In an attempt to dampen public furor following the Oregonian's decision to publish a pro-Patriot Prayer opinion piece that lauded far-right wing leader Joey Gibson, the paper issued a response from its editorial board yesterday. (Not linked here, tell you why in a second.) While the O admitted they could've come up with a "better, less antagonistic headline" than "The Misunderstood Joey Gibson," they held fast to their excuse that it was fine to present a puff piece about a rabble-rousing leader of a group that has committed racial and homophobic violence and has ties to the white nationalism because "we consistently publish columns, letters and op-eds that we don't endorse or agree with."
Hello, that's bullshit.
While opinion pages are designed to present an array of different viewpoints, the Oregonian has a responsibility to make sure that, at the very least, they are informed viewpoints backed up by facts. And they know this. Otherwise we'd be regularly reading Oregonian editorials with titles like, "Down is Up, and You're an Idiot to Believe Otherwise," or "Children Should Be Allowed to Hand Down Death Sentences, Because They're Such Great Judges of Character."
By the way, there's a reason I'm not linking to either the original op-ed or the note from the Oregonian's editorial board—because the desperate need for clicks is what pushed them to run these pieces in the first place. While the internet is great for many things, keeping journalism honest and ethical isn't one of them. In the olden, pre-internet days, the primary ways to find out if readers were engaging with a newspaper came from circulation numbers, letters to the editor, and surveys—none of which were super reliable.
Now thanks to content analytic platforms (like Chartbeat), I can not only find out if you're currently reading this piece, but how much of it you're reading, and where you found out about the article (probably Facebook or Twitter). And let me tell you, near instantaneous feedback is simultaneously intoxicating and depressing. An article you worked really hard on can take off, and it feels amazing—because it reminds you why you got into this business... to reach people and make a difference. On the other hand, you can spend weeks or months on an article and for whatever reason, and despite how good and necessary it is, the story dies on the vine (here's a really good example).
This drive for instant validation and clicks (which may but probably won't translate to much money) has infected journalism and is something I, as an editor, struggle with every day. I admit I'm just as guilty as any of my contemporaries of succumbing to its lure—and if you like, feel free to argue about the click-baitiness of this article in the comments below. (Man, the snake really likes the taste of its tail!)
All that said, "The Misunderstood Joey Gibson" was absolutely not an oopsy mistake—it was calculated maneuver. And even if those on the editorial board feel legitimately uncomfortable with the amount of blowback they're now receiving and are questioning their own motives, know for a fact there are number-crunchers in their organization that are rubbing their hands in glee and pushing them to milk this particular click-cow until it's dry. Because that is how the sausage is made.
So if the Oregonian's semi-mea culpa seems disingenuous—that's why. They are smart people who know better, and yet, sometimes they (and the majority of media outlets) can't help themselves.
For further reading, check out this well-researched article from Massoud Hayoun of the Pacific Standard in which an ethics professor expertly explains where the paper went wrong and how they can do better in the future. Just don't click on any of those particular Oregonian links. Don't enable the beast.