Last night, The New York Times, which has long maintained the pretentions of being the serious journalistic institution in the United States, published an article about how its own employees were scared—not just irritated, or "deeply ashamed," but terrified—that the publication in its pages of an op-ed from a sitting U.S. senator would threaten their very lives.
The purportedly dangerous piece, by the reliably authoritarian Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.), called for President Donald Trump to send military personnel, using the Insurrection Act of 1807, to help put down the rioting that has sometimes broken out at demonstrations against abusing policing.
"His message undermines the journalistic work of our members, puts our Black staff members in danger, promotes hate, and is likely to encourage further violence," alleges the News Guild of New York, the union that represents Times staffers. "Invariably, invoking state violence disproportionately hurts Black and brown people. It also jeopardizes our journalists' ability to work in the field safely and effectively."
Like Defense Secretary Mark Esper, I do not think the president should invoke the Insurrection Act, now or for whatever other hare-brained schemes he may have. And like the army of journalism professors and lefty media critics busy mashing the "like" button on every new anti-Cotton tweet, I am no fan of the senator. My first piece about him, five years ago, was headlined "GOP's New Foreign Policy Hero Is a Surveillance-Loving Interventionist Nightmare."
But Tom Cotton is, sadly, a senator. And one of the most longstanding traditions among journals of national aspiration—the Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Atlantic—is publishing advocacy essays by people in power.
For instance, then-Rep. Charlie Rangel (D–N.Y.) wrote a 2002 New York Times op-ed headlined "Bring Back the Draft" (talk about "invoking state violence" in a way that "disproportionately hurts Black and brown people"!) without stirring this sort of protest. More recently, Michael Bloomberg took to the Gray Lady to advocate banning flavored vapes. Ask the family of Eric Garner how they feel about the racial distribution of stepped-up anti-nicotine enforcement in New York. One begins to suspect that the objection to Cotton is not a principled observation that state power is disproportionately wielded against the less fortunate.
This publishing flap, which in comparative importance is a sputtering match next to the hell-inferno of spring 2020, is nonetheless symbolic of a shift bearing more tectonic heft. Our liberal institutions, not unlike our conservative intellectuals, are noisily abandoning liberalism.
While the Trump-era trolls on the right gleefully transgress the bounds of discourse (particularly concerning race, gender, and sexuality) to provoke the sensitivities of the forces they call "the Cathedral," the solons of the institutional left expend a frightful amount of energy serving as intellectual bouncers—deciding, sometimes based on organization affiliation or even immutable characteristics, who is allowed to be in the club and dance on the "platform." It is an ever-escalating slap-fight between two sides who have given up on the idea of don't-categorize-me individualism.
The woke left's march through the institutions, from experimental liberal arts campuses to the most hallowed journalistic outlets, has been breathtaking in its speed and scope. It's a generational war, and the GenXers for whom this stuff doesn't come natural are learning that they have to become fluent in the new language or end up as pariahs in their own newsrooms. The country's top editors—Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, David Remnick at The New Yorker—discover during moments of staff revolt that their old-timey notions about broad public squares and multi-viewpoint conversations are no longer tolerable.
Outlets that once waved the flag of provocative viewpoint-diversity—Salon, The New Republic, Vice—have long since become barely distinguishable enforcers of a joyless orthodoxy. Just today, Vox's Zack Beauchamp engaged in ritual self-criticism after getting ripped by the kids for having tweeted, "I'm sorry but 'abolish the police' seems like a poorly thought out idea that's gotten popular with shocking speed."
As The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf observed/predicted, "There is ascendant pressure on journalists to reify positions that are held by a minority of the public and a supermajority of journalists. If it succeeds it will not advance social justice. It will make journalistic institutions that value social justice less influential." All this can be mortifying to watch.
For those editorial leaders who remain on the inside even after having committed the sin of expressing a Wrongthink or publishing a Deplorable, the price to pay is either a full public confession or a cowed explanation full of more caveats than the subway's full of rats. An example of the latter genre was published today by Times editorial page chief James Bennet. There is zero question, in reading Bennet's timid defense, which way the wind's blowing on Eighth Avenue. The bouncers may have let Cotton sneak under the velvet rope, but the next poseur won't be so lucky.
So do staffers at The New York Times truly believe, as their union alleges, that the publication of a single op-ed by one of 100 sitting U.S. senators represents "a clear threat to the health and safety of journalists"? If so, then that is yet another data point that the whole taking politics seriously not literally concept, with all the intellectual corruption that entails, is no longer and perhaps has never been the exclusive province of the Trumpite right.
Cotton, whose piece (should anyone actually care about such things) condemns the "wrongful death of George Floyd" and makes a point of distinguishing "peaceful, law-abiding protesters" from "looters" (though I'm dubious his pined-for military responders would), would, if barred from making his argument in The New York Times, have to resort to the hinterlands of, uh, C-SPAN, Fox News, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and just about any other newspaper in America. You would need a powerful microscope indeed to calibrate the marginal increase in likelihood that Trump would now take Cotton's advice just because it appeared in the paper he hates.
Given the startling erosion in meaning of such once-fixed concepts as "safety," and the twin degradation of evidentiary requirements when making sweeping accusations of racism, the likeliest explanation for the Cotton panic is that the frenzy at this point is feeding on itself.
Words have clear definitions, and grave accusations have clear need for verification, and yet you will not see a day go past when the Times and its journalists will act as if such standards do not exist. "They are parallel plagues ravaging America," the paper's lead paragraph of its lead article asserted Friday. "The coronavirus. And police killings of black men and women." That is not how language works.
New York Times Magazine correspondent and anti-Cotton ringleader Nikole Hannah-Jones (a "Pulitzer winner," the paper reminds us in its coverage about its own staff being mad at the Opinion section), stated as fact Tuesday that "Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence." As National Review's Michael Brendan Dougherty snarked, "Opeds are violence, acts of arson are opeds."
And fear, apparently, is everywhere. The most unintentionally hilarious sections of the paper's article about itself speak volumes about where elite journalistic institutions are heading. The first is writer Marc Tracy worrying out loud that readers of the country's leading intellectual light might be too stupid to understand newspaper traditions: "The distinction between opinion pieces and news articles is sometimes lost on readers, who may see an Op-Ed—promoted on the same home page—as just another Times article." Abolish all Op-Eds!
And the second comes from inside the house: "Three Times journalists, who declined to be identified by name, said they had informed their editors that sources told them they would no longer provide them with information because of the Op-Ed."
If this cramped cowardice is the future of journalism, then journalism has no future. Thankfully, readers and viewers and listeners who rightfully find all this to be crazy talk have a universe of other options.
Speaking of which, we talked about this and similar topics on a recent episode of The Fifth Column podcast with New York Times staffer Bari Weiss. Take a listen: