Stop Press: What the furore over Tom Cotton’s NYT piece tells us about the media’s role in society
Stop Press

Stop Press: What the furore over Tom Cotton’s NYT piece tells us about the media’s role in society

A weekly newsletter to help you track the news media ecosystem and make sense of it.

By Chitranshu Tewari

Published on :

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Lead 🕶️

“We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of,” read an open letter that some 50 journalists at the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in protest after the daily ran this headline.

That line from the open letter captures the debate and the struggle newsrooms have grappled with over the last week. Before we break up the arguments, here is the context: on June 3, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Tom Cotton, a Republican senator, headlined “Send In The Troops”. The piece makes a case for deploying the military against lawbreaking protesters in cities across the United States.

James Bennet, then the paper’s editorial page editor, and AG Sulzberger, its publisher, initially defended the piece. Bennet wrote that while he disagreed with Cotton, “it would undermine the integrity and independence of the New York Times if we only published views that editors like me agreed with”. But scores of reporters at the NYT revolted, leading to the newspaper saying Cotton’s article “did not meet standards” and that the “editing process was rushed”.

Bennet resigned on June 7. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, the executive editor, Stan Wischnowski, too resigned following pushback against “Buildings Matter, Too”.

Marketplace vs gatekeeper

The argument at the core of this debate is whether a news outlet is a marketplace of ideas or a gatekeeper. Is it only a platform to present all views? Or does it filter views and narratives depending on its sense of morality and truth?

Conventionally, opinion pages of newspapers have been seen as a marketplace of ideas. One where opposing views, regardless of political ideology, are offered to the reader to be informed and make up their own mind. The idea being that the publisher’s job is to only engage and challenge the reader with a diversity of viewpoints, not dictate which is better.

It’s on this ground that much of the criticism directed at the NYT is based on. In a piece headlined “Why journalists stop believing in debate, Damon Linker writes:

“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.”

Linker is not alone in arguing that publishing something doesn’t make it right by default. It only means that the idea is worth engaging with. Not to forget that dismissing an idea doesn’t necessarily lead to it becoming less viable or ceasing to exist.

As Matt Taibbi argues in a piece headlined “The American Press Is Destroying Itself”:

“As Cotton points out in the piece, he was advancing a view (“show of force” against rioters and looters) arguably held by a majority of the country. A Morning Consult poll showed 58% of Americans either strongly or somewhat supported the idea of “calling in the U.S. military to supplement city police forces.” That survey included 40% of self-described “liberals” and 37% of African-Americans. To declare a point of view held by that many people not only not worthy of discussion, but so toxic that publication of it without even necessarily agreeing requires dismissal, is a dramatic reversal for a newspaper that long cast itself as the national paper of record.”

For those advocating that Cotton’s article shouldn’t have gone in the form and language that it did, the media is a gatekeeper, especially in these times when our societies are so polarised.

Ezra Klein sums up this argument in “America is changing and so is the media”:

“The news media likes to pretend that it simply holds up a mirror to America as it is. We don’t want to be seen as actors crafting the political debate, agents who make decisions that shape the boundaries of the national discourse. We are, of course. We always have been.”

A look at the note that was later added to Cotton’s piece confirms that the NYT recognises its role as a gatekeeper.

Explaining how its editors should have corroborated the assertions made by Cotton, the note states: “We failed to offer appropriate additional context – either in the text or the presentation – that could have helped readers place Senator Cotton’s views within a larger framework of debate.”

The context is really key here.

At the time the NYT published the piece, visuals of the police brutalising protesters were everywhere. Rubber bullets and teargas were already being heavily used. Even the reporters covering the protests weren’t being spared. A congressional candidate ran Facebook ads urging people to shoot looters with “liberty machines”, an assault rifle. President Donald Trump told governors to dominate the protesters. Mind you, the police in the US are heavily militarised.

As Michelle Golberg argues in the New York Times:

“When I first saw the Cotton Op-Ed I wasn’t as horrified as perhaps I should have been; I figured he’d helpfully revealed himself as a dangerous authoritarian. But as I’ve seen my colleagues’ anguished reaction, I’ve started to doubt my debating-club approach to the question of when to air proto-fascist opinions.

It’s important to understand what the people around the president are thinking. But if they’re honest about what they’re thinking, it’s usually too disgusting to engage with. This creates a crisis for traditional understandings of how the so-called marketplace of ideas functions. It’s a subsidiary of the crisis that has the country on fire.”

Woke mob vs old guard

The other lens used to frame this debate, rather downplay it, was to simply put it as an old vs new binary.

An effort led by Cotton himself:

That the young are more progressive than those who are above 40 and identify more with libertarian values is no news. The characterisation of the young as a woke mob that uses call out or cancel culture, as it’s called, to build public pressure is both fair and unfair, depending how you look at it and who you read. The same characterisation was deployed for the NYT reporters who revolted against the publication of Cotton’s piece. In an article headlined “James Bennet's Resignation Proves the Woke Scolds Are Taking Over The New York Times”, Robby Soave says:

“Bennet's resignation was an instructive show of force from those Times staffers who want the paper to be more transparently progressive. Their successful strategy – describe their opposition to someone else's speech as a matter of personal safety – is straight out of the woke left's playbook.”

The premise for this view is simple: Sulzberg and Bennet are “old-school, small i-liberals” committed to a marketplace of ideas who are arrayed against young reporters too woke to keep the paper “straight”.

“A generation of young, woke journalists want to see the media remade along activist lines, while an older generation believes it must cover the news without fear and favor, and reflect, at the very least, the full range of views held by those in power.”

Perception of objectivity vs moral clarity

This builds on the marketplace versus gatekeeper debate. While a marketplace would strive for objectivity, a gatekeeper’s role accounts for a lot more – context, nature of the argument and moral clarity.

Just days after Bennet’s resignation, Ben Smith, the NYT’s media writer, wrote a piece that traces the journey of this ongoing upheaval in newsrooms. Smith spoke with Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, who reported on the Ferguson unrest in 2014-15 and was let go by the Washington Post on grounds of social media misconduct.

Talking about newsrooms, Lowery argues that “core value needs to be the truth, not the perception of objectivity”.

In a country that prizes free speech, any argument for context, public good and clarity is immediately seen as an attack on free speech. Both platforms and outlets use this as a device.

Jay Rosen puts it tersely:

For those like Taibibi who don’t agree, it really can’t be any clearer:

“The media in the last four years has devolved into a succession of moral manias...The traditional view of the press was never based on some contrived, mathematical notion of “balance,” i.e. five paragraphs of Republicans for every five paragraphs of Democrats. The ideal instead was that we showed you everything we could see, good and bad, ugly and not, trusting that a better-informed public would make better decisions.”

Back in India, the news website Print recently found itself in a spot after an opinion writer, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, tweeted this to Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of Alt News.

The tweet was met with immediate calls for the Print to distance itself from the author.

Nearly a week later, Shekhar Gupta, the editor-in-chief of the Print, addressed the issue while talking about the furore over the NYT op-ed. He pointed to the Print’s code of ethics.

How do you weigh in?

This is a complex debate. It involves accounting and arguing for multiple themes across media, politics, and the way we process information – free speech, cancel culture, polarisation in media, the state of our politics.

I originally wrote this newsletter as an opinion piece about the debate raging over the NYT article. But as this snowballed over the last week, I thought it would be more informative to bring you the arguments from both sides and help you navigate the debate. (This is why Stop Press is coming out today and not on Sunday as usual.) Do share this and weigh in on the debate with your comments.

Homebrewed

Over 50 people laid off as Sakal Times closes down

The employees were blindsided, even as the company, owned by Sharad Pawar's family, refused to consider a higher severance package.

I&B Ministry’s new guidelines for TV news

The guidelines give the home ministry the power to issue security clearances to channels. In case of violations, channels can be taken off air for upto 30 days.

Platforms

Twitter wants you to read the article before you share it. Will you?

Zuckerberg and Chan are ‘disgusted’ by Trump’s accounts

If only they could do something about Trump’s remarks on Facebook 🤔. This comes after scientists funded by Zuckerberg criticised Facebook’s inaction on President Trump’s posts.

Reddit is finally facing its legacy of racism

“The Black Lives Matter movement has provided Reddit users with an opportunity for moral clarity – moderators who have been uncomfortable with the site’s culture for years feel compelled to speak up more emphatically than before.”

About a week ago, Reddit’s co-founder resigned from the board and urged it to find a replacement who is black.

Facebook pitched new tool allowing employers to suppress words like “unionize”

“While these kinds of content moderation tools are useful for companies, this example was poorly chosen and should never have been used,” said a Facebook spokesperson.

Chug it out

The mainstream media won’t tell you this

“Nothing is so flimsy, so overspun, or so poorly sourced that it cannot be made to look like a scandal by conjuring the specter of a vast media conspiracy that’s repressing it.” From Shadowland, a project by the Atlantic about conspiracy thinking in America.

Catch up

📺 ⭐ Rappler Editor Maria Ressa convicted of ‘cyber libel’

A Manila court found Ressa, Rappler Inc. and a former reporter guilty of libeling a wealthy businessman.

Ressa was a speaker at the Media Rumble 2018. Watch her speak with Hartosh Singh Bal about press freedom, taking on the Rodrigo Duterte government, and speaking truth to power.

The first female editor of FT is a level-headed radical

“The excesses of the financial crisis, the political impact, whether populism or nationalism, the widening of inequality: it is plain that capitalism needs a reset.” Bold ideas for any financial publisher that advocates for the free market?

Scroll is putting out what seems like a clone of Substack

It’s called Scrollstack. Why, how, and to what end? Watch out for the next Stop Press. It will be about newsletters!

Axios allowed its reporters to join protests

In a company memo, the CEO said he supported staff members’ right to march, adding that the publisher would cover bail for any employee who is arrested.

🛠️ Resources and Tools

Do you want to start a reader-supported website but confused about the tech it may require?

The Membership Puzzle has a quick guide on the basics of membership tech stack. Even if you have a stable tech stack, worth looking at. I found the bit on CRM tools quite helpful.

Bonus

Why Jordan Peterson thinks Frozen is propaganda

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This is the sixth edition of Stop Press. This one took me the longest to wrap up. It made me get into debates I had only read in passing. I hope this newsletter nudges you to do the same.

As always, please send your suggestions and feedback to chitranshu@newslaundry.com. If you liked what you read, do share and sign up below:

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