The Maddening Dishonesty of the New York Times Op-Ed Editor

They constantly legitimize hideous opinions in the name of “open debate.”

A couple of years ago, I was curious about how the New York Times covered the rise of Hitler. I wondered whether their sense of “journalistic neutrality” prevented them from telling the truth about fascism and exposing Nazism for what it was. And when I looked in the archives, sure enough, it was full of everything from neutral horse-race articles to flattering profiles that minimized Hitler’s anti-Semitism and never called his terrifying ideology what it was. (“Hitler is a man of the people, a carpenter by trade… His entire being breathes dynamic energy combined with a marked reserve.”) Hitler himself even got a byline in the Times when it excerpted Mein Kampf in 1941 (not sympathetically, but it is still strange to see “by Adolf Hitler” in front of a Times article). 

Yesterday the New York Times op-ed page continued its long tradition of publishing some of the worst opinions ever held (previous lowlights include “Bomb North Korea, Before It’s Too Late,” John Bolton’s “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” and Blackwater billionaire Erik Prince soliciting new business by advocating the privatization of war). In the midst of protests against police brutality, it printed a piece by far-right senator Tom Cotton calling for the government to use “overwhelming” violent force against protesters who ‘break the law.’ Cotton’s article, “Send In The Troops,” advocates using the military against American citizens, arguing that there has been a breakdown of law and order that ordinary law enforcement cannot handle. 

These rioters, if not subdued, not only will destroy the livelihoods of law-abiding citizens but will also take more innocent lives… 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… it’s past time to support local law enforcement with federal authority. 

Cotton here was expanding on the viewpoint he has also offered on Twitter, where he said there should be “no quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” (Cotton has long been hostile to dissent.) 

Now, I don’t want to spend much time actually refuting Cotton’s argument. For one thing, there’s no real need: Cotton doesn’t cite any actual evidence that local law enforcement “desperately” needs military aid, and the Times editors apparently did not ask him to provide support for his wild assertions. Daniel Drezner has done an excellent job at the Washington Post demolishing Cotton’s case. I would note that by calling for “no quarter” to be given to those committing property crimes, Cotton is doing the same thing as Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”—advocating repaying mere vandalism with serious bodily violence. This is not proportionate and not morally defensible. Further, by suggesting the escalation of force against protesters, without acknowledging that police are already engaged in totally inexcusable and excessive violence, Cotton is pushing for something likely to devolve into the further brutalization of people of color. 

No wonder multiple Black New York Times staffers immediately announced their discomfort with the paper’s decision to run the op-ed, suggesting that by promoting Cotton’s viewpoint, the Times was risking escalating danger to Black people including the paper’s own staff. But the op-ed editor himself, James Bennet, disagreed, and gave a predictable justification

Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy. We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton’s argument painful, even dangerous. We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate.

David Brooks, too, was thrilled, commenting that “I love it when my newspaper prints pieces I disagree with.”

Bennet’s explanation is one we have heard before. When the Times hired Bret Stephens, who had previously written that anti-Semitism was the “disease of the Arab mind” and who immediately started publishing climate change denialism upon assuming his post, Bennet invoked “viewpoint diversity” to justify the choice. This, as was pointed out at the time by this magazine, was dishonest, since the Times op-ed page was remarkably non-diverse, the majority of the columnists at the time being rich white male capitalists.

    But Bennet said something interesting at the time that is worth remembering when evaluating the Cotton op-ed. Viewpoint diversity, he said, “doesn’t mean letting any opinion into the discussion” since there’s “no place for bigotry or dishonesty in intelligent discussion.” Stephens’ climate change column, he said, didn’t fall “outside the bounds of reasonable discussion.” This means, presumably, that the New York Times op-ed page is limited to things classified as “reasonable discussion,” with some opinions excluded if they are bigoted, dishonest, or truly beyond the pale.

    Here we see the fundamental problem with Bennet’s defense of publishing Cotton’s op-ed. The Times does indeed see itself as a place for “viewpoint diversity.” But they say they wouldn’t publish every viewpoint. Presumably a Stalinist or a Nazi wouldn’t be printed. (Again, leaving aside Hitler’s 1941 byline.) The Times is not the public square. You can’t say just anything there. There are standards. (I am giving their opinion of themselves, not my own.) But if they believe they have standards, what do they think those standards are? What is the line that opinions cannot cross?   

    We can see why Bennet is fundamentally dishonest in his defense of the Cotton op-ed. He says that there is an interest in hearing multiple points of view, but he doesn’t answer the basic question, namely: Which points of view are legitimately within the bounds of “reasonable discussion”? What about anti-Semitism? Would they publish that? Bennet cites Cotton’s prominence and influence as a reason for publishing him, but that won’t do as a justification: Would a white supremacist Senator be given space to defend lynchings, if he was “in a position to set policy”? In practice, probably yes, given the Times’ record, but I doubt Bennet would feel comfortable defending that position. Which raises the question: What is the difference between that and this? Why is that beyond the pale but this not? 

    Bennet is cagey about disclosing exactly what the standard for “reasonable discourse” is, in part because if you tried to formulate a standard precisely, it would end up indicting a lot of material that the Times has published. Presumably any standards for what is unacceptable would include “things likely to lead to violence against African Americans,” which is why a pro-lynching op-ed would be unacceptable. But then why Cotton’s piece? 

    The fact is that by publishing Cotton’s piece, whether Bennet intended to or not, he is implicitly making a statement about the legitimacy of Cotton’s opinion. He is saying, as he did with Stephens, “this opinion is not so bad that it is not worth listening to” and “this opinion is not so bad that it falls into the same category as white supremacism and anti-Semitism and such.” The New York Times op-ed page is a prestigious place, and inclusion there indicates a certain stamp of approval; the Times says that this is something that should be “in the discourse.” If Bret Stephens had written in favor of outright genocide against Palestinians, he would probably not have been hired as an op-ed columnist. As it is, he just peddles race science, which the editors find palatable and believe should be in the discourse. 

    When you are the editor of a publication, like it or not, you are endorsing at least to a certain extent the opinions you publish. I have found this out myself. Sometimes I publish articles I disagree with, and people will ask me why I published them. And the answer is, because I thought they were worth hearing. But note that whether I like it or not, I have said something positive about the opinion. I have said that it is good enough to engage with. I have made an editorial choice that it is better than some other opinions. I have said that, at the very least, it is not trash to be ignored. And so people are quite right not to accept “Well, I disagree with it, but I think it should be heard” as a satisfactory justification, if the opinion is truly abominable. I did choose it among all of the possible opinions to hear, and the question I must answer is: why? Why this? 

Tom Cotton’s opinion is trash to be ignored, which is why the New York Times should not have published it. They knew that by printing it, they legitimized it, just as they legitimize race science by printing it, and just as they legitimize advocacy for the bombing of countries by printing it. Op-ed editor James Bennet is refusing to acknowledge the effects of what he did, or to admit that he shouldn’t have done it. This is the same approach that Ian Buruma of the New York Review of Books took. Buruma published an essay by disgraced Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi, which minimized Ghomeshi’s history of assaulting people and was full of self-pitying prevarication. Buruma said he just thought Ghomeshi should be heard. But this was ludicrous: Why did he need to be heard in the New York Review of Books? The decision made female staff uncomfortable, and ultimately Buruma was rightly fired. Editorial choices are inescapably value judgments and editors must take responsibility for them.

Personally, I do not think newspapers should try to be forums for all opinions, because you very soon realize that this is impossible. You don’t want to be a forum for Nazi opinions. So inevitably you’re going to be drawing lines, and instead of trying to find opinions that are odious-but-not-so-odious-as-to-be-beyond-the-pale, just publish opinions you think are good opinions. Its self-imposed “viewpoint diversity” mandate often seems to result in the Times deliberately choosing worse opinions over better ones; Senator Brian Schatz of Hawai’i says that he has submitted multiple op-eds to the Times on subjects from Medicaid to climate change that they have had no interest in (which is fine, but so much for the claim that a Senator’s opinion is worth hearing because he is a Senator).

The Times could stand to take a cue from British newspapers, which have open political leanings. The Guardian (for which I write) is a left-liberal newspaper. And that’s fine. By admitting its bias it makes itself more trustworthy, because it isn’t pretending to be something it can never actually be. At Current Affairs, we make it clear that we are socialist. This does not mean that we ignore people like Cotton; in fact, I specialize in reviewing right-wing books, and we certainly pay attention to their arguments in precisely the way Bennet says he wants us to do. But I certainly do not publish people like Jordan Peterson or Rand Paul, because I think they are bad writers with indefensible values. Don’t put more right-wing writers on your pages. If you want a rich discourse, have your left-wing writers engage more with right-wing opinion, but there is no need to suggest at any point that those opinions are useful contributions to the debate. 

Let me just mention one dodge I think we need to be wary of: the phrase “people you disagree with.” We hear it so often: Oh, everyone should listen to “people they disagree with” or “I publish the opinions of people I personally disagree with.” I’ll tell you why that phrase is so grating: because it pretends not to endorse the “disagreeable” opinions, but it actually does, by labeling them merely disagreeable rather than completely toxic and wrong. Just as publishing an opinion suggests it’s within the bounds of reasonable discussion, saying a person is someone you “disagree with” implies that their difference from you is mild enough to merely be something you “disagree with.” But political conflicts are more than mere disagreements: I do not just “disagree” with those who defend the slaughter of Palestinian children. I think they are morally repellent. A person who defends slavery is not someone I “disagree with.” I mean, I do disagree with them, but that puts it too mildly. It makes an “interesting debating society question” out of something that has serious human stakes. An op-ed editor needs to understand that “whether the military will be used to crush dissidents” is not a matter simply to have polite disagreements over. We have to take a firm stand in favor of civil liberties and fight those who would impose military rule. A good opinion editor should have good opinions, and not simply believe that all opinions are equal.

This is doubly true in a time of crisis, when every person has a duty to take important moral stands. James Bennet’s approach to the Times op-ed page was bad enough before the present chaos, but now it is totally unacceptable. It endangers lives and he should be fired, replaced with someone who has a functioning moral compass and a solid sense for the kinds of opinions that are worth hearing. Every publication has a responsibility to present arguments that are actually good in favor of positions that are morally defensible. 

Photograph by Michael Vadon.

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