The recent decision by The New York Times to disavow an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton was a gift to the enemies of a free press – free in the sense of one that doesn’t quiver and cave in the face of an outraged mob.
It is a violation of the principles that are supposed to sustain the profession, particularly our obligation to give readers a picture of the world as it really is.
And, as the paper dismisses distinguished journalists along with controversial opinions, it’s an invitation to intellectual cowardice.
Start with the op-ed itself, in which Cotton called on the federal government to deploy active-duty troops to U.S. cities in the wake of looting and rioting that accompanied overwhelmingly peaceful protests.
I don’t agree with Cotton’s view. I know of nobody at the Times who agrees with it. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page doesn’t agree with it. Ditto for much of the mainstream media, at least its more liberal precincts.
Then again, isn’t this the biggest problem these outlets have faced in recent years – being of a single mind on subjects that sharply divide the nation? Isn’t that how we got into trouble in 2016, with our rock-solid belief that Donald Trump couldn’t possibly win?
In the week of the op-ed’s publication, an ABC News/Ipsos poll found that 52% of Americans favored deploying troops to help quell violent unrest in U.S. cities. That’s not a political fringe unworthy of consideration. And Cotton isn’t some nobody you’ll never hear from again. He has the pulse of his party, the ear of the president and an eye on higher office. Readers deserve an unvarnished look at who this man is and what he stands for.
Many critics of the piece’s publication think otherwise. The paper’s editors’ note said the senator’s op-ed didn’t meet the Times’ editorial standards. To which one might ask: Would the paper have stood by the article if Cotton had made a better case for sending in troops, with stronger legal arguments and a nicer tone? Or were the piece’s supposed flaws a pretext for achieving the politically desired result by a paper that lost its nerve in the face of a staff revolt?
A second criticism is that the paper could have examined Cotton’s views without giving him an unmediated platform; that his proposal should have been evaluated by the news department, not published uncritically in the opinion pages; and that his arguments went beyond the moral pale.
But the value of Cotton’s op-ed doesn’t lie in its goodness or rightness. It lies in the fact that Cotton is a leading spokesman for a major current of public opinion. To suggest that readers should not have the chance to examine his opinions for themselves is to patronize them. To say they should look up his opinions elsewhere – say, his Twitter feed – is to betray the Times’ responsibility as a newspaper of record. And to claim his argument is too repugnant for publication is to write off half of America – a remarkable about-face for a paper that, after 2016, fretted that it was out of touch with the country we live in.
The most serious criticism is that publication of the piece puts black lives at risk, including members of the Times’ staff.
That’s a vital consideration, especially now, and one about which no responsible publisher can be indifferent. No one can look away from the deaths of black Americans at the hands of the police, and the overall rise in reported hate crimes in recent years.
But as important as it is to try to keep people safe against genuine threats, it is not the duty of the paper to make people feel safe by refusing to publish a dismaying op-ed. Even if one concedes that Cotton’s call to send in the troops poses potential risks, it poses those risks whether his call appears in the Times or not. To know Cotton’s views is, if nothing else, to be better armed against them.
The same goes for any other type of knowledge, however unpleasant: having more of it is always a source of strength – a belief that lies at the core of our profession.
Or, I should say, used to. There is a spirit of ferocious intellectual intolerance sweeping the country and much of the journalistic establishment with it. Contrary opinions aren’t just wrong but unworthy of discussion. The range of political views deemed morally unfit for publication seems to grow ever wider. Arthur Miller once said a good newspaper is “a nation talking to itself.” What kind of paper will the Times be if half the nation doesn’t get to be part of that conversation?
All this is a tragedy. We have an obligation as journalists to be rigorous in fact and argument. We also have an obligation to keep undeniably hateful ideas, like Holocaust denial or racism, out of the editorial pages. But serious journalism, complete with a vigorous exchange of ideas, cannot survive in an atmosphere in which modest intellectual risk-taking or minor offenses against new ideological orthodoxies risk professional ruin.
It’s also an irony. Who, after all, has gained the most from the turmoil at the Times? That would be Cotton, who first got the benefit of a public furor that helped make his piece the most read op-ed in the Times that week – and then got to pose as a tribune of free speech against the censorious leftists and stampeded editors at the “Fake News.”
If that’s a victory for Cotton’s ideological opponents, what does defeat looks like?
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.