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What WaPo’s Raytheon Debacle Teaches About Opinion Journalism

By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Last month, as troops were promised a retreat from our nation’s longest war, an entirely new conflict emerged – this time, a conflict of interest.

On April 16, the Washington Post caused uproar after failing to disclose a conflict of interest embedded in an op-ed it published criticizing President Joe Biden’s planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, co-authored by Harvard Kennedy School professor Meghan L. O’Sullivan. The sticking point? In addition to her professorial duties, O’Sullivan sits on the board of directors of Raytheon Technologies, a major U.S. defense contractor.

The implications of this association were immediately damning to some readers, who drew attention to the article, and likely negligible to others. What is clear, however, is that O’Sullivan’s ties to Raytheon are critical context necessitating disclosure in her author bio. Raytheon has a $145 million contract to train Afghan Air Force pilots and is a major supplier of weapons to the U.S. military. Raytheon’s CEO recently had to break to its investors that Biden canned a half-billion-dollar Saudi arms deal the company had inked with Trump. We can imagine the war in Afghanistan's ending inspiring a similar call. Here, a clear conflict of interest emerges.

Yet the Washington Post failed to include O’Sullivan’s position as a Raytheon board member in the author biography of her Afghanistan piece until controversy pushed the paper to four days after its publication.

There is no way for us to know who is responsible for this oversight, so, without details, we won’t be pointing fingers. However, if the Washington Post knew of this abundantly Google-able conflict, it should have included it in O’Sullivan’s bio, as is standard. Moreover, once the Post decided to disclose the conflict, it should have included an editor’s note highlighting that the change had been made. When a controversial element of a piece is changed online, this change must be noted and explained, not swept under the rug.

What we can say on the issue is that this problem isn’t going away anytime soon — nor should it. Companies want individuals with great expertise to serve on their boards, and academia and journalism are places where people cultivate specialized knowledge. Newspapers often publish op-eds from people who are closest to the events being dissected in their opinion pages, or from those well-studied in them. This isn’t only natural, but often desirable when it comes to bringing opinions to the table that are thoughtful and well-considered. Yet this web of an ecosystem makes opinion pages fertile ground for conflicts of interest.

In this particular instance, the Washington Post published an op-ed by O’Sullivan, an expert on international security, on an issue squarely in her domain of expertise. Should her seat on Raytheon’s board of directors – likely indicative of her excellence in the field – bar her from offering her own perspective on issues she is well-versed in? Of course not.

But while newspapers clearly cannot – and should not – seek to eschew all conflicts of interest, they must nonetheless always disclose them. This means cautiously working to unpack potentially corrupting sources of bias amongst contributors, and laying them out for readers to see. Doing this is requisite if readers are to believe opinion writing comes to them in good faith.

Newspapers must prioritize making readers feel like they are reading a piece that is intellectually honest with them. A way we’ve seen this done well is through injecting a “conflict” framing into a piece, so readers are fully aware of the nuance or perspective an author’s conflict of interest brings to a topic. A recent New York Times op-ed – “I Am the C.E.O. of Uber. Gig Workers Deserve Better.” – exemplifies this method of laying it all out on the table.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the Washington Post’s controversy has stirred reflection within our own writers’ room. We realize, most profoundly, that we have much to learn from the Post’s own oversights. Though, as a college paper, we deal less with opinion writers who head boards and come laden with compromising financial entanglements, our own conflict of interest procedures aren’t airtight. After some reflection, we’ve decided to begin strengthening, then rolling out, our own set of accessible op-ed disclosure and conflict of interest policies. We believe that nationally syndicated newspapers should introduce this practice too – yet as we patiently wait for such strides, we’ll stick to improving within.

Ultimately, every opinion piece will be driven by some level of personal bias – and even when newspaper boards are maximally vigilant in their efforts to scrub their pages of it, some biases that ought to be announced will inevitably fly under the radar. Against this backdrop, just as editors need to be diligent about conveying who exactly opinion contributors are, we as readers must understand that no single opinion piece should be treated as the end-all-be-all as we form and fortify our own opinions.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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