If The NY Times Doesn't Publish My OpEd On Why James Bennet Is An Incompetent Dweeb, It Must Hate Free Speech
from the this is not how any of this works dept
Buckle up, because this one is going to be quite the long road trip, and I hope you won’t rush to the comments without joining me on the entire journey first. But if you want a sense of where we’re heading, here’s the route map: the New York Times published an insane warmongering Senator’s push to turn our own soldiers on protesting Americans, people (including many Times journalists) complained, the Times tried to defend the decision, and then admitted “mistakes were made,” and a bunch of very silly people who pretend to be “serious thinkers” whined nonsensically about free speech and the “unwillingness to listen to opposing ideas,” all while refusing to listen to opposing ideas. And all of it’s nonsense: because editorial discretion is not a free speech issue and calling out a terrible paean to fascism is not an unwillingness to listen to “opposing ideas.”
Off we go.
If you’ve been paying attention to the world of media in the past few days, you’ve probably already seen some of the loud and raucous debate. On Wednesday, the Times made the incredibly bad decision to publish the truly awful op-ed from Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, suggesting that President Trump should send the US military to invade US cities, because, while the vast majority of protests around the nation have been peaceful (other than all those disrupted by police violence), there have been a few cases of some people breaking windows, setting fires, and stealing goods. There seems to be little evidence that this is as widespread a problem as the President and his supporters make it out to be, but in an effort to control the narrative, they’re claiming that there’s widespread violence and attacks overshadowing protests.
Cotton’s op-ed is bad. Just to take one bit of it, this paragraph is utter hogwash:
One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers. But local law enforcement in some cities desperately needs backup, while delusional politicians in other cities refuse to do what’s necessary to uphold the rule of law.
This is a “the beatings will continue until morale improves” approach. It doesn’t work. It’s never worked. It will only make things much, much worse, and put many more lives in danger. It is based on a combination of false statements (regarding the extent of “riots”), a misunderstanding of why people are expressing their anger in this way, and huge confusion about how people are likely to react to even scarier militarized soldiers and weaponry arriving on city streets. The people are protesting the very concept that they are an enemy, and sending in our own military is not only scary and authoritarian, it simply reinforces the message that they are protesting against.
An overwhelming show of force is the problem. Doubling down on that doubles the problem.
Leaving that aside for the moment, what’s been much more fascinating is the response to the publication. Many people pointed out that it was simply ridiculous for the New York Times to run this op-ed. After many people on Twitter raised questions about why the Times would publish such dreck on its opinion pages, a bunch of Times journalists themselves decided to speak up and call out their bosses for allowing the op-ed to run. Many pointed out that the op-ed itself put Times staffers in danger.
It’s worth noting that the Times is one of the newspapers that has a set of very stupid social media policies that forbid journalists and staff from making any comment “that undercuts The Times’ journalistic reputation.” That means speaking out in this manner may actually threaten their jobs as well. As the complaints grew louder, James Bennet, who runs the frequently awful opinion section of the paper, first defended the decision to publish the op-ed on Twitter with a painfully weak and predictable argument along the lines of “we want to show both sides of the debate.” He then posted a somewhat better and more thoughtful explanation in the Times itself (seriously, I’d recommend reading that over his terrible Twitter thread). He’s still wrong, but his argument is much better articulated.
Of course, later in the day after an apparently vocal discussion inside the newspaper (more on that in a moment), the Times admitted that the Cotton op-ed did not meet its editorial standards, and should have received a more thorough review. Incredibly, that piece says James Bennet claims he never read the op-ed before it was published:
James Bennet, the editor in charge of the opinion section, said in a meeting with staff members late in the day that he had not read the essay before it was published. Shortly afterward, The Times issued a statement saying the essay fell short of the newspaper’s standards.
“We’ve examined the piece and the process leading up to its publication,” Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman, said in a statement. “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 reducing the number of Op-Eds we publish.”
This is insane on so many levels. I find it unbelievable (in the most literal sense) that no one within the editorial process thought to flag a piece as obviously as incendiary as this one for the top opinion editor to review. It suggests either that Bennet is really, really bad at his job, or the entire NY Times opinion section is a complete joke. Or both. There’s enough evidence to suggest both of those may be the case. Meanwhile, a new report notes that the Cotton op-ed went through three rounds of revisions, which is quite odd for an op-ed piece, and makes the NY Times look so much worse. It means they really spent time thinking about it and still felt it was worth running, and yet Bennet never even bothered to read it? How is that possible.
In the midst of all this, there were a bunch of tweets and accusations thrown around about the internal debate at the NY Times, with one of its many terrible opinion writers, Bari Weiss, writing a huge thread pushing a narrative that there was a “civil war” between the young “woke” journalists and the older traditional “liberal” journalists. The only problem with this is that almost everyone else who was actually involved in the discussion pointed out that Weiss was completely full of shit.
Bari Weiss wrote a thread about conflict in the NY Times.
Other NY staff are pulling it apart.
Whats the lesson?
It's easier to do stories based on simplistic free speech stereotypes when there are not a bunch of reporters in the room to immediately fact-check you pic.twitter.com/zLIlXt2QMR
— Don Moynihan (@donmoyn) June 4, 2020
Click through, because that thread goes on and on and on with examples of Times journalists saying that Weiss’ statements appear to be more gaslighting than reality.
But then, of course, you had other “serious people” complaining about the complainers. You had long-time mainstream media “political analyst” Jeff Greenfield pushing a truly ridiculous strawman that complaining about one particular op-ed means you don’t think the Times should have an op-ed page at all.
If that’s the case, I’ll refer to the title of this post. The Times must publish my op-ed on why James Bennet is an incompetent dweeb, or it proves that it’s afraid to take on the difficult-to-hear opinions of the day. Prove me wrong, Jeff Greenfield. Prove me wrong.
And there was ever sanctimonious Andrew Sullivan, who called Times reporters speaking up about their own fears for their own safety “an attempted coup.”
If you’re playing along at home, apparently the rules are that if you’re a white, war-mongering Senator with opinions about turning the US military on our own citizens, everyone must listen because that’s free speech. But if you’re a black reporter who is afraid for the risks you now face, and speaks up about it, that’s an “attempted coup.”
I sense a double standard.
There was also a truly disingenuous focus on the idea that this represented “safetyism” as a way to silence opposition. This was brought up by both Weiss and Randy Barnett, claiming that by playing the “victim” you are somehow “silencing opposition.”
Of course, I have trouble seeing how they’re doing anything differently than the people they’re complaining about. Those complaining about the op-ed are stating their opinions and suggesting that it was silly of the NY Times to publish a garbage op-ed, which might lead to more death and destruction. Barnett and Weiss are now complaining that it was silly of those complaining to publish those complaints. Would it be okay if I accused both of them of resorting to “safetyism” and trying to hide from the opposing viewpoint that “promoting outright fascism is bad”? Or does this only work in one direction?
Unfortunately, this framing is picking up in certain circles, including among people I respect. The folks at Reason, who I tend to agree with much more frequently than not, ran a silly “mock the woke snowflakes” piece, arguing that this is the end result of political correctness run amok.
The woke left’s march through the institutions, from experimental liberal arts campuses to the most hallowed journalistic outlets, has been breathtaking in its speed and scope. It’s a generational war, and the GenXers for whom this stuff doesn’t come natural are learning that they have to become fluent in the new language or end up as pariahs in their own newsrooms. The country’s top editors—Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, David Remnick at The New Yorker—discover during moments of staff revolt that their old-timey notions about broad public squares and multi-viewpoint conversations are no longer tolerable.
And, of course, Senator Cotton is loving every moment of this nonsense, and gleefully playing up the controversy and using it to attack the Times (which, who knows, may have been his goal all along, or perhaps was just a bonus):
But there’s a huge problem with this nonsense. It has nothing to do with “woke mobs,” “political correctness,” “safetyism,” or an “unwillingness to listen to opposing viewpoints.” Speaking up about your concerns is not “an attempted coup” and opposing the decision to publish a stupidly bad op-ed is not an unwillingness to have op-eds.
This is all free speech, and no one has even remotely attempted to stop anyone’s right to speak their mind. They’ve just been highlighting the difference between discretion and censorship that we’ve been talking about here lately. The New York Times is the New York Times because it has a reputation (for some, good, and for others, bad). But part of that reputation is its editorial discretion. Declining to publish a bad op-ed is not about ignoring “the opposition” or wanting to play the victim and squelch “non-woke” speech, nor is criticizing the Times for its decision to publish it.
It’s calling out bad editorial discretion. Every choice the Times Opinion section makes involves editorial discretion. Not agreeing to publish my op-ed on James Bennet being an incompetent dweeb is editorial discretion. Continuing to publish whatever utter bedbug nonsense its columnists come up with is editorial discretion. People can and should criticize bad editorial discretion, because that encourages better editorial discretion.
But it is simply ridiculous to say that complaining about a single editorial decision suggests an unwillingness to engage, or an unwillingness to hear ideas someone disagrees with. As far as I can tell, no one in this debate has suggested that Tom Cotton not be allowed to speak his militaristic, ahistorical nonsense. He can say what he wants. The question is whether or not it’s appropriate for the New York Times to publish it at all.
This whole silliness hits home deeply for me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that just last week we launched a new project, the Techdirt Greenhouse, in which we will be hosting many opinions I disagree with strongly (oh, and for what it’s worth, unlike James Bennet, I do read every piece before it goes out). And, over the past two years, as we worked on this effort, I’ve had to explain to many people that part of the idea was to publish smart, thoughtful, nuanced commentary that will involve fundamental differences of opinion and disagreement — but without the crazy takes.
And I’ll admit that there are times in this process that I questioned myself closely: when I say “no crazy takes,” does that mean that I am silencing a certain point of view? Or is it simply a recognition that there are intellectually honest ways to disagree, and intellectually dishonest ways, and I have no desire to be a part of the latter? That, too, is part of editorial discretion.
It is entirely possible to believe in free speech, to believe in hearing all kinds of viewpoints, including those we disagree with and that make us feel uncomfortable, without saying “yes, this publication should post fundamentally terrible, intellectually dishonest support for a truly crazy idea.” That’s not running from things that make people uncomfortable. It’s having the understanding of what’s being discussed in good faith, and what’s dangerous populist nonsense, designed to stir up emotions through dishonest means, rather than a debate of ideas.
So, of course, the Times should not publish my op-ed about how James Bennet is an incompetent dweeb (even though it’s quite good). That’s well within its editorial discretion and (mostly) an editorial position I’d agree with. That does not mean that anyone is uncomfortable with my ideas, or trying to silence me. It’s just that they understand that my (mythical, theoretical) piece is an attempt at absurdist, emotional nonsense — just like Senator Cotton’s piece — and deserves no space in a serious publication.