NYT Reporters-Turned-Censors Pick a Perilous Path
In 1863, riots swept across New York City. Needing bodies to reinforce the ranks at the height of the Civil War, the federal government had instituted a military draft. All across New York, immigrants and the city’s underclass took to the streets, angry and fearful they would have to fight in the Union Army. The New York Times, a pro-Union and anti-slavery newspaper, was a leading target of the mob. However, the staff of the paper was well-armed.
In fact, the paper had three Gatling guns – an early machine gun – on hand to intimidate the crowd and defend the building. (One of the guns was manned by Leonard Jerome, a wealthy friend of Times co-founder Henry Raymond, and the grandfather of Winston Churchill.) It’s a mystery where the Times got the Gatling guns, which were only invented and offered to the War Department the year before. The most likely explanation is that they were procured from the military – some claim Raymond got the guns because of his friendship with President Lincoln.
While this was once an oft-told tidbit of New York Times lore, apparently many of the paper’s current writers are unaware the Times may not exist if it weren’t for U.S. military protection from rioters. On Wednesday, much of the younger staff of the paper went into open revolt against the editors for publishing a piece by Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton arguing that military intervention may be needed to restore order in the wake of the riots America has experienced in the last week.
The coordinated message that the Times employees chose to parrot was hyperbolic and unserious. Several of the paper’s reporters took to Twitter and declared en masse, “Running [Cotton’s op-ed] puts black New York Times staff in danger.”
The New York Times is not a salt mine – working there in any capacity is a prestigious job, and presumably the people who work there have other options, even in this economy. So why would anyone at the paper continue working at a place they believed was endangering their life or the lives of fellow employees? The lack of resignations is proof these Times employees don’t really believe what they’re saying. Nor was it made clear how protecting the city would endanger non-rioting journalists of any color.
Cotton’s opinion on how to handle the riots may be disagreeable or even upsetting, but his opinion is firmly in the mainstream. There is plenty of precedent for military intervention when it’s necessary to restore order, or even rectify racial injustice. Cotton’s op-ed noted that the 101st Airborne had been rightly called out to intervene in his home state of Arkansas when Gov. Orval Faubus mobilized the state’s national guard to stop the state’s schools from being integrated. (Cotton has proposed legislation to make Central High School in Little Rock a civil rights memorial.) The military was mobilized to quell Los Angeles’ Rodney King riots in 1992.
And with looting and vandalism occurring in over 700 cities in the past week – crimes that led to numerous deaths in places as unexpected as Davenport, Iowa – Cotton cited polling showing that a majority of Americans, including 37% of African Americans, are not opposed to calling out the military to restore order if necessary.
At the same time Times employees were blithely equating speech with violence, others distinguished themselves by making excuses for lawlessness. Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, fresh off of winning a Pulitzer for her work on racism in America that was subsequently debunked as inaccurate by an array of respected liberal historians, went on CBS News earlier this week. "Violence is when an agent of the state kneels on a man's neck until all of the life is leached out of his body,” she said. “Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence. To use the same language to describe those two things is not moral.”
This confusion about what constitutes violence isn’t an argument, let alone a “moral” one. It’s polemic easily rebutted by a plethora of online videos of black and minority business owners angry and sad after rioters wantonly destroyed their livelihood. Hannah-Jones is, naturally, one of the Times employees “deeply ashamed” her paper ran Cotton’s op-ed. The message Times employees are sending here is incoherent: Cotton’s op-ed is violence, but burning bookstores to the ground is not?
The answer to speech you disagree with is, of course, more and better speech. Airing arguments that you disagree with, even vehemently, is necessary and often clarifying. That’s why in recent years the Times has run op-eds by such appalling figures as Vladimir Putin and the Taliban. In 1941, the paper even ran Adolf Hitler’s byline. Somehow none of those pieces caused a widespread staff revolt.
The fact this is happening right now in response to Cotton, a mainstream Republican who is a U.S. Army combat veteran and Harvard Law School grad, is indicative of a sea change in journalism. Activism is common among young journalists today, and they increasingly have no use for logical argumentation. They’re confident they can use the paper to bludgeon their opinions into the majority that don’t share them, and the Times’ institutional influence won’t be diminished.
But these activist journalists shouldn’t be so confident the Times will survive their censorious tactics and campus theatrics. The two biggest media stories of the Trump era – the debunked Trump-Russia collusion narrative and the embrace of absurd and unsubstantiated rape allegations against a Supreme Court justice nominee – resulted in total abandonment of journalistic objectivity. They already threaten to become what journalist Lee Smith has called an “extinction-level event” for media credibility.
The White House also wages a daily campaign against the media, to say nothing of the growing influence of new media that thrives on attacking legacy institutions such as the Times. A few years ago, author and podcaster Michael Malice declared, “The battle is won when the average American regards a corporate journalist exactly as they regard a tobacco executive.” The goal for many critics is no longer to reform the media, but to destroy it.
In the meantime, one of the worst-kept secrets in journalism is that older Times veterans have no trouble privately saying they are appalled the venerable paper’s leadership is so accommodating of the demands of their woke millennial employees -- journalistic ethics and fairness be damned.
Initially, Times editors held the line, and Publisher A.G. Sulzberger defended publishing Cotton’s op-ed in a letter to the paper’s staff Thursday. But by the end of the day, the paper had surrendered and issued a statement saying the op-ed “did not meet our standards” and promising to examine “long term and short term changes.” If the paper can’t withstand the pressure to censor a U.S. senator expressing an opinion held by a majority of Americans, riots may end up destroying The New York Times after all.