This week is the one-year anniversary of one of the lowest points in the history of modern American journalism. During the week of June 6, 2020, the New York Times forced out an opinion editor and apologized for publishing the editorial of Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) calling for the use of the troops to restore order in Washington after days of rioting around the White House. While Congress would “call in the troops” six months later to quell the rioting at the Capitol on January 6th, New York Times reporters and columnists called the column historically inaccurate and politically inciteful. Reporters insisted that Cotton was even endangering them by suggesting the use of troops and insisted that the newspaper cannot feature people who advocate political violence. One year later, the New York Times published a column by an academic who has previously declared that there is nothing wrong with murdering conservatives and Republicans.
As I observed at the time of the Cotton column, I disagree with the basis or wisdom of invoking to the Insurrection Act to address the rioting in Washington. (The Act was not invoked to deploy national guard to end the Capitol riot). However, I also noted that the column was historically accurate. Critics never explained what was historically false (or outside the range of permissible interpretation) in the column. Moreover, writers Taylor Lorenz, Caity Weaver, Sheera Frankel, Jacey Fortin, and others said that such columns put black reporters in danger and condemned publishing Cotton’s viewpoint.
In a breathtaking surrender, the newspaper apologized and not only promised an investigation in 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 done 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.”
One of the writers who condemned the decision to publish Cotton was New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones applauded the decision of the Times to apologize for publishing such an opposing viewpoint and denounced those who engage in what she called “even-handedness, both sideism” journalism. Opinion editor James Bennet was rustled out to make a pleading apology. That however was not enough. He was later compelled to resign for publishing a column that advocates an option used previously in history with rioting.
Notably, not long after Bennet was thrown under the bus, Hannah-Jones herself tweeted out a bizarre anti-police conspiracy theory that injuries and destruction caused by fireworks was not the fault of protesters but actually part of a weird police conspiracy. She later deleted the tweet but there was no hue and cry over accuracy or “both sideisms.”
Nor was there such calls for reexamining standards when Hannah-Jones’ famous “1619 project” (which earned her a Pulitzer Prize) was found to have fundamental historical flaws and researchers claimed the New York Times ignored them in raising the errors. Hanna-Jones will soon be teaching journalism at the University of North Carolina.
The sacking of Bennet had its intended effect. Writers and columnists with opposing or critical views were soon forced off newspapers around the country, including at the New York Times.
Cotton and conservatives are also rarely seen on the pages of the New York Times unless it is to criticize the party or Trump. The writers have condemned the “both sideism” of allowing conservative viewpoints in the newspaper and insisted that Cotton and others must be banned as favoring potential violent actions against protesters. Yet, the newspaper has published people with anti-free speech and violent viewpoints in the last year. While the New York Times stands by its declaration that Cotton should never have been published, it had no problem in publishing “Beijing’s enforcer” in Hong Kong as Regina Ip mocked freedom protesters who were being beaten and arrested by the government.
Indeed, just before the anniversary of the Cotton controversy, the New York Times published a column by University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence. (Loomis has also been ridiculed for denouncing statistics, science, and technology as inherently racist).
Loomis’ article on “Why The Amazon Workers Never Stood A Chance” did not include his violent philosophy. It was in my view a worthy and interesting column for publication. So was Cotton’s column. However, NYT reporters and columnists have insisted that figures like Cotton should not be published because they have supported violence against protesters. Yet, they have no apparent problem in publishing someone who has declared that there is nothing wrong with actually murdering conservatives. The paper also has no problem with someone who is partially responsible for the systemic and violent suppression of democracy protesters.
As I said on the publication of Regina Ip, I would like to see all of these writers published. Even if I find some of their views wrong or even grotesque, newspapers should be forums where readers are exposed to different and even unsettling viewpoints. Self-censoring does not extinguish such views. It only fuels an appetite to control and censor opposing views.
I was hoping against experience that the media, and particularly the New York Times, would run a self-critique of its actions on the one-year anniversary of the Cotton controversy. Such a review would have allowed for a critical look at many of the assumptions of that week. For example, virtually every news outlet in the country ran stories that week on the clearing of Lafayette Park. Indeed, many justified the Cotton action in light of the Lafayette operation, which used an unnecessary level of force. However, the media reported, as a fact, that Attorney General Bill Barr cleared the park to allow for Trump’s much-maligned photo op in front of St. John’s church. That allegation was quickly refuted and there is now ample evidence that the clearing operation was ordered before any plans for the photo op. It was ordered due to the high level of violence and destruction over the weekend protests around the White House. Yet, news organizations have never corrected their reporting. Indeed, legal experts like University of Texas professor and CNN contributor Steve Vladeck continue to claim that Barr ordered federal officers “to forcibly clear protestors in Lafayette Park to achieve a photo op for Trump.”
Likewise, much of the media lionized D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser for her stance at the time. She received national acclaim for painting “Black Lives Matter” on the street next to the park and renaming it “Black Lives Matter Plaza.” Bowser denounced the force used by the Trump administration, including the use of tear gas. It now turns out (as revealed last week in court filings) that the District used tear gas a block away to enforce Bowser’s curfew. The debate over the denial of using tear gas by the federal operation raged for a year (the federal government insists that it used pepper balls, which has basically the same effect on protesters). Yet, over that year,, neither Bowser nor her government stepped forward to say that D.C.’s Metropolitan Police used tear gas in their operations a block or so from Lafayette Park. The District is now arguing that the use of tear gas was entirely reasonable and the BLM lawsuit should be dismissed.
In the meantime, the Biden administration agrees that the BLM case should be dismissed entirely. The Department of Justice (DOJ) maintains that “Presidential security is a paramount government interest that weighs heavily in the Fourth Amendment balance.” The DOJ’s counsel, John Martin, added that “federal officers do not violate First Amendment rights by moving protesters a few blocks, even if the protesters are predominantly peaceful.”
The media has virtually blacked out coverage of the change in the position of Bowser, the admission of the District, or the position of the Biden Administration. Over the last year, the media has instead plunged headlong into advocacy journalism. This includes academics rejecting the very concept of objectivity in journalism in favor of open advocacy. Columbia Journalism Dean and New Yorker writer Steve Coll denounced how the First Amendment right to freedom of speech was being “weaponized” to protect disinformation.
Not surprisingly, over this year, the faith in the media has continued to plummet. A survey by the global communications firm Edelman (via Axios) found only 46 percent of Americans trust traditional media. That mirrors polls by Gallup showing an even lower level of trust. We are living in a new age of yellow journalism at a time when real journalism has never been more needed.
Once again, they would be wise to heed the words of Louis Brandeis in his concurring opinion in Whitney v. California (1927) when he declared “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
So, for what it is worth, happy anniversary to the staff and writers of The New York Times.