The conservative reaction to George Soros’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed exemplifies free-speech principles—in contrast with the behavior of left-wing papers like the New York Times.
On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by George Soros, billionaire hedge fund manager and founder of the Open Society Foundations. Soros defended the resources he has poured into the campaigns of progressive prosecutors ($40 million over a decade, according to a June report). His efforts on behalf of criminal-justice reform are both popular and morally righteous, he claimed. American law enforcement is “rife with injustices,” Soros wrote, as evidenced by the fact that “black people in the U.S. are five times as likely to be sent to jail as white people.” (It was not clear whether Soros literally meant “jail,” whether he was using the term as a synecdoche for both prisons and jails, or whether he knew the difference between the two.)
What happened next was startling: nothing. To be sure, the conservative commentariat outside the Wall Street Journal sprang into action, penning articles, editorials, and letters to the editor challenging Soros’s claims. But within the Wall Street Journal’s editorial offices, quiet reigned. No editorial writer or columnist tweeted that Soros’s op-ed put him in danger. There were no calls for the opinion page to retract or renounce the op-ed, or for the opinion editor to resign.
Yet Soros’s piece fundamentally contradicted the Journal’s editorial position on policing and prosecution. The paper has argued in its editorials that the American criminal-justice system is not racist. Nor are decriminalization and decarceration a blow for racial justice, despite being fiercely pursued by Soros-backed district attorneys. Such policies harm law-abiding blacks most of all, the Journal’s opinion section maintains, by leaving them defenseless against criminals.
Despite Soros’s challenge to its longstanding editorial line, the opinion section proceeded as if publishing contrary views were a normal part of being a newspaper opinion page.
Contrast that calm with the outcry at the New York Times in June 2020, when the paper published an op-ed by Arkansas senator Tom Cotton. Cotton argued that then-President Donald Trump should consider calling out the military in response to the race riots that had been triggered by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and that were then engulfing urban areas. The senator explicitly distinguished the rioters from “peaceful, law-abiding protesters”; the latter should not be confused with “bands of miscreants,” he said. But the police were at present overwhelmed, outnumbered, and disproportionately targeted by the violence, Cotton noted. Cotton grounded his argument in historical precedent, invoking, among other examples, President Dwight Eisenhower’s deployment of the 101st Airborne to protect Little Rock Central High School’s desegregation efforts.
The Cotton op-ed threw the New York Times into crisis. It was apparently life-threatening to the paper’s black employees. A tweet from Times workers read: “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, progenitor of the Times’s revisionist American history, the 1619 Project, added another intersectional dimension to the staffers’ victimization: “As a black woman, . . . I am deeply ashamed that we ran this,” she tweeted. More than 800 Times employees signed a letter protesting the Cotton piece.
Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger and editorial page editor James Bennet initially defended the publication of the op-ed as part of the open debate that helps society “reach the right answers.” Twenty-four hours later, management was backpedaling. The Times appended a long and specious editor’s note to the online version of the op-ed, alleging that there were “factual questions” with the piece (there were none) and characterizing its tone as “needlessly harsh” and inconsistent with the “thoughtful approach that advances useful debate.”
In a long, tense Times town hall, Bennet issued the usual groveling apology, adopting the cancel culture conceit that reasoned argument hurts self-declared victim groups. “I’m very sorry, I’m sorry for the pain that this particular piece has caused,” he said. The ordeal had become “a moment for me and for us to interrogate everything we do in opinion.”
He needn’t have bothered with the apology. His fawning self-abasement earned him no credit with the mob, as is always the case in such episodes. A few days later, Bennet resigned. If his overseers tried to persuade him to stay for the sake of the paper’s integrity, there is no record of it. Bennet went out with another excruciating genuflection, this time asserting that the New York Times upholds the journalistic values that it had just patently ignored. The Times “enriches debate,” he wrote in a farewell letter, “by bringing new voices and ideas to Times readers.”
Sulzberger was even more shameless in his reality-negation. The Times’s “responsibility to help people understand a range of voices across the breadth of public debate,” the publisher wrote, “requires fearless engagement with ideas from across the political spectrum, particularly those we disagree with.” But the Times had just capitulated to maudlin claims that its coddled employees feared for their lives because of the Cotton op-ed.
As for the Times’s commitment to “factual” accuracy, a standard it had falsely implied the Cotton op-ed fell short of upholding, the paper disseminated a patently inaccurate characterization of the op-ed when it announced Bennet’s departure. “James Bennet, the editorial page editor of The New York Times, has resigned after a controversy over an Op-Ed by Senator Tom Cotton that called for military force against protesters in American cities,” it wrote on Twitter. Cotton had not called for military force against protesters. To the contrary, he had called for protecting their rights and using the military as a backup only against rioters, and only when the police could no longer repulse the rioters’ violence.
Cotton demanded a retraction of what he called the Times’s “smear.” None was forthcoming.
The day before Bennet’s resignation, the top editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer resigned for a related infraction. The paper’s architecture critic had written a column on the Floyd riots’ devastating impact on Philadelphia’s historic buildings. The column was published under the headline: “Buildings Matter, Too,” a play on the slogan “Black Lives Matter” then animating both protests and riots. Here was another dangerous assault on black lives.
Inquirer staff members circulated an “Open Letter From Journalists of Color at the Philadelphia Inquirer.” The letter announced that black staff members would be “calling in sick and tired” the next day (an echo of civil rights protester Fannie Lou Hamer). Among the many burdens that made the black journalists “sick and tired” was the imposition of “being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.” Such even-handedness has become anachronistic in the age of race orthodoxies.
The Inquirer’s apology rivalled the Times’s in self-abasement. “The Philadelphia Inquirer published a headline in Tuesday’s edition that was deeply offensive. We should not have printed it,” the editors wrote. “We’re sorry, and regret that we did. We also know that an apology on its own is not sufficient. . . . The headline offensively riffed on the Black Lives Matter movement and suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of black Americans. That is unacceptable.”
Not enough. The pain was “just so palpable,” a weekend Inquirer editor told the New York Times. So Stan Wischnowski, the Inquirer’s top editor, fell on his sword and handed in his resignation.
Memo to irony-challenged Inquirer management: the headline did not “suggest an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of black Americans.” It was engaging in the normal verbal play that headline writers deploy in the search for punchy phrasing, play that in this case was well within the bounds of responsible civil discourse and that no grounded reader would take as a literal claim that buildings and blacks are equivalent.
The different reactions to the Soros and the Cotton op-eds and to the Inquirer headline undercuts the Left’s assertion that it is conservatives who threaten free speech in the U.S. Running George Soros was as much of a challenge to the worldview of many Republicans and to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial position as running the Cotton op-ed was a challenge to Times staffers and the Times’s reader base. Soros is perhaps the Right’s biggest bête noire. It is almost impossible to give a speech to a conservative gathering and not be asked about his allegedly pernicious effect on American policy and governance. But giving Soros a platform to argue for his depolicing crusade allowed readers to test their own assumptions against his. As it turns out, Soros’s arguments were laughably weak and ill-informed. His claim that the higher rate of black incarceration demonstrates racial injustice, for example, ignores the exponentially higher rate of black crime.
Soros-assisted decarceration and decriminalization helped drive a 29 percent increase in homicides in 2020—with most of the increase being made up of black victims. The Journal’s black opinion staff could argue that the Soros op-ed put them “in danger,” but they are apparently able to distinguish between speech and violence, unlike Times staffers.
In accusing conservatives of shutting down speech, the Left points to parental opposition to school curricula that expose elementary school children to a premature knowledge of sexuality. There is no analogy between a newspaper opinion section and a second-grade classroom. Elementary school teachers have no First Amendment right to impose innocence-destroying sexual awareness (aka “LGBTQ gender instruction”) on eight-year-olds. The decision regarding when and what to teach children about sex belongs to parents. An elementary school classroom is not a marketplace of ideas, let alone a forum for highly contested, novel recastings of biological reality.
Newspapers, by contrast, once provided a crucial venue for the real marketplace of ideas. No longer. Since the Bennet defenestration, the range of opinion at the New York Times has become even narrower and its left-wing formulae even shriller, including in Times news reporting. The liberal cable channels are just as constricted. Only conservative outlets reliably offer any range of opinion. Fox News programming regularly includes opposing viewpoints; the Wall Street Journal editorial page regularly publishes dissenters from its economic philosophy, such as Jason Furman and Alan Blinder. The Soros op-ed garnered over 1,500 reader comments, most of them critical—not of the Journal for running the op-ed, but of Soros himself. The paper published several responses to the piece, including one from Senator Cotton and another from Manhattan Institute fellow Thomas Hogan. Those responses did not call for the retraction of the op-ed or for the editors’ heads.
Today, whether on college campuses or in the media, it is conservatives who still believe in the value of debate. The nauseating claim that argument with which a listener disagrees “harms” that listener is an extortion tactic used almost exclusively on the left. If the Left gets its way, however, whether through Big Tech or government campaigns against “disinformation,” there will be no more conservative speech to uphold what was once the bedrock principle of democracy.
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