Once a century or so, the New York Times feels so strongly about an issue that it releases an editorial from the confines of the opinion page and lets it run free on the front page. On Saturday, the Times's view on "The Gun Epidemic" is on the loose — on A1, above the fold.
The language is potent — "moral outrage," "national disgrace" — and so are the proposals. This passage, in particular, stands out:
Certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition, must be outlawed for civilian ownership. It is possible to define those guns in a clear and effective way and, yes, it would require Americans who own those kinds of weapons to give them up for the good of their fellow citizens.
Here, the Times goes further even than President Obama — a bogeyman to many gun owners — who has said over and over that he is not out to take away firearms from law-abiding citizens who already own them. And the idea that the government should effectively repossess certain weapons has been predictably polarizing on social media.
— MediaBiasPolicia (@MediaBiasAlert) December 5, 2015
— Aussie Greengrass (@greengrasstoo) December 5, 2015
— dlmcbrayer (@dlmcbrayer) December 5, 2015
— Nathanael Saint-Cyr (@NathanaelStCyr) December 5, 2015
But Saturday's piece raises two other questions: In this age of digital news consumption, does the placement of an editorial on page 1 of the print edition still matter? And what, if any, impact will the editorial have on the political debate?
Based on the voluminous social media reaction, the answer to the first question appears to be, emphatically, yes.
Print newspaper readership isn't what it used to be; everyone knows that. But people needn't actually hold the Old Gray Lady in their hands to understand the significance of a front-page spot. They can read the editorial on a computer, tablet or smartphone and — simply by knowing where it appeared in print — still feel the weight of the decision to put it at the front of the book.
And anyone who reads all the way to the bottom (it's only 446 words) will know where it ran in print. As regular Times readers know, the paper always notes at the bottom of a digital story where it showed up on the broadsheet. People still care.
As for the political debate and the race for the White House, it seems unlikely that a newspaper editorial would change any candidate's mind (though if Jon Stewart can change a senator's mind on a 9/11 health and compensation bill, who knows?)
It's no surprise that the Times' editorial board would take a firm, pro-gun-control position. It has done so before. The placement is certainly an attention-grabber but, if you focus on what the Times said, instead of where it said it, there's really no shock value. And based on what we know about the Times' readership, there's a preaching-to-the-choir factor in play, too.
Put plainly, the New York Times is the New York Times. Swing voters in Middle America aren't its subscribers, and the swing voters in Congress don't have to appeal to voters who care much about what the New York Times thinks. In fact, you could make a pretty convincing case that this would have the opposite of the intended effect by overreaching on something most Americans simply don't think will do much to prevent mass shootings.
Republicans have relentlessly accused the "mainstream media" (of which the Times is a flagship member) of advancing a liberal agenda. What they often fail to recognize — or deliberately ignore — is the separation of news and opinion. They'll read a column, blog or editorial that is critical of their policies and then angrily tell supporters that they can't get a fair shake in straight news reports. Most of the time, their complaints are unfounded or greatly exaggerated.
In this case, however, the Times has (at least temporarily) knocked down a wall by placing an editorial in a spot normally reserved for news. That does not mean the paper's political reporters will suddenly abandon all sense of fairness as they cover candidates who staunchly back gun rights. But it does give those candidates new cause for suspicion — a cause they will almost certainly exploit on the campaign trail.