Muzzling The Press In America

I strongly disagreed with an op-ed opinion piece by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (Republican, Arkansas) which appeared in The New York Times earlier this month. Taking his cue from President Donald Trump’s misconceived and misguided threat to call up the army to quell violent nation-wide protests that erupted in American cities in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a policeman in Minneapolis on May 25, Cotton wrote, “One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”

I have a problem with Cotton’s prescription for peace and stability. The role of the American armed forces is to protect the country from foreign aggression, to keep it safe when overwhelming natural disasters occur, and to assist overseas allies in national emergencies.

Armed American soldiers should never be placed in the untenable position of confronting civilians. This is a sacred principle that neither Trump nor Cotton appear to understand, much less appreciate. The United States is not a banana republic, nor is it a tinpot dictatorship contemptuous of the rule of law.

The job of keeping the peace is one that local police forces, or  the National Guard, should perform.

Although Cotton’s essay left a bad taste in my mouth, I did not for a minute question his right to have it published in a major newspaper. Diverse viewpoints are the lifeblood of op-ed pages unless they incite hatred or violence. This is a sacrosanct journalistic credo.

I was surprised that Cotton’s article unleashed such a bitter storm of indignation, outrage, anger and recrimination, yet this is precisely what happened after it appeared in the online edition of The New York Times.

Letters to the editor poured in, claiming it was racist, and hundreds of Times’ employees signed a letter of protest addressed to James Bennet, the editorial page editor, and A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher.

“As a black women, as a journalist, as an American, I am deeply ashamed that we ran this,”  Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter, wrote on Twitter. Roxane Gay, a contributor to the Times, tweeted that Cotton’s piece puts Times writers and editors “in danger.”

In the face of this firestorm, Sulzberger stood by Bennet’s decision to publish Cotton’s piece. “I believe in the principle of openness to a range of opinions, even those we may disagree with, and this piece was published in that spirit,” he said in an email to reporters on June 4.

But as criticism mounted, Sulzberger backtracked, telling reporters he found the piece “contemptuous.”

On June 6, in a note to the staff, Sulzberger capitulated, announcing that Bennet had resigned. “Last week we saw a significant breakdown in our editing processes, not the first we’ve experienced in recent years,” he said. And he added, “Both of us concluded that James would not be able to lead the team through the next leg of change that is required.”

Bennet’s deputy, Jim Dao, was removed from his post and reassigned elsewhere.

Ever the loyal employee, Bennet issued an apology, saying that Cotton’s piece should not have been published and that it had not been edited carefully enough.

Sulzberger, being one of the owners of the Times, is entitled to hire and fire whom he pleases. As the journalist A.J. Liebling once famously wrote, “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.”

But is this really the issue? I don’t think so.

The real issue boils down to something far more important. In a democratic society, a self-respecting op-ed page is duty bound to present a rainbow of opinions from the left, center and right, regardless of political correctness. A newspaper that falls short of this objective performs an immense disservice to its readers. Only in totalitarian societies does one expect soul-crushing conformity or, to quote George Orwell, groupthink.

Whatever you think of Cotton’s politics, his piece complied with journalistic standards. It would otherwise not have been accepted for publication in the first place. I suspect that the Times’ cowardly disavowal of it has little or nothing to do with journalism per se and everything to do with pleasing organizations like Black Lives Matter, which, by the way, has legitimate grievances concerning racial injustices and oppression in America.

Regrettably, the Times is not the only metropolitan daily that is kowtowing to undue pressure since Floyd’s tragic death. One of the editors of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Stan Wischnowski, was recently compelled to resign after it carried a thoughtful critique of violent protesters who have burned down buildings in venting their rage against racism.

The article, written by Inga Saffron under the headline of Buildings Matter, Too, was sympathetic to demonstrators who have staged marches to decry racial discrimination. But Saffron was bothered by the totally needless, nihilistic vandalism as well.

As she wrote, “People over property is great as a rhetorical slogan. But as a practical matter, the destruction of downtown buildings in Philadelphia  — and in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and a dozen other American cities — is devastating for the future of cities. We know from the civil rights uprisings of the 1960s that the damage will ultimately end up hurting the very people the protests are meant to uplift.

“You can be appalled and heartbroken by our country’s deadly racism, and yet still quake at what the damage to downtown portends for Philadelphia. Racism is built on strong foundations. The momentary satisfaction of destroying a few buildings does nothing to remove those structures. All it does is weaken our city.”

Saffron’s point was well taken, yet the editor she reported to lost his job because the newspaper’s callow ownership lacked the essential values and the sheer gumption to support a legitimate viewpoint that some might find disconcerting and uncomfortable.

Freedom of the press is an integral and cherished facet of democracy, but when free speech is subjected to restraints and intimidation, or is muzzled altogether, we have reached a  dangerous point with far-reaching and ominous consequences.

Racial equality in America is long overdue, but it cannot be achieved by stifling dissent and destroying decent journalism in the process.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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