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The Living Op-Ed Is a Politician’s Dream Public-Relations Tool

Stacey Abrams speaks to the crowd of supporters announcing they will wait till the morning for results of the mid-terms election at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, Ga., November 7, 2018. (Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)

The op-ed genre received some attention in the self-referential world of journalism this week as the New York Times announced that it would retire the moniker in favor of the more explicit “guest essay.”

But a far more consequential piece of op-ed news — news that should matter to people outside of insular journalistic circles — managed to escape mainstream attention.

USA Today, the quintessential middle-market American newspaper, allowed Stacey Abrams to substantially alter an op-ed criticizing Georgia’s new voting law, which was published prior to MLB’s decision to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta.

Abrams didn’t fix a few grammatical changes or spelling mistakes; she altered the message of the op-ed to protect herself from the charge that she encouraged MLB to pull out of Atlanta in an act of protest against the new voting law. In the original March 31 op-ed, Abrams wrote that she “can’t argue with” people who choose to boycott businesses in her state.

In the politically expedient second version, written after the Cobb County tourism board estimated that the move would cost area businesses $100 million in revenue, Abrams wrote that “Boycotts invariably cost jobs.”

“Instead of a boycott, I strongly urge other events and productions to do business in Georgia and speak out against our law and similar proposals in other states,” she wrote.

Not only did the editors at USA Today allow Abrams to rewrite her op-ed, they didn’t even append a note making readers aware of the revision until two weeks after the changes had been made — and then only after a prominent Republican consultant called them out on Twitter.

Prior to MLB’s hasty decision to pull out of Atlanta, advocating for boycotts was a relatively low-cost way for Abrams to signal to her supporters that she was serious about the issue of voting rights. After MLB decided to relocate the All-Star Game to Denver — harming the black business owners and workers Abrams claims to be protecting — advocating for boycotts became politically costly.

So, rather than admitting she was wrong and writing a new op-ed reflecting this change in thinking, she simply rewrote history with the aid of the editors who run the largest-circulation paper in the country.

The words of Stacey Abrams are not at this moment very consequential — she doesn’t currently hold political office, though she is a shoo-in for Democratic leadership if the octogenarians currently occupying those seats ever leave — but the fact that a paper with the reach of USA Today was willing to launder her historical revisionism should be very concerning.

If other papers follow suit, politicians will no longer be forced to stake out at positions and respond to changing circumstances, they will simply claim they always believed — and, in fact, previously wrote — whatever is politically convenient to believe that day.

As Charles Cooke observed, the Internet is no longer “forever” — it now lasts precisely as long as those in power wish it to.

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