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The Times And Our Obligation to Civil Society

The New York Times resumed publication of its series of articles based on the secret Pentagon papers in its July 1, 1971 edition, after it was given the green light by the U.S. Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Jim Wells)

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The New York Times resumed publication of its series of articles based on the secret Pentagon papers in its July 1, 1971 edition, after it was given the green light by the U.S. Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Jim Wells)

The resignation of New York Times opinion editor James Bennet may have quieted the furor over the paper’s decision to publish an essay by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) titled “Send In The Troops,” but it leaves the question of where the institution stands on the underlying controversy, and its role as a keeper of American civil society, unresolved.

Cotton’s op-ed was a manifesto for suppressing dissent in America with state-sanctioned violence. He made no effort to pretend that sending the U.S. military into anti-police protest zones wouldn’t result in the repression and killing of law-abiding citizens, and mustered only a cursory one to distinguish between peaceful protesters and rioters.

In relenting to internal and public pressure, the Times acknowledged factual errors in Cotton’s piece, which it also faulted for being “needlessly harsh,” and attributed the decision to run it to a breakdown in the opinion section’s editorial process. These admissions were apparently grounds for a huge shakeup at the paper, yet they describe problems that a skilled copy-editor could have fixed in about 10 minutes. The offense in the official telling wasn’t commissioning a turd of an op-ed, but the staff’s failure to adequately polish it.

Neither the paper’s critics nor those who defended it against the initial uproar find this position satisfying. It suggests the Times should remain open to publishing calls for the destruction of liberal order, but only after they’ve been sanded at the edges. It suggests the next opinion editor’s only lodestar will be avoiding another staff revolt, which will leave the paper’s actual position on its own editorial boundaries completely murky.

The more constructive admission came not from the Times public relations team, but from one of Bennet’s deputies and supporters, Bari Weiss, who wrote, “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. If the answer is yes, it means that the view of more than half of Americans are unacceptable. And perhaps they are.”

This gets much, much closer to the core of the controversy. Many supporters of the decision to run the Cotton piece have cast their defenses in self-congratulatory language. They are willing to brook dangerous ideas, even emboss them with the imprimatur of the Times, because they are enlightened and unafraid. Yet once the Times’s critics and supporters have agreed that some ideas do not deserve to be amplified by the New York Times opinion section, we’re left with an argument over where the stewards of that institution should draw the line. The revolt over the Cotton op-ed wasn’t about the quality of Cotton’s prose. It was about placing the boundary at the maintenance of hard-won rights like free assembly and self-governance, rights that are now under increasing attack.

Times defenders have yet to be so specific, and so their collective paean to reasoned debate is artifice—one that barely obscures a willingness to surrender sound judgment in order to accommodate people of bad faith. It’s easy to articulate repellent ideas and deem them to fall outside the sphere of democratic debate. It’s easy to say the Times would never publish an op-ed that promoted genocide or the forced sterilization of minorities, while ignoring edge cases rooted in the reality of American politics today. It’s much more difficult to articulate principles that are endangered right now and defend them, because it’s impossible to know just how depraved and illiberal the right will become as it continues its march into authoritarianism.

The question for Times opinion editors and the rest of civil society is whether they want to remain so irresolute that they continue to allow the right to push the boundaries of legitimate debate further into anti-democratic terrain, simply because a disconcerting number of Americans will be along for the ride. It isn’t hard to play the default position forward to very dark places. Amid plague conditions, President Trump has declared that if Democratic states and cities facilitate absentee voting, the election won’t be legitimate. His assault on voting by mail is based on a lie, yet plenty of conservatives, including some who work for Trump and would happily write under his byline, could draft an op-ed consistent with Times editorial standards, arguing Trump is right to question the outcome of the election if absentee voting becomes the rule rather than the exception.

Should the Times be home to such an op-ed? Would the “free marketplace of ideas” obligate the paper to run it? If the answer is yes, then what happens if, on election night, a defeated Trump refuses to concede, and instead announces that he has filed lawsuits in a variety of Democratic strongholds (Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Detroit, Miami) to contest ballots? What if he insists that he won’t initiate the transition process until all of his appeals have been exhausted? What if 42 percent of the country supports his plan? Why wouldn’t that just represent yet another contest between two legitimate ideas?

It’s easy for the Times to say it would never allow a politician to use its pages to promote a military coup in the U.S., but what about a procedural one? One that allows Mitch McConnell to say “if the president believes there were irregularities in the vote, he has every right to make use of all the legal means available to him.” One that lends itself to stories that say “Controversy arises over election outcome,” instead of “Republicans seek to steal election.”

Opinion journalism can be a line of defense against the encroachment of autocracy, but not if we relinquish editorial judgment over which ideas are consistent with an open society and which are not. If the line goes undrawn, the boundary will race rightward along with Republicans, and an autocracy will slip in to place with our consent. The Times and others will leave themselves ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous actors who will seed more and more audaciously illiberal ideas in the public debate, then treat after-the-fact efforts to restore healthy discourse as censorious. This is hopefully not the future we’re driving toward, but it’s one the Times has no room to stand against if its position on the Cotton essay is that it was simply under-edited. The Rubicon the paper has not crossed, and seems intent on not crossing, is to admit that the right-wing value system is at many junctures inconsistent with democratic life, and declare that the Times will no longer broadcast those ideas uncritically.