Letters From An American: June 8, 2020

tags: racism, media, journalism, protests, Tom Cotton, Objectivity

Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the American West, and the Plains Indians. She previously taught at MIT and the University of Massachusetts. Richardson is the author most recently of How the South Won the Civil War.

Even more indicative that the national narrative is changing was the announcement yesterday that James Bennet had resigned as the editorial page editor of the New York Times. Bennet ran an op-ed last Wednesday by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton titled (by the Times, not by Cotton) “Send in the Troops.” The inflammatory piece blamed “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” for an “orgy of violence” during the recent protests and claimed that “outnumbered police officers… bore the brunt of the violence.” Neither of these statements is true, and they clothe a false Republican narrative in what appears to be fact. Cotton’s solution to the protests was to send in the military to restore “law and order,” and he misquoted the Constitution to defend that conclusion.

The kerfuffle over this op-ed seems like it’s more than a normal media skirmish. For more than a century, American media has tried to report facts impartially. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Federal Communications Commission enshrined this principle in the Fairness Doctrine, which established that public media must base its news in facts and must present both sides of an argument fairly, honestly, and equitably. Beginning in the 1950s, Republicans who were ideologically opposed to the New Deal state complained that this principle, embraced by the “liberal media,” discriminated against them. In 1987, after President Ronald Reagan had placed new members on the board of the FCC, it abandoned the Fairness Doctrine.

With that abandonment, talk radio took off, presenting an ideological narrative that showed white taxpayers under siege by godless women and people of color. The Fox News Channel was not far behind, calling itself “fair and balanced” until 2017, when it dropped the slogan, because it presented the ideological narrative that mainstream media rejected. Other media outlets tried to defend themselves against charges that they were biased against that narrative, so they opened up their pages and television shows to that ideological story. Increasingly, the extreme Republican narrative spread into the mainstream on the grounds that the media must show “both sides.”

By 2014, though, cell phones and Twitter offered images and reports from the ground in places like Ferguson, Missouri, that showed up the police version of events, echoed by Fox News Channel personalities and talk radio hosts, as dishonest… and dangerous. Young Black journalists called out the reigning narrative that people of color were “thugs” and “criminals,” but their protests did not change the basic media pattern of “both sides-ism.”

Until now. The backlash over Cotton’s op-ed was so great that the day after Bennet published it, he tried to explain his decision to publish the incendiary piece by saying that it was important to provide both sides of a debate, “to help you think for yourself.” But this didn’t fly. Journalists objected that the piece endangered them.

The next day, June 5, the New York Times blamed the editing process for letting a “rushed and flawed” essay through, and said that a review of the piece led the editors to conclude “that the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.” Two days later, Bennet left the editorial page desk.

It appears that the both-sides principle of the past generation is falling to what younger progressive journalists call moral clarity. But also at stake is the Enlightenment principle of fact-based argument. The Cotton piece was not rooted in reality; it was a narrative based in falsehoods and thus was fatally flawed. It could not contribute to public debate.

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