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 Black@nytimes 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.”
In early 2018, Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, hired the conservative writer Kevin Williamson to join the magazine’s staff—only to fire Williamson in the face of objections to the hiring from inside the publication and from readers. The Atlantic’s motto is “Of no party or clique,” but in this instance, Goldberg ruled in favor of protestors arguing that past statements by Williamson, before he joined the publication, made him unfit for employment. The most intense objection was to his tweets relating to abortion, as in his comment that “the law should treat abortion like any other homicide.”
In September 2018, Ian Buruma exited as editor of The New York Review of Books over impassioned objections, inside and outside the publication, to his decision to publish an essay by a Canadian radio broadcaster accused of sexually assaulting women but acquitted of any crime. The author told of his experience of “constantly competing with a villainous version of myself online.” Protesters said that the story was unacceptable because it was an insult to sexual-assault victims. Buruma got himself into hotter water by telling a Slate interviewer that the “exact nature” of the author’s behavior was not his “concern.” The Review’s publisher and owner, Rea Hederman, convened a meeting of editorial staff and announced that Buruma would be leaving as editor.
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.” Meantime, Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief of The Economist, released a statement standing by her publication’s invitation to Bannon to appear at its Open Future festival. “When James Wilson launched this newspaper in 1843,” she noted, “he said its mission was to take part in ‘a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.’ Those words have guided us for 175 years.”
In a similar vein, regarding the Buruma incident, John Ryle, the British writer and academic, organized an open letter signed by more than 100 contributors to The New York Review. Their statement objected to Buruma’s “forced resignation” as “an abandonment of the central mission of the Review, which is the free exploration of ideas.” Signatories included Joyce Carol Oates and Ian McEwan.
More voices in the working press—voices outside the tenured precincts of academia, voices without bestselling books to their names, especially younger voices—need to join this resistance. It is the younger ones who have been reared on the notion that the marketplace of ideas is a “myth,” a “confused argument that promises the triumph of good ideas while delivering ordinary and unproductive provocation,” as suggested by Aaron Hanlon, an assistant professor of English at Colby College, in a 2017 article for The New Republic.
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 29-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. Do news organizations really stand to suffer, commercially or otherwise, if they refuse to heed demands to retract a controversial article, remove an editor, or rescind an invitation? While several speakers withdrew from The Economist’s Open Future festival in protest of the invitation of Bannon to appear, the festival was held, with Bannon interviewed by editor Beddoes. Two years later, The Economist, with some 1.6 million print and digital subscribers combined, motors along.
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.
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