anti-abortion activists for making too much of the 10-year-old rape victim who couldn’t get an abortion in Ohio – and the deplorable tweet that laid bare her shocking lack of basic human empathy.]
Jason Willick (who? you might well ask) was hired a few months after Hiatt’s death, so presumably on direct order of the Reaganaut publisher. Willick’s previous job was on the deranged, ultra-far-right Wall Street Journal editorial page.
His column in August, “What Biden could gain from pardoning Trump” suggested that “making such a startling move could put the weary president back in the center of the political universe, scramble political alignments and make his former rival — if he accepts the humbling offer — appear small and weak.”
The response on Twitter was appropriately uproarious.
Gary Abernathy reads a lot like the Onion, only he’s not trying to be funny.
Consider one of his latest columns: “In today’s rowdy GOP, could Jim Jordan be the adult in the room?” Right?
In 2021, he pleaded with the media to stop hurting the feelings of Trump supporters.
“[S]top calling people liars. The media should return to the non-accusatory style that worked for decades,” he wrote.
In a rare (as well as brave and appropriate) shot across the bow of a colleague, Greg Sargent wrote, mockingly: “We must pass voting restrictions everywhere to assuage these voters’ ‘belief’ that the 2020 election was highly dubious or fraudulent. We must not argue too aggressively for coronavirus vaccines, lest they feel shamed and retreat into their anti-vax epistemological shells.”
David Von Drehle
David Von Drehle, who Shipley promoted to deputy opinion editor, is the smug and predictable voice of the above-the-fray crowd. In his inaugural column in 2017 he took gratuitous swipes at Democratic proposals for a $15 minimum wage and infrastructure spending to prove his Seriousness.
“The end of affirmative action at colleges could be a good thing,” he argued in a 2022 column — the trivial condition being “if Americans of good will agree not to retreat into culture-war crouches.” Lol.
He inanely argued in January that a) there was no longer a plausible criminal case against Trump for stealing and hoarding and lying about secret documents because classified documents were also found in Biden’s garage and b) this was a good thing because Trump is already a “dead man walking” and would love the attention.
During his 23 years at the Washington Post, almost all of them writing editorials and columns, Charles Lane has let his lazy, self-righteous contrarianism leads him to spectacularly wrong, clueless and even cruel conclusions that would outrage vast swaths of readers if he had them. [This has been corrected to reflect his stint as a reporter.]
Consider his November column, headlined “Why more police might be the key to real criminal justice reform.” It would take an entire column to fully eviscerate this pathetic attempt to “gotcha” progressive policymakers. But as it happens, Radley Balko applied himself to that task, so go read him.
(Balko is a true modern muckraker, an electric writer who has repeatedly exposed horrifying abuses of power by the police. Ironically, you used to be able to read his work in the Washington Post opinion section – until he was fired in October.)
Lane is also responsible for one of the blood-thirstiest and most illogical arguments I have ever seen anywhere. In a July column headlined “Why the Buffalo supermarket slaughter should be a death penalty case,” he called for the death penalty for a white guy who killed Black people to “set a new norm” for racial equity – as if the stench of racism could be removed from the country’s history of capital punishment with just one more killing.
What It Could Be
The Washington Post opinion section could be full of must-read commentary that sets the national agenda.
But it would take a total reset.
As it happens, this is also true of the Post as a whole, as I wrote early last month. Neither, of course, is likely to happen as long as Jeff Bezos remains the owner, and his stooges run the news and editorial sections.
The goal for Post Opinions should be clear: To address the existential crises facing the country and world. Those include climate change, wealth inequality, authoritarianism, racism, misogyny, and the spread of disinformation.
Post Opinion should be the go-to for people who believe government can make things better.
That would entail publishing essays that explore solutions, and that expose the bad faith of people and institutions that stand in the way of progress.
Yes, that would include conservative voices – but smart ones, original ones, with integrity, committed to verifiable facts.
In times like these, when there’s an obligation to expose readers to the lies and fantasies that are a major part of the national discourse, Post Opinions could do that too, but with full transparency, so readers don’t grant lies the credibility of the Post brand.
And of course there would be a whole new influx of voices. They would be young and diverse. They would be subject specialists, rather than pundits. Columnists would be hired because of what they know, not where they are on the political spectrum.
And there would be term limits.