When the New York Times’ leadership recently apologized to the paper’s staff for running an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., the enemies of “fake news” high-fived and Free Speech collapsed from embarrassment.
Heaven forbid an opinion on a newspaper’s op-ed page should offend someone. It’s one thing to disagree on the merits of an opinion; it’s quite another to have published an opinion column, then criticized the column and then made a senior personnel decision in part because the column was published in the first place.
The Times’ editorial page editor James Bennet, once a potential executive editor candidate, resigned over what should have been a blip on the continuum of lessons learned. This unnecessary spectacle isn’t only disappointing but portends the gradual shrinking of the free marketplace of ideas.
Rather than defending a U.S. senator’s right to speak his mind, the Times bowed to outrage — an overindulged emotion in the age of safe spaces and trigger warnings. So many Times’ staffers were appalled by Cotton’s op-ed endorsing military intervention to quell unrest that they, in part, succeeded in pressuring the paper into issuing an apology and then making a change in its editorial leadership. And on a related note, the top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer also resigned over the weekend for a headline that read, “Buildings Matter, Too.”
It is important to note here that the events of the year have many people, including those working in the media, on edge. An impeachment, a pandemic and then disturbing incidents of police brutality and worse have Americans upset, their emotions frayed, and people of color in particular feel worried about the safety of their families.
Cotton’s essential argument was that an “overwhelming show of force” was needed as the protests unfolded and that President Trump should invoke the 200-year-old Insurrection Act to “restore order to our streets.” Bad idea, Tom. See how easy that was? I for one am glad to know what’s inside Cotton’s cerebral cavity. I disagree with his thinking for the same reasons raised by others, including former secretary of defense and retired general James Mattis. As a member of the Kent State generation, it’s against my remaining liberal sensibilities, not to mention American values, to turn our military on our own people.
The angry staffers also claimed that the op-ed was inflammatory and “contained assertions debunked as misinformation by the Times’ own reporting.” They pointed to Cotton’s claim that Antifa, a self-described anti-fascist movement opposed to the far right that can seem sort of fascist in its disruptive tactics, was behind the unrest. The piece should have been more carefully edited to make it clear that the evidence behind Cotton’s claim about Antifa’s role is not very convincing. While his piece was far from perfect, Cotton tried to draw a distinction between violent actors and peaceful protesters.
There are many reasons and ways to disagree with Cotton’s ideas and the way he presented them without censorship as prequel or apology as sequel. It is sadly ironic that the Times ultimately aided and abetted Cotton’s larger goals. The Arkansas senator’s presidential ambitions are well-known and, thanks to the Times, have been well-served. Already, Cotton has added at least $200,000 to his coffers and made an instant name for himself in those quarters of the Republican party where it is never bad politics to do harm to the media. Here’s his schadenfreude-drenched tweet: “How is everyone at the @nytimes doing this morning? Did you have a late night trying to come up with an excuse to pretend you didn’t cave to the woke mob?”
Bennet’s mistake was in not reading the Cotton op-ed before running it, to which he has admitted. He likely assumed it had been sufficiently vetted by other editors who have said they fact-checked and approved it. Bennet’s deputy editor James Dao tweeted that he “oversaw the acceptance and review” of the op-ed. He, too, has been removed from the masthead but has moved to another position in the newsroom.
It is probably telling that the Cotton protest largely took place on Twitter, where it was sure to gain momentum. It doesn’t take much courage to join a gang and cancel an opinion — or ruin a career. It does take great courage, on the other hand, to stand alone against a tide of pitchfork-wielding Twitter tyrants and defend a free exchange of ideas, even if some of them are bad.