There are places on the planet where the natural urge for free expression is not allowed. The United States has never been one of those forbidding spots — until now. Like a smoldering match dropped too close to a gas pump, the inexcusable police killing of a black man has blown racial sensitivities sky high. The resulting concussion has stripped away the great American tradition of searching for a pathway to peace through reasoned discussion, replacing it with robotic recognition of “systemic racism.” So much for unfettered speech in “the land of the free.”
The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee for freedom of the press has frequently absorbed blows from both the powerful in authority and the weak in peril, but seldom has the Fourth Estate been cowed into silence by its own practitioners. It just happened at “the newspaper of record,” The New York Times.
On Sunday, “The Gray Lady” hiked up her skirts and forced her editorial page editor, James Bennet, to walk the plank for failing to anticipate that a perspective diverging from current groupthink would upset some newspaper staffers and yanking it from publication before a single teardrop fell.
The offending June 3 op-ed titled “Send in the Troops,” penned by Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, propounded the view that the Insurrection Act of 1807 empowered President Trump to order active-duty military troops to quell violence accompanying mass protests plaguing U.S. cities following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Mr. Cotton is a conservative, a former U.S. Army officer and a defender of the Republic. The act he prescribed as a peacekeeping measure of last resort has been used by American presidents 11 times during the past century — eight times by Democrats. Yet just the mere mention of it, in a piece he said Monday he only wrote at the request of the newspaper, provoked hysterical cries of a coming Trump military dictatorship.
Justifying the publication’s staff revolt, New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones contended journalistic fairness has lost relevance in 2020. “So this adherence to even-handedness, both-sidesism, the view from nowhere, doesn’t actually work in the political circumstances that we’re in,” Mrs. Hannah-Jones told CNN on Sunday.
Poor Mr. Bennet. He is hardly a conservative, but rather a Boston-born, Yale-educated member of the intellectual elite. Providing New York Times readers with edifying opinion, which normally comes in all variety of persuasions, was his job. Members of the newspaper staff from both the news and opinion sections reportedly construed the thought of boots on the ground in New York as a form of hate speech. How could he have foreseen the sudden recoil of his fellow journalists?
Trendy notions evolve rapidly in the age of social media, and as a thought leader, New York Times leadership evidently concluded that Mr. Bennet should have grasped the overnight transformation of previously contemptible rioting and looting into legitimate, even honorable, forms of civil protest.
It’s the point New York University media professor Jay Rosen advances with his take on the Bennet debacle that appeared Monday in Pressthink.org: “In normal times, editors pick and choose among critics and defenders of the people in power in order to create a lively mix of plausible views. That’s what opinion journalism is at daily newspapers … in normal times. But what if times change? The Trump presidency is demagogic and mostly fact-free. What if there is no way to defend the government without practicing bigotry or demagoguery — or just making stuff up?”
It’s easy to understand that with the Trump era’s departure from the preferred progressive path, ultra-liberals in journalism have decided to abandon the practice of engaging in reasoned debate and simply join the resistance. Beyond the urban canyons where Mr. Rosen and his fellow ideologues at The New York Times dwell, though, earnest reporters are still committed to helping readers understand their world by presenting facts while thoughtful commentary writers compete in the marketplace of ideas with arguments that span the political spectrum.
Conversations are worth having about whether the tragic death of Mr. Floyd proves the existence of “systemic racism,” or not. Editor Bennet did not deserve to be hounded out of The New York Times for giving space to an idea that contributed to the discussion until the shut-up society suddenly trampled it underfoot. Americans, irrespective of race, should also be wary of systemic silence.