New York Times’ Fear of Ordinary People Talking Back

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Source: FAIR

Samuel Freedman, author and long-time New York Times writer, often told his journalism students that they needed to keep in mind while writing copy that they wouldn’t be able to literally stand behind their reader at the newsstand. A writer must make their copy as clean as possible, the lesson was, because once it’s printed, they won’t be able to clarify what they meant, or even have any kind of dialogue with the reader.

Journalists don’t live in that cloistered world anymore. The readers, and their reactions, are everywhere. They’re in the comment section, on Reddit and on Twitter. They know what you look like, and they know how to tag you on social media when denouncing your last article. Unlike the typewriter clackers of yore, today’s journalists instantly hit publish, and within minutes their articles are torn apart on social media, both a sign of our advancing technology and the consequences of living in a free society.

Most writers, unsurprisingly, hate this. But over the last few years, this annoyance at the rabble’s elevation in the discourse has evolved into hand-wringing over the future of liberalism. The commentators aren’t just filling our inboxes, they are threatening the enlightenment and free discourse.

‘Fear of being shamed or shunned’

Hyperbole? Hardly. A New York Times editorial (3/18/22) denouncing liberal “cancel culture” as a threat to free speech has been widely ridiculed. It begins by asserting that the people’s “right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public” must be “without fear of being shamed or shunned.”

As many pointed out, this is a profound misunderstanding of free speech. As press critic Dan Froomkin (Press Watchers, 3/18/22) put it: “The fundamental right is to be able to engage in spirited debate without government intervention. There is no right not to be ratioed on Twitter.”

At FAIR, I have examined the backlash against so-called “cancel culture” for a while now. In coverage of the infamous “Harper’s letter” (7/7/20), I explored (10/23/20) how conservative outrage over social justice “cancel culture” was a form of projection, as the right has a long record of using its power to censor left-wing speech, for example on on the subject of Israel/Palestine. I also pointed out (5/20/21) how a group of conservative Jewish writers participated in the same deceit, painting themselves as the victims of censorship when they have been forceful in their efforts to cancel liberals and leftists–again, especially when it comes to Israel/Palestine.

And recently I have shown (11/17/21) how the Times joined the Wall Street Journal in running a constant stream of attacks against “woke” politics, rendering the word almost meaningless, except the vague idea that any politics west of Clintonian liberalism constituted a threat to Baby Boomers’ opinions on cultural issues.

The most recent editorial is based on a survey of how often Americans have bit their tongues on voicing controversial ideas for fear of a backlash, which is supposed to underscore the fact that we live in an unprecedented age of darkness. The board tells us that we are living under a “destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination around cancel culture,” with people on “the left refus[ing] to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all, believing that those who complain about it are offering cover for bigots to peddle hate speech.” The paper laments that the “full-throated defense of free speech was once a liberal ideal,” but that this has devolved into intolerance, because criticizing

people in the workplace, on campus, on social media and elsewhere who express unpopular views from a place of good faith is the practice of a closed society.

The Weisman warning

This latest salvo against “cancel culture” by the Times isn’t a case of hypocrisy or about disempowering the AOC wing of the Democratic Party, but a rather telling case of how establishment media have failed to cope with a changing media landscape that has punctured their cocoons, because, if anything, we live in a media age defined by profound openness.

Consider the case of Jonathan Weisman, a Times Washington editor demoted and relieved of overseeing “the paper’s congressional correspondents because he repeatedly posted messages on social media about race and politics” (New York Times, 8/13/19). In particular, he had said on Twitter (7/31/19) that representatives Rashida Tlaib (D.–Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D.–Minn.) did not represent the Midwest, just like Lloyd Doggett (D.–Texas) didn’t represent Texas and the late John Lewis (D.–Georgia) didn’t represent the Deep South.

Thanks to social media, condemnation was swift (The Hill, 7/31/19; Salon, 7/31/19). Part of the outrage stemmed from the fact that Weisman singled out non-white lawmakers. But even giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he was referring to the fact that they represent urban areas, the idea that these are somehow culturally detached from their surrounding regions is so asinine that anyone who believes it probably shouldn’t be dictating US political coverage at the Paper of Record. There was probably a time when an editor could have made this elitist comment among friends over cocktails without consequence, but in the age of social media, exposing oneself like this is a liability.

The right to offend—not to take offense

Weisman made a particularly stupid error, but the incident reminded writers at the Times and other establishment papers that an intense backlash to their work could result in editors questioning their roles. Readers amplified by social media have at least a limited sort of check on the power of the press.

The Times admits that the legal challenges against speech are coming mostly from the right. But then the editorial board says:

On college campuses and in many workplaces, speech that others find harmful or offensive can result not only in online shaming but also in the loss of livelihood. Some progressives believe this has provided a necessary, and even welcome, check on those in power. But when social norms around acceptable speech are constantly shifting and when there is no clear definition of harm, these constraints on speech can turn into arbitrary rules with disproportionate consequences.

Translation: There is too much speech. Conservative writer Bari Weiss wrote in her resignation letter (New York Times, 7/14/20) from the Times: “Twitter is not on the masthead of the New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.” At first, it seemed that Weiss was either just overly sensitive to tweets criticizing her work, or she was looking for a way to make herself out to be a martyr. But the recent Times editorial indicates that this idea that negative commentary on Twitter towards professional journalists is simply too intimidating, and thus has a chilling effect, is more widely held at Weiss’s former employer.

In fact, the Times editorial deploys the same kind of thinking as the conservative Jewish magazine Tablet (7/21/20), finding the attack on free speech coming from “woke believers” and the “secular left”:

They do not (yet) control the highest levels of government, but they evidently wield considerable power within state, corporate and cultural institutions. In articles, in Twitter mobs and in everyday conversations, they are reshaping our consensus about what counts as a legitimate opinion and what sort of ideas should be allowed to appear in the public sphere.

Again, the problem for free speech here isn’t that there isn’t enough of it, but that the wrong class of people are protected by it. If a professor or a journalist wants to go out there and say things that are controversial, then in a free society that means people talk back. Many times that yields no consequences, as calls to cancel comedian Dave Chappelle for a transphobic Netflix special or podcaster Joe Rogan for spreading Covid misinformation haven’t really hurt their careers. The insinuation is that the right to offend trumps the right to vocally express that one is offended, when, in fact, both should have equal value under the right to free speech.

The Kumbaya doctrine

And what follows in the Times piece is the true chilling effect, a line that seems innocuous but really isn’t: “Free speech is predicated on mutual respect.” Is it? Where is this doctrine of Kumbaya writing into constitutional theory? The American ideal of free speech is predicated on the idea that the government should not control printing presses, dictate what can be said out loud or limit how we peaceably assemble.

Lately, many free speech advocates wonder to what degree corporations, rather than government, are limiting discourse by virtue of the fact that only a few companies—Facebook, Twitter and Google—dominate the Internet. There is no legal argument that we all have to respect and like each other; we simply acknowledge that powerful institutions are not supposed to limit each other’s expression.

This editorial, with its appeal to niceties and decorum, flips this concept on its head, saying that discourse isn’t under threat by state and corporate  power but by the fact the 99 Percent—students, readers, regular people—are getting too loud in a media ecosystem that is much more open and democratic than it was for previous generations.

Two decades ago, the late Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens (Wilsonian Quarterly, Autumn/04) observed the tendency of American political commentators to bemoan the intensity of partisan battles. But he noted that “politics is, or ought to be, division,” and that “it is simply flat-out mythological to suppose that things were more polite in the golden past.” A similar deception is happening here with the Times.

What the Times editorial is saying is that protecting the right of writers and academics to say unpopular things requires self-censorship for those who don’t have the privilege of being employed in the intellectual class. A columnist says something transphobic? Don’t you dare tweet about it. A television host engages in some casual racism? Better not put it in your blog, or else you’re contributing to the hostile environment of shaming that leads to self-censorship. Self-censorship by other people, that is, whose right to express themselves is presumably more important than yours.

The Times editorial is less about free speech than it is a protest against a shift in the power balance, anger at a world in which journalists have more exposure to the readership class, and to the reader’s anger as well.

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