The turmoil that has engulfed America since the outrageous killing of George Floyd, the black man who suffocated when a white police officer kept him pinned down with a knee on his neck, has raised many challenging issues, from police accountability to the enduring legacy of racism to drawing the line between political protest and violence. But it also has raised concerns about the role of the press, journalistic standards, and intellectual freedom within the media. What happens to journalism when a mainstream cultural consensus demands a firm commitment to a particular viewpoint?
The most prominent example of this tension is the resignation of James Bennet as editorial page editor of The New York Times following an outcry over the publication last week of an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) titled “Send in the Troops.” It advocated sending in federal troops to stop the rioting in American cities even if governors were not asking for such action.
The op-ed caused a furor on Twitter. As detailed in a Times article by Ben Smith, an internal group of black employees launched a campaign to assert that running it amounted to placing them in danger. As many as a thousand employees signed a letter denouncing the op-ed. Eventually, the paper prefaced the piece with a note saying that it should not have run because of unsubstantiated claims and inflammatory tone.
There are valid questions about Bennet’s handling of the matter. Arguably, an opinion piece by a U.S. Senator advocating a major show of force by the military to squelch unrest in American cities is something that should have been vetted by the editorial page editor prior to publication — as Bennet admitted it was not.
On the other hand, some quibbles with the content seem spurious — such as a “needlessly harsh” tone, a judgment that would disqualify many op-eds. The charge of factual inaccuracy rested mainly on Cotton’s claim that “antifa” had hijacked the protests for its anarchic ends. But there is little doubt that activists from the militant leftist movement were involved in the riots, though the extent of their role is disputed.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia Inquirer editor-in-chief Stan Wischnowski resigned due to a staff outcry over a “Buildings Matter, Too” headline on a column about the perils of urban destruction by riots; it was seen as implying that buildings have equal worth to black people’s lives. An apology from the paper did not settle the issue.
There have been other troubling instances of journalists under attack for perceived departures from approved opinion. Lee Fang, an investigative reporter at the left-wing magazine The Intercept, was slammed as a racist by numerous people — including colleagues — for a video interview with an African-American man who voiced concerns about crime within the black community as well as police brutality. The magazine offered Fang no support, and he ended up posting an abject apology.
Given that the past week has also seen incidents of journalists being literally attacked by the police while covering the protests, one could argue that blowback from colleagues or Twitter mobs is a trivial threat. And yet if a climate of groupthink in the mainstream media suppresses “wrong” opinions or facts, this is unquestionably bad for the press — not only because it abridges the dissenters’ freedom, but also because it further undermines trust in the media.
Moral clarity in opposition to racism is a fine, simple principle. And yet plenty of issues in our current cultural conflict are complex and full of nuance. Let’s not ask journalists to pretend otherwise.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.