In an act that virtually stands alone in the abandonment of self-defining values, the New York Times last night caved to protests from its own writers to apologize for publishing a conservative opinion piece by a ranking Republican senator. On Thursday, the editors had rightfully held firm on the need for the paper to hear all viewpoints as publishing a column by Sen. Tom Cotton (R, Ark.) calling for the use of military troops to quell rioting. Times editorial page editor James Bennet and Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger issued defenses of the use of the opinion section to hear all sides of such national controversies. We discussed that position yesterday and many of us heralded the editors for their courage despite the overwhelming calls for private censorship. Then, the newspaper and its journalistic ethics entirely collapsed with an announcement that effectively declared an original sin “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa” (“through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
The column by Cotton was discussing a statutory option used by presidents in the past in times of riot. He was arguing that troops could be used support insufficient law enforcement numbers. He stresses that his column concerns the violence not the protests. While I disagree with the column, Cotton does not denounce the protests or the protesters. Rather than he objects to “a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters. A majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.” In doing so, he not only cited the history of such use but cautioned that it should only be used temporarily to get hold of the situation:
“This venerable law, nearly as old as our republic itself, doesn’t amount to ‘martial law’ or the end of democracy, as some excitable critics, ignorant of both the law and our history, have comically suggested. In fact, the federal government has a constitutional duty to the states to ‘protect each of them from domestic violence.’ Throughout our history, presidents have exercised this authority on dozens of occasions to protect law-abiding citizens from disorder.”
I have repeatedly opposed such a move as unnecessary and inimical to the exercise of free speech. However, it is a major policy question being discussed by one of the key member of Congress. Instead of responding to the arguments, various writers demanded that the editors be removed and no such opposing views be published in the Times.
In a breathtaking surrender, the newspaper has apologized and not only promised an investigation into how such an opposing view could find itself on its pages but promised to reduce the number of editorials in the future. In a statement that will go down in journalistic infamy, the newspaper announced:
“We’ve examined the piece and the process leading up to its publication. This review made clear that a rushed editorial process led to the publication of an Op-Ed that did not meet our standards. As a result, we’re planning to examine both short term and long term changes, to include expanding our fact-checking operation and reduction the number of op-eds we publish.”
The prior attacks on the newspaper capture the rising intolerance for opposing views in our society. This action shows that such attacks can succeed even with the largest and most esteemed publications.
We have seen the expansion of speech codes and regulation on campus and calls for private censorship by companies ranging from Twitter to Facebook. Politicians, including Vice President Joe Biden, have called for removal of comments deemed misinformation, including political commentary. What is most chilling about this controversy is that this intolerance for opposing views has not only reached our major newspapers but the demands are coming from journalists and writers themselves. This is akin to priests declaring their opposition to the free exercise of religion. You cannot claim to support free speech and seek to silence those who hold opposing views.
As Justice Brandeis said, the solution to any bad speech is more speech, not forced silence. When editors run columns, they do not endorse the sentiments or viewpoints. They foster debate and dialogue in allowing alternative views to be heard. Sen. Cotton was advocating an option that has been used previously in this country and is a focus of debate in Washington. These writers would impose a bar on any who would argue for the option, leaving the newspaper little more than a hollow echo chamber of approved speech. As I stated, I have opposed the option discussion by Sen. Cotton. However, I find the anti-free speech views of these writers far more chilling than his exercise of free speech.
The anger over the editorial shows the cost of echo journalism and how far it has penetrated in the profession. Too many have become so accustomed to news delivered in a hermetically sealed echo chamber that even the appearance of an opposing view is now offensive and intolerable. Some of these writers supply the very echoes that bounce unchallenged on many sites. The New York Times just formally declared that it would reframe its publication to be a part of the echo journalistic model.
I have been a columnist and commentator for decades and I never thought I would see the day when writers called for private censorship of views. We are gleefully killing the very thing that sustains us.