Tuesday, July 14, 2020 -
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Sen. Tom Cotton, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, welcome to our pages

So-called advocacy journalism undermines democracy

We take no stand here on any policy articulated by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) or by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), and we mention Sen. Cotton first only because it is the treatment meted out to him that illustrates the terrible turn in American journalism — a turn which we strive not to emulate.

Simply put, a diversity of opinion is welcome in the pages of the Intermountain Jewish News. Let Sen. Cotton articulate his views on how to quell riots in American cities, and let Rep. Pelosi denounce them and articulate her own — or let her start first. Either way, each may present his and her opinion and policy in these pages.

We cite these two major political actors only as symbols of the widely divergent political perspectives in the country today, all of which should find expression in a single journalistic outlet, and are welcomed in this one.

Sen. Cotton published an opinion in The New York Times (June 3) advocating the use of the US military to quell riots. It is no surprise that he was roundly condemned for his view. In relation to the expression of that condemnation, we have no complaint. Let any proposed policy be subjected to any critique. But we do have a complaint against those who want to silence Cotton, who want to uproot diversity of opinion from The New York Times. And who might these silencers be? None other than staffers at the Times themselves! They have abandoned their commitment to the journalism embodied and celebrated in such figures as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

So radically have the editors at the NY Times departed from respect for diverse opinion that they forced out the editorial page editor, James Bennet (brother of US Sen. Michael Bennet). James Bennet abjectly apologized for an error in judgment in printing the Cotton piece rather than standing up for the principles of his profession.

Where have we seen this before? Which media outlets were known for demanding ideological purity, for towing a party line? We have seen this before in the old Soviet Union and its communist party mouthpiece, Pravda.

Alas, the disgraceful behavior at the NY Times is not unique, even as its recent behavior is particularly egregious. Many media outlets regularly present exclusively or mainly one side of a political debate. This is dangerous for democracy. A society cannot thrive if its various segments live in their own echo chamber. A society cannot grapple with political conflict if each side considers only its own opinion. True enough, the internet fosters the echo chamber most intensively, but this only makes the willingness to present a diversity of opinion in other journalistic outlets — newspapers, for example — all the more important.

A rationale offered by ideologically driven journalists for curbing diversity of expression is that things have gotten so bad in the country that it needs to be rescued; that old journalistic standards have to be discarded in order to protect the future. Journalism now has a higher calling. To which the response is twofold:

First, if it is the country you want to save, stop being a journalist and go become a politician. If it is the country that is your focus, step into the arena in which change in the country happens most directly.

Second, it is precisely the commitment to a diversity of opinion that protects the country. When people stop listening to each other, when the views of politicians on any side of the spectrum are shut down, this only nurtures the polarization and eviscerates the body politic. Censorship exacerbates the very problem you claim you want to solve. For a journalist, true love of country ought to reinforce a commitment to presenting a diversity of opinion.

The current, dangerous turn in American journalism should not be confused with a violation of the freedoms granted to the press under the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment allows any press outlet to print, or to refuse to print, anything on any grounds. On Constitutional grounds, The New York Times and all the other assorted biased media have every right to present or to suppress any piece of news or opinion they want. However, on the plane of journalistic ethics symbolized by the likes of Walter Cronkite — and by countless writers for the NY Times in the past — diversity trumps censorship.

Any journalistic outlet will always be presented with material not worth publishing for a variety of reasons: it is poorly formulated, it is slanderous, it is tangential, it is repetitive, it is hateful; or there is no space. What we see today is the invocation of such categories as excuses to silence political opinions of major political actors and influencers with whom one disagrees.

This violates what we regard as the best defense of the journalistic ethic offered by Justice Louis D. Brandeis. He said that the best response to bad speech is more speech. If the NYT thought that Sen. Cotton’s view was reprehensible, then the best response was not to apologize after the fact and not to force out the supervising editor. The best response would have been what it has always been: Open the opinion columns to critics of the writer. Let him figure it out. If his idea is a bad one, it’s his problem. But if his idea is a good one, it’s his critics’ problem. That is real debate. That is the public service that responsible journalism provides.

Not to mention, often enough there are good ideas on both sides — something that is impossible to see if only one side is presented.

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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