June 2, 2019

Viewpoints Needs Its Independence

A former head Viewpoints editor reflects on his four years on the Viewpoints section and the challenges it faces going forward.

I was the editor-in-chief of my small high school newspaper back in Georgia. It was an uneventful, quiet role—one that allowed me to write my feelings without the risk of anyone actually reading them. I expected the same anonymity when I joined the Viewpoints section of The Chicago Maroon.


When I was selected to be an associate editor at the beginning of my first year, I didn’t know about The Maroon's largely unfavorable campus reputation, or the particular rage with which people respond to subpar Viewpoints columns. I simply knew that I liked to write and edit. I was otherwise shy, only recently out of the closet, and unsure of my place at an elite university I didn’t think I was smart enough to attend.

That year, I considered quitting the paper multiple times, but for whatever reason—some combination of admiration for my writers and co-editors, and also some Stockholm syndrome—I stayed long enough to get promoted to head editor. I remained in that position for three years.

I edited and published hundreds of articles over those years: some mundane, some funny, some harrowing (and yes, some regrettable). I’ve written editorials about federal tax law, the Obama Presidential Library, and Trump administration interns. I’ve received more belligerent e-mails and Facebook messages than perhaps any other person on campus (besides maybe a College Republican or two). People have e-mailed me about the grimmest moments of their life, and I’ve helped them find the best way to articulate lessons for others or fiery rebukes of those who wronged them.

Most other editors knew me as the guy who remained silent during Editorial Board meetings and who left the office as quickly as possible during production nights, but I was okay with that. I had my friends on the Viewpoints section, and that was enough.

This separation from the rest of the paper was no accident. Everything I’m proud that Viewpoints has done was made possible by the section’s historical independence from the News section and the editors-in-chief. Different leaders have agreed on different rules, but for the majority of my time on the paper, Viewpoints has made final decisions on which op-eds get published and which don’t.

The editors-in-chief—most of whom have risen up the ranks of the News section—have rarely enjoyed or understood this arrangement. But if Viewpoints weren’t independent from the rest of the paper, it couldn’t publish the many necessary op-eds it has.

For a brief review, Viewpoints has argued for the anonymity of those writers who would feel endangered if their real names were released publicly. Viewpoints published a piece about a professor sexually harassing a student—a story the News section was reluctant to report on. Without input from the new editors-in-chief (who were eventually aggrieved by our decision to publish), Viewpoints published an op-ed that prompted law school professor Geoffrey Stone to stop using the uncensored N-word in class. Most notably, when the editors-in-chief decided to publish an ethically unjustifiable photo of a young black man apprehended on campus during a lockdown, the Viewpoints section gave disgruntled editors the chance to reprimand their bosses. Sustained opposition from the Maroon's rank and file is the principal reason the new editors-in-chief decided to take down the photo.

I quit the paper at the end of winter quarter for a myriad of reasons, but partly because the Viewpoints section’s longstanding independence was no longer being respected. It’s understandable for editors-in-chief to want some control over op-eds published in the paper they manage. But if editors-in-chief have the unilateral power to reject op-eds they don’t like or edit controversial ones until they’re pointlessly banal, Viewpoints couldn’t publish many of the pieces it does. Writers couldn’t criticize the editors-in-chief. Other essential perspectives would be silenced, too.

It’s hard enough to write for Viewpoints. Contributors share their deepest thoughts, most strongly held opinions, and hardest memories, all for anonymous profiles named “just another man” or “Satan” to comment that the writers have irredeemably embarrassed their grandparents. Add in arbitrary, last-minute feedback from editors-in-chief unversed in the nuances of op-ed production and unfamiliar with the needs of specific writers—and submitting to Viewpoints might just not be worth it.

Joining the Viewpoints section may have been one of the more naive decisions of my life, but it’s not one I regret. I’m proud of the work I and the dozens of Viewpoints contributors have done over the years. I just hope future Viewpoints editors have the same chance to make a difference as I did.

Cole Martin is a fourth-year in the College and a former head Viewpoints editor.