Op-Ed Writers Discuss Controversy with Editorials


UCI’s Department of History and Literary Journalism program hosted a discussion regarding the intricacies involved in writing op-eds concerning hot-button issues last Tuesday night in the Humanities Gateway. The conversation, aptly named “The Art of the Hot Topic Op-Ed” is the second installment of the “Conversations on Writing and Public Life” lecture series.

With the turn-out far exceeding the amount of seating available in the originally planned location,  the event was relocated to the much larger lecture hall next door in order to accommodate everyone.

The event featured Saree Makdisi, professor of comparative literature at UCLA, and Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the UCI School of Law, both of whom have contributed several op-ed articles to the LA Times as well as the New York Times. Nicholas Goldberg, the current editor of the LA Times’ editorial page, was on hand to moderate the evening’s discussion.

Having an op-ed published is no trivial feat, as most pieces tend to be rejected. According to Goldberg, the LA Times receives about 300-500 submissions a week, but the paper only has room for 28 of them. Additionally, each published article only earns authors a stipend of $150.

When asked about what compelled them to regularly contribute op-ed articles, Chemerinsky and Makdisi both cited the benefit of reaching out to a larger readership.

“It’s a far greater audience than I’ll reach than all of the classrooms put together. By writing for [the LA Times] I have a chance to educate a much larger audience about the law.”  Chemerinsky said, who has had over 100 op-ed articles published in his name.

As op-ed writers, none of the panelists are strangers to touching upon controversial topics and dealing with the negative backlash that follows.

“Many op-ed writers measure their success in terms of the quantity of hate mail that they receive,” joked Goldberg.

On the experience of waking up to find his inbox flooded with hate mail, Makdisi said, “It’s like you’re opening up this tab of unadulterated hatred. It’s just something that you have to brace yourself for. “It’s amazing to see the venomous hatred you get. Where does this come from? What have I said to provoke this level of vitriol?”

The panelists then proceeded to discuss whether they engage with the various readers that post comments on their articles online.

“Generally I don’t have time to engage or thank them for writing. If it’s a complimentary message, alright I’ll say thank you for writing, but for the mean ones I won’t take time to read or acknowledge. Too upsetting and life is too short.” said Chemerinsky.

Like Chemerinsky, Goldberg and Makdisi largely ignore the majority of comments that they receive, usually only extending a courtesy thank you to the more polite and congenial comments.

“On the internet, people are willing to be very profane, but often if they write back, they tend to back off and go ‘Oh my god! There’s a human at the other end,’”  Goldberg said.

For the remainder of the discussion, the panel opened themselves to a Q & A session with the members of the audience. Among the various questions asked was whether there are some opinions that are too controversial to be published.

“I think ideas should be expressed, I think if it’s something you disagree with they should write their own advent thesis with letters to the editor. That’s not to say there’s not lines. Obviously you’re not going to publish something that’s defamatory. You’re not going to publish something that’s an invasion of someone else’s privacy. I really believe in what Oliver Wendell Holmes said, that the remedy for speech we don’t like is more speech.”