The NYT and the Cotton op-ed: Opinion or party line?
Sometimes it takes an outsider to see things clearly.
The Neue Zurcher Zeitung (NZZ) ranks as a fiercely independent newspaper, much like the Swiss people themselves. The high-quality Zurich newspaper is no fan of Donald Trump. It is, therefore, noteworthy that the NZZ views with alarm for the journalism profession recent events at the New York Times.
In its opinion piece, the NZZ wonders whether we are seeing the “end of the newspaper as a place of free thought and the beginning of a moralistic culture of denunciation.” In doing so, it contends that the New York Times would be no different than the “right-wing media” that it often criticizes as being overly partisan instead of purely objective.
The NZZ’s case in point: The forced resignation of James Bennet, the opinion editor of the NYT. His sin, apparently, was publishing a guest commentary by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) entitled “Send in the Troops.” Cotton’s piece endorsed a military intervention against the sometimes violent protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Cotton cited the Insurrection Act, a federal law dating to 1807, as the legal basis for such a military intervention.
The pressure to fire Bennet came primarily from the internal ranks of Times journalists, according to most accounts. They protested to the editor-in-chief that, among other things, Cotton’s piece would endanger the lives of the Times’ own black journalists, as well as of all African Americans. Bennet resigned, and the Cotton article was belittled as “not up to NYT standards.” (It should be noted that Cotton is a graduate of Harvard, where he was on the Crimson editorial board, and then of Harvard Law School).
In its analysis of the incident, the NZZ claims that Bennet made himself unpopular because, unlike most liberal U.S. media, he occasionally published pieces that critically questioned political correctness.
The NZZ opines that Bennet’s dismissal can be interpreted as signaling the end of newspaper opinion departments as places of free thought, and the beginning of a moralistic culture of denunciation that denies critical thinking to readers: “With Bennet’s dismissal, media polarization has reached a new, radicalized phase. Whether in right-wing media such as Fox and Breitbart or the CNN on the left, it is no longer a question of debate and opinion formation, but of exclusion of opinion. In this atmosphere, different opinions are not considered a challenge, but an offense.”
Here’s how the NZZ viewed the episode: “The New York Times bizarrely conducts self-censorship in the name of liberal values, suppresses the plurality of opinions and enforces the absolute, artificially produced and all the more insincere consensus with its own ‘party line.’”
Without knowing all of the decision-making details in this instance, it is impossible to entirely judge what the Times did. And, unquestionably, all newspapers and media sites make judgments about which of the many opinion pieces they receive deserve to be published or posted, presumably based on a wide range of factors; in at least some cases, those factors undoubtedly include a particular newspaper’s editorial positions.
Yet, just as clearly, this episode and its aftermath — along with other recent instances of censoring or limiting commentary on social media sites and other platforms — pose troubling concerns about the future of varying, conflicting opinions being presented to us by America’s media. Some of the most important ideas and valued changes in our nation — including some championed by the left — have come from views that, initially, were considered unpopular or even dangerous, until they gained wider acceptance with public debate.
Providing a range of opinions is a critically important function of our free press — a free press that has been so essential to our nation’s public life and, at least in the past, envied around the world. It enables thinking people to consider divergent views and competing ideas, and then to make their own best judgments. Likewise, limiting that competition of ideas and public debate is not just damaging to our ability to weigh the options; it also risks endangering our individual speech, by imposing a fear of speaking out — a fear that would be fatal to our republic.
One can only hope that the Times — long considered the nation’s “newspaper of record” — will not turn from its traditional mission and engage, in the words of an equally respected Swiss newspaper, in the “exclusion of opinion” in favor of a “party line.”
Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.