The senator, the newspaper, and the boundaries of debate

This is a dark time for US journalism, said Michael Goodwin in the New York Post. One of its great newspapers, The New York Times, has finally dropped any semblance of balance and become little more than “a leftist propaganda sheet”. It recently ran a punchy op-ed piece by Senator Tom Cotton calling for troops to be deployed in US cities to quell looting and rioting on the fringes of peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. The piece so horrified the newspaper’s liberal newsroom staff that it led to the resignation of the editorial page editor, James Bennet, and the reassignment of his deputy. The Times has previously run op-ed pieces by the likes of Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s strongman, President Erdoğan, without any problems. But offering a platform to a hawkish Republican senator is apparently “beyond the pale”.

Arthur Miller once remarked that a good newspaper is “a nation talking to itself”, said Bret Stephens in The New York Times. “What kind of paper will the Times be if half the nation doesn’t get to be even an occasional part of that conversation?” I think Cotton was completely wrong about the need for troops, but it’s still worth hearing the views of someone who speaks for a major current of public opinion, and who clearly has presidential ambitions. I initially welcomed the fact that Cotton had “helpfully revealed himself as a dangerous authoritarian”, said Michelle Goldberg in the same paper. But after witnessing the anguished reaction of colleagues, I reconsidered my “debating-club approach to the question of when to air proto-fascist opinions”. Cotton was effectively inciting “massive violence” against his fellow citizens, at a time when too many peaceful protesters and journalists were already being “brutalised by police officers”.

Critics complain that the parameters of acceptable debate are narrowing in the US, said Ezra Klein on Vox, but the reality is that they’re just shifting. Twenty years ago, Cotton’s article would have caused little fuss. Back then, though, the press would have recoiled from articles about, say, abolishing prisons or defunding the police. “There have always been boundaries around acceptable discourse”; the edges of “the sphere of legitimate controversy” shift constantly, and the media has always “enforced and contested” these. The difference is that this used to be “a quieter process, with debate contained within newsrooms and change happening through retirement and recruitment”. Nowadays, it all plays out in public.