What makes a journal of opinion?
Displaying that frequently maddening and occasionally helpful habit of the Jesuit to begin every significant utterance by precisely defining his terms, Robert J. Hartnett, S.J., wrote these words in the spring of 1949: “A journal of opinion is a magazine which has a definite, coherent outlook in terms of which its editors and contributors analyze and reach judgments about current events and trends.” With these words, the seventh editor in chief began his homage to America and to the whole genre of opinion journalism, which was then enjoying its heyday.
By the mid-20th century, journals like The New Republic, Christian Century, The Atlantic and, of course, Commonweal and America were setting the agenda for our national conversation. Their influence was so great that in 1955, when William F. Buckley Jr. decided to launch a movement that would challenge the postwar political consensus, he thought he needed a magazine to compete successfully: Voila! National Review was born.
Mr. Buckley could rely on the fact that National Review would be commercially viable because most of the political elites who subscribed to journals of opinion at that time read more than one. People read not only deeply but widely, and the general consensus was that this made for a healthier, more informed public debate.
Not so much these days. Many folks now get their news and analysis only from social media, which, for all its benefits, tends to obscure or eliminate the role of curator of public opinion that journals of opinion were invented to play. That is mainly because print is the most effective mode of presenting the parts of a whole, that “coherent outlook” Father Hartnett referred to. Yet on social media, this important context is often missing. By reading an author in isolation, instead of as one article among many, as a print reader might, we can miss the forest for the veins in the leaves of the trees.
Many folks now get their news and analysis only from social media, which, for all its benefits, tends to obscure or eliminate the role of curator of public opinion that journals of opinion were invented to play.
To wit: Last year, America published a fine essay by Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, which recounted his spiritual journey and how he came to hold a generally libertarian approach to economics. It set off a minor protest. I received many emails and direct messages through social media complaining about the fact that we had published the article, that it was inconsistent with Catholic social teaching and, in the readers’ minds, represented a significant editorial shift on America’s part.
But here is the interesting bit: Most of those complaints were registered by people who read the article only online on social media. Our readers who saw it in print, where it appeared along with several other articles, which offered different topics and perspectives, saw it for what it was: one voice among the many voices in the conversation America hosts every day.
We will have authors in our pages who disagree with each other. And there will be a few with whom you disagree.
No one who regularly reads America’s editorials would mistake Mr. Brooks’s position for America’s. As a corporate body, we are practically allergic to ideologies of any kind, whether they originate with the political left or right. In that sense, the “definite, coherent outlook” that informs our work is decidedly nonideological. It is rather Catholic and Jesuit, in that order. What does that mean in 2018? Given the hyperpartisan, polarized politics in both the church and the world, and given that most people no longer have the inclination or resources to read widely, our task is to host a conversation, in one place, that includes a variety of opinions. That means we will have authors in our pages who disagree with each other. And there will be a few with whom you disagree.
Our definition of success is when an issue of America has something that affirms the reader, that challenges the reader and that nourishes the reader. In other words, when we publish an opinion, it is because we think it is worth hearing, not necessarily because we agree with it.
In the end, Father Hartnett’s definition of a journal of opinion is accurate—as far as it goes. But the vision provided by another of my predecessors as editor in chief, Thurston N. Davis, S.J., is what truly animates our work today: “In the pages of America,” he wrote in 1959, “a reader will find a hundred paths that crisscross the complicated world of contemporary affairs. But through it all, and written between every line, is the conviction that in all its diversity and change, the world of man is God’s world and that he who does not labor to return it to God redeemed in some small measure by his tears and worry and dedication has missed the meaning of man’s job on Earth.”
I would tweet that, but it is more than 240 characters.