Folks, are your ideas really so fragile?
“If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
— Sun Tzu
Increasingly, worryingly, in this us-versus-them, with-me-or-against-me, zero-sum world in which we live, advocates and pundits are pressuring newspapers (sometimes successfully) to drop voices with which they do not agree.
The problem is not uniquely American.
Across the pond, The Sun interviewed “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling ‘s ex-husband after the author accused him of abusing her.
A national British nonprofit called Women’s Aid pounced on The Sun’s front-page headline: “I slapped JK and I’m not sorry.”
“Responding to a woman disclosing her experiences of domestic abuse and sexual assault by giving a platform to her perpetrator to trivialise the abuse he subjected her to is irresponsible and dangerous,” Women’s Aid wrote to the newspaper, according to the BBC (read their full account here: bbc.com/news/uk-53023543).
Here in America, the New York Times recently forced out its opinion page editor after progressives and some Times staffers were ticked off by a column by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas. The column was headlined “Send in the troops: The nation must restore order. The military stands ready.”
The column included, according to the Times’ lengthy addendum attached to the online version after publication, a number of “factual questions,” such as unproven claims that antifa agitators had riled up those protesting police violence and that police “bore the brunt” of violence during the riots (read the Cotton op-ed, with the Times’ addendum, here: https://tinyurl.com/y9meyy4d).
Fact-checking is one thing, but the Times addendum also says “the tone of the essay in places is needlessly harsh,” and that the headline, written by the Times, “was incendiary and should not have been used.”
Let’s begin with The Sun.
It’s important to note that The Sun is your classic shock-and-awe British tabloid. Still, nothing in the headline glorified or trivialized domestic violence. Surrounding The Sun’s headline was a kicker calling the ex’s admission a “sick taunt” and a deck saying the newspaper confronted the man. You don’t confront the things you glorify, nor do you call them sick.
A Sun spokeswoman told the BBC the paper’s “intention was to expose a perpetrator’s total lack of remorse,” and I’d say they hit their mark.
Now the Times.
Cotton, a close ally of President Donald Trump and a firebrand conservative, didn’t say anything you wouldn’t expect him to say, and certainly nothing he wrote hadn’t already been tweeted by Trump or espoused by the president’s supporters on cable TV.
So what if it was “harsh” or “incendiary”? Cotton doesn’t actually have the power to send in the troops, and, even if he did, troops aren’t mobilized by newspaper columns. And I’m sure there’s room on the Times’ opinion pages for counterargument, so run it. Don’t apologize for sharing someone else’s opinion.
It was the Times that gave journalism its greatest ethos, that we perform our duties “without fear or favor,” but the Old Gray Lady seems to have lost her guts. And she’s certainly not doing herself any favors trying to shed the (I still think unfounded) criticism that her journalism is leftist propaganda.
According to Poynter’s great summary of the controversy (https://tinyurl.com/y97fr2t7), a number of other issues preceded Cotton’s column and the ensuing ouster of Times Editorial Page Editor James Bennet. But those issues, Poynter says, happened against the backdrop of “a new generation of staffers pushing back against Times leadership and the traditional view that journalism is there to chronicle the news, not make it or influence it.”
My biggest problem with those calling on newspapers to ignore quotes and opinions, and papers like the Times bowing down, is that it presupposes readers are incapable of sorting things out, that they can’t read a quote from a wife-beater and still hate domestic violence or read an “incendiary” column from a sitting U.S. senator and still think it’s a bad idea for the mighty American military to be wielded domestically. It presupposes readers can’t tell news from opinion, a quote from an ad.
I know words are powerful. That’s why I got into this business. But their power comes from the ideas and ideals they represent.
Are the ideas of newspaper critics really so fragile they can’t stand against the publication of an opposing idea?
Newspapers are meant to inform and educate. They report on unhappy things so readers can know which battles most need their energy and share unpopular opinions so readers can know their friends and know their enemies.
Silencing the people we think are bad guys doesn’t make them go away. It just makes it easier for them to sneak up on us.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.