When journalists stop believing in debate
On the reaction to Tom Cotton's op-ed in The New York Times
On Wednesday, when The New York Times published an op-ed by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas in favor of using the military to "restore order" in the face of widespread urban rioting, the reaction of many journalists, including journalists working at the Times itself, was not to take issue with the argument. It was instead to take aim at the Times for publishing it.
This happens quite regularly now, usually in response to columns penned by the paper's stable of conservative and centrist columnists. But the reaction to Cotton has been especially severe because of the astonishing events of the past week, with protests taking place in well over a hundred cities and towns, riots breaking out in numerous places, and the president taking precipitous actions in response to disorder in the nation's capital. Given this context, many apparently believe that Cotton's law-and-order column needs to be classified as dangerous — something pushing an idea beyond the pale that the Times should never have disseminated to the world — even though he clearly advocated the use of force only against rioters and looters and not against those engaging in peaceful protest.
This reaction tells us a lot — about how journalists view the Times and other mainstream media outlets, about how these journalists see their own role in the culture, and most of all, about how they think about ideas and their relation to politics.
It is now quite common among journalists to think of opinions not as arguments to be advanced, engaged with, and potentially refuted, but as a kind of viral propaganda with the power to convert readers to new holistic outlooks, much like the spread of a religious fervor during a revival.
We see this most vividly in the periodic groundswells of outrage directed at both news and op-ed pages of the paper for publishing stories and columns that give voice to people and ideas deemed unacceptable. Sometimes the response includes substantive criticism of the views themselves, but more often it is directed at the paper's editors for running them at all. This assumes a vision of journalism in which the role of media outlets — whether print or digital — is to put forth a set of officially approved views and to silence (or refuse to give voice to) those who dissent from these views.
This journalistic outlook is rooted in some partial truths. Newspapers, magazines, and websites aren't neutral billboards (like social media) where everyone gets a chance to post their opinions unfiltered, with only the most minimum of oversight. Editors exercise judgment all the time about what gets published and what doesn't, what receives the legitimation of having been vetted and accepted for publication under the outlet's prestigious brand. There are gatekeepers, and getting past them is hard. Those who would have denied publication to Cotton's op-ed are saying that these standards should have been much stricter in this and similar cases involving incendiary opinions.
Because these critics presume that this power to disseminate and bestow legitimation upon opinions is enormous, amounting to far more than merely declaring the opinion worth taking seriously. They go much further to presume that publishing the opinion, releasing it into the world with the media outlet's imprimatur attached, contributes decisively to its acceptance and affirmation by the nation's citizenry. On this view, published ideas are a kind of ideological contagion. If the ideas are good, they can serve as a kind of vaccination against evil. But if they are bad, they function as an intellectual and moral pathogen that are better off being eradicated.
This view of the press and the public is very different than the classically liberal notion of an active citizenry engaging productively with competing ideas in the public square, weighing evidence, and judging opinions responsibly and critically for themselves. Instead of this marketplace of ideas, we have a vision of public life marked by uniformity or only very narrowly divided over a set of pragmatic solutions to universally agreed upon problems. It's a vision of public life in which, ideally, just about everyone agrees — and those who dare to dissent from this journalistically enforced consensus are treated as anathema.
But of course this is also a vision of public life without politics — which can be defined in part as the effort of a community divided by differing visions of the public good to find common ground through compromise and accommodation. Cotton and his critics disagree very strenuously about what the public good amounts to and what achieving it requires. Yet Cotton and those who agree with him are our fellow citizens. Denying their views a voice, ruling them out of bounds, doesn't actually succeed in making them disappear — just as publishing them doesn't imply they are correct. It implies only that they are worthy of discussion, debate, and, quite possibly, strenuous refutation.
But endorsing this classically liberal process of political disputation in public requires that one holds certain liberal convictions — in the capacity of reason to determine right from wrong and of one's own side to prevail through the give and take of argument. It also requires a certain degree of modesty about the likelihood of any comprehensive moral and political view triumphing so decisively that competing views vanish or shrink to the furthest margins of a free society.
What we increasingly see among journalists today is the collapse of these core liberal convictions. The consequences for our civic life are not likely to be salutary.