Although pretty much everyone who’s thought about it agrees that The New York Times op-ed page has thoroughly bungled its handling of an article it recently published by Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, disagreement is rife over what the blunder was.
Because I’ve written several times for The Times‘ Op-Ed page and others, I’ve got two thoughts that I believe can usefully add to the mix. But first, it’s important to note that even The Times as a company can’t seem to agree on what went wrong.
At various times, various staffers in various of its departments (including ownership) have claimed that Cotton’s main argument (that President Trump should call in the U.S. military to restore order in cities where it’s broken down and/or where state and local authorities can’t or won’t respond inadequately)
>should never have run because it fell outside the bounds of responsible opinion;
>that it might constitute responsible opinion but that its publication at a time of major national tumult – and especially race-tinged tumult – was inappropriate, and even heightened dangers to Times and other reporters covering the George Floyd protests, and to African-American reporters in particular;
>that however controversial, the argument wasn’t out of bounds, but that the article wasn’t satisfactorily fact-checked;
>that it was indeed fact-checked as per usual; and
>that Cotton’s and other allegedly out of bounds views should be presented in the paper, but in hard news articles (where adequate context, scrutiny, and counter-arguments could be provided), rather than on the op-ed page (where regardless of whether it was fact-checked or not, publication per se created an aura of approval or legitimacy or prestige that was unwarranted. Here’s a good summary from The Times’ main national competitor, the Washington Post.
Moreover, if you’re not already confused enough, how about these two positions stated by the newspaper’s ownership – the first by publisher A.G. Sulzberger (presented in the above linked Post piece):
>“I believe in the principle of openness to a range of opinions, even those we may disagree with, and this piece was published in that spirit” and
“We’ve examined the piece and the process leading up to its publication. This review made clear that a rushed editorial process led to the publication of an Op-Ed that did not meet our standards. As a result, we’re planning to examine both short term and long term changes, to include expanding our fact checking operation and reducing the number of Op-Eds we publish.”
At least these statements weren’t made on the same day.
And to top it all off, the article hasn’t been retracted or yanked from The Times‘ website.
Now for my two observations. The first involves the fact-checking issue.
As mentioned above, I’ve written frequently for The Times and other op-ed pages. And I can tell you from personal experience that fact-checking for outside contributors is spotty at best. I’ve been asked to provide cites for the specific data that my articles typically contain. But I have no reason to believe that anyone on the paper has looked through these numbers in detail – or at all.
That’s especially revealing because the trade and globalization subjects on which I’ve most often written are so obviously alien territories to the paper’s opinion staffers. But I’ve never knowingly presented a number or fact that I know is either inaccurate or misleading – or in which I haven’t had complete confidence.
More disturbing, one undoubted reason that my articles have been even superficially fact-checked is that they run counter both to the newspaper’s official stance generally favoring pre-Trump U.S. trade.policies, and to the unofficial but clear approval of such policies by The Times‘ straight news economics correspondents.
It’s unimaginable to me that anything like such requirements – including contextualizing – have been imposed on articles that conform with these official and unofficial Times‘ views. And I’m certain this is the case because flagrant errors have been so easy to spot.
One example: It’s become seemingly mandatory that articles favoring pre-Trump policies contend that 95 percent of the world’s population lives outside U.S. borders, and that therefore any deviation from so-called pro-free trade policies that ignores or slights the need to reach these potential consumers would be a catastrophic mistake. Never, ever pointed out: The vast majority of this 95 percent earns far too little to be significant customers for American-made products, or to become significant customers in the policy-relevant future. (I debunked the claim here.)
And as I’ve repeatedly shown on RealityChek – notably in the case of Nobel Prize winning economist Paul M. Krugman – serious fact-checking seems at least as rare when it comes to The Times‘ regular columnists.
So let’s please drop fact-checking as an excuse for challenging the legitimacy of running Cotton’s piece.
My second observation involves the broader debate set off by this fiasco (which resulted in the chief of the opinion pages resigning and the head of the op-ed page getting moved into another job). As with The Times internal deliberations, it’s been all over the place, too, but one central and explicit charge has been that even The Times‘ official waffling on the Cotton piece’s suitability amounts to troubling retreats from the ideals of journalistic objectivity and of free expression (which of course needs to comply with well established Constitutional limits, like prohibitions on speech and other forms of expression that are defamatory, or that posed dangers to children, or that ,’by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”).
To which my response is: Grow up. After all, The Times is a private company, and is under no obligation to publish all or even most ideological or philosophical comers on its opinion pages or anywhere else. It’s not a “public square.” Get a permit (if needed), and preach from a soap box on a street corner if you want one of those.
True,the paper – which literally invented the op-ed page – avowedly conceived of the feature, in 1970, as an effort to:
“afford greater opportunity for exploration of issues and presentation of new insights and new ideas by writers and thinkers who have no institutional connection with The Times and whose views will very frequently be completely divergent from our own.”
Times editors added:
“In furtherance of our belief that the diverse voices of our society must be given the greatest possible opportunity to be heard, we are at the same time approximately doubling the weekday space devoted to letters from our readers.”
I personally believe that this commitment to maximum (legal) diversity has been admirable. But that’s far from claiming that the paper has any legal or moral obligation to seek such variety. So my only quarrel with The Times on these free speech issues is an insistence on transparency – and honesty. If Times management wants officially to turn the op-ed page into a megaphone for whatever set of viewpoints it likes, or against whatever group of opinions it dislikes, just do it, and announce the decision to your readers.
At the same time, if the paper wants to keep sitting on the fence, or groping in the dark, or simply doesn’t even yet know what it’s groping towards, that should be announced, too. Such a confession of broad fallibility has its ethical virtues, too. In fact, for the nation’s too-often high handed Mainstream Media, and its pretensions of omniscience and unimpeachable civic and intellectual integrity, nothing could be more refreshing – not to mention newsworthy.