Paul Starobin on what journalism should be: “A forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.”

From an essay by Paul Starobin on headlined “Saving the Marketplace of Ideas”:

In 1896, an unquiet time in America, Adolph S. Ochs, the new publisher of the New York Times, issued a declaration of principles for the paper. Yellow tabloid journalism, often reflecting little beyond the prejudices of the loudmouth owners of the presses, was the prevailing custom of the age. In words that became famous as a statement for good journalism, Ochs said that the Times would instead seek “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor.” And he attached that pronouncement to a less-well remembered one: “to make of the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.”

It was an awakening to the principle known as the “marketplace of ideas,” the notion that the best thoughts on social, political, and economic progress should compete in an open forum, with survival going to the fittest. Ochs had the confidence and conviction to put his paper on the side of this standard.

Nearly 125 years later, a spate of recent episodes suggests an industry in crisis. This month, the Times opinion section published a piece by Senator Tom Cotton under the headline “Send in the Troops.” Cotton argued that it was “past time” for President Trump to invoke his legal authority to use the military to end looting and related disorder on America’s streets, after the death of George Floyd in police custody. This was certainly a controversial opinion, as was, too, the piece, also published this month by the Times, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” by Mariame Kaba, an “anti-criminalization organizer.” Yet Cotton’s column spurred an uprising in the Times newsroom, with staff journalists tweeting their denunciations of the opinion section’s decision to run it. A number of protesters used the hashtag, “Running this puts [email protected]staff in danger.” Citing “a significant breakdown in our editing process,” publisher A. G. Sulzberger, the great-great grandson of Ochs, accepted the resignation of editorial-page editor James Bennet. An “Editor’s Note” note atop the online version of the Cotton piece declares that the essay “should not have been published.”. . .

September 2018 was a busy month. David Remnick, the longtime editor of The New Yorker, announced that he would interview Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, on stage at the New Yorker Festival, with “every intention,” he took pains to say, “of asking him difficult questions and engaging in a serious and even combative conversation.” Cue the resistance. “I love working for New Yorker, but I’m beyond appalled by this,” staff writer Kathryn Schulz tweeted her followers. “I have already made that very clear to David Remnick. You can, too.” Remnick hastily rescinded the invitation: “If the opportunity presents itself I’ll interview him in a more traditionally journalistic setting.”

Each of these episodes prompted defenders of the traditional marketplace of ideas to point to the threat posed by “cancel culture” to our liberal values. I echo that lament—but it is not sufficient to lay the blame for this trend, as is typically done, on the migration of illiberal ideas from their birthplace in intolerant academia to leading journalistic institutions. To leave matters there is to suggest a kind of helpless stasis to this development, as if a new weather system has moved in and forced all of us to breathe the same fouled air.

Every culture is formed by individual choices. Journalists believe in personal accountability for choices made by those in positions of responsibility, and that includes the choices made by those who publish and edit their work. So, attention must be focused on what presents as a lapse in conviction at the top of these institutions—a disappointing failure, in the pressure of the moment, to have faith in the very principles in which the institutions profess belief. In each of these instances, a different call could have and should have been made—by Times publisher Sulzberger on forcing out Bennet, by Atlantic editor Goldberg on firing Williamson, by New York Review publisher and owner Hederman on forcing out Buruma, and by New Yorker editor Remnick on withdrawing his invitation to Bannon.

To their credit, some have pushed back. The Times’s relabeling of the Cotton essay as unfit for publication represented “an embarrassing retreat from principle,” Michael Powell, a longtime reporter and sports columnist at the paper, said on Twitter. “Call me old-fashioned,” the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell said in a tweet on the Bannon affair. “But I would have thought that the point of a festival of ideas was to expose the audience to ideas. If you only invite your friends over, it’s called a dinner party.”. . .

Sharp questioning might lead to strained relations in the workplace. A challenge to a claim like the one put forward by some Times staffers—that publishing Cotton’s op-ed put black staff “in danger”—would require a thick skin on the part of the dissident. Nevertheless, any claim merits scrutiny. Of course, news organizations must take seriously workplace-safety concerns posed by journalists responsible for gathering the news in dangerous situations, whether on the streets of Minneapolis or in the mountains of Afghanistan. But should such concerns guide what appears on opinion pages? To say yes is to jeopardize the autonomy of the opinion section—to collapse the wall that separates newsrooms from opinion departments.

Take down that wall, some journalists now argue. The notion, as advocated by Wesley Lowery, a 30-year-old former Washington Post reporter, is to make shoe-leather reporters freer to express a point of view in their news stories. Traditional “both-sides journalism is a failed experiment,” Lowery recently tweeted. Yet surveys reliably show that journalists overwhelmingly lean Democratic and liberal in their politics. To turn news pages into opinion pages is a formula, not for broadening the marketplace of ideas, but for narrowing “all shades of opinion” down to a predictable few.

As for leaders of media institutions, surely they can profit by reviewing the collective experience of the press in dealing with Twitter mobs, by now a common hazard of the social media landscape. In the joint interest of not emboldening these throngs, they need to recognize that to give way to a mob one time is only to encourage an even more insistent horde the next. What happens to your neighbor can happen to you. . . .

The marketplace of ideas certainly is noisy. It’s a truism to say that social media has made it more rambunctious than ever—but that assertion doesn’t stand up to historical scrutiny. America was born in an age of furious opinion, with pamphlets propounding every conceivable view papering the streets and taverns. Anyway, there is no better alternative. The marketplace principle remains the bedrock—the possession of “no party of clique,” as in The Atlantic’s founding credo of 1857. Ochs, in his mission statement for the Times in 1896, wasn’t inventing a principle but reaffirming a timeless one. Institutions like the Times need to stay truer to their roots. What’s needed is a true reawakening—in short, a renaissance of journalism’s core values.

Paul Starobin got his start in journalism as a reporter for the Lowell (MA) Sun in the mid-1980s and is the author, most recently, of A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age.

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