The Tom Cotton Op-Ed Controversy at the New York Times; Or, the Challenge of Covering Trump, Part 2

There’s been a big controversy over the publication of an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton, most notably among the Times staff–so much so that the op-ed managing editor and deputy managing editor have stepped down. This incident is part of a bigger, complex issue that doesn’t have any clear and easy solutions. I want to put in my two cents. I’ll do that in the first comments section. (I should say that I consider this post closely related to the thread, The Challenge of Covering Trump.)

One thought on “The Tom Cotton Op-Ed Controversy at the New York Times; Or, the Challenge of Covering Trump, Part 2

  1. I want to start by saying what isn’t the main issue. Some pundits think of this primarily as a battle between those with classical liberal view of airing out all ideas, and letting the best ideas win, versus a view, most vigorously championed by younger people–namely, that protecting some groups from harm is more important than airing out all ideas. Bari Weiss lays this out fairly well in a recent twitter thread:

    The civil war inside The New York Times between the (mostly young) wokes the (mostly 40+) liberals is the same one raging inside other publications and companies across the country. The dynamic is always the same. (Thread.)

    The Old Guard lives by a set of principles we can broadly call civil libertarianism. They assumed they shared that worldview with the young people they hired who called themselves liberals and progressives. But it was an incorrect assumption.

    The New Guard has a different worldview, one articulated best by @JonHaidt and @glukianoff. They call it “safetyism,” in which the right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe trumps what were previously considered core liberal values, like free speech.

    Perhaps the cleanest example of this dynamic was in 2018, when David Remnick, under tremendous public pressure from his staffers, disinvited Steve Bannon from appearing on stage at the New Yorker Ideas Festival. But there are dozens and dozens of examples.

    I’ve been mocked by many people over the past few years for writing about the campus culture wars. They told me it was a sideshow. But this was always why it mattered: The people who graduated from those campuses would rise to power inside key institutions and transform them.

    I’m in no way surprised by what has now exploded into public view. In a way, it’s oddly comforting: I feel less alone and less crazy trying to explain the dynamic to people. What I am shocked by is the speed. I thought it would take a few years, not a few weeks.

    Here’s one way to think about what’s at stake: The New York Times motto is “all the news that’s fit to print.” One group emphasizes the word “all.” The other, the word “fit.”

    W/r/t Tom Cotton’s oped and the choice to run it: I agree with our critics that it’s a dodge to say “we want a totally open marketplace of ideas!” There are limits. Obviously. The question is: does his view fall outside those limits? Maybe the answer is yes.

    This dynamic may be playing out, but I don’t think framing the debate this way is complete–specifically, it doesn’t get to the biggest issue in my view. To me, the biggest issue isn’t free speech versus social justice, but free speech and the limits of free speech on the op-ed page of one of the most prestigious newspapers. I think Michelle Goldberg, an op-ed columnist at The Times touches on this well in her response to the controversy (a piece worth reading):

    …the value of airing Cotton’s argument has to be weighed against the message The Times sends, in this incendiary moment, by including it within the bounds of legitimate debate. Everyone agrees that The Times draws those boundaries. The question is where.

    To me, the question is really important, and should be the one at the beginning of the debate. Another crucial point is the authority and reach of the New York Times. No one is stopping Senator Cotton from expressing his views. The question is, should his views be given the imprimatur and megaphone of the NYT?

    More later…

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