These are tense times. The past six months have provided enough news to fuel Twitter for years, if not decades, and 2020 keeps getting wilder as it continues. Who would have thought that a global pandemic would be below-the-fold news because tens of millions of people across the world are invoking comparisons to the 1960s Civil Rights movement?
Yeah, not me.
It’s in this razor-sharp environment that the New York Times stepped into the fray last week, publishing an op-ed from Arkansas senator Tom Cotton entitled, “Send In The Troops.”
“One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” Cotton wrote. “But local law enforcement in some cities desperately needs backup, while delusional politicians in other cities refuse to do what’s necessary to uphold the rule of law.”
Instant and near-unanimous revolt met the piece upon its publication, with dozens of the Times’ own reporters tweeting, “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.”
The fervor swelled to a fever pitch as the editorial page editor of the Times resigned and the paper said “the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.”
Except, the Times was right to publish the op-ed in the first place.
A clear argument can be made that many news consumers don’t understand the strict and intentional firewall between the newsroom and the editorial board, or the distinction in the New York Times between opinion and fact. It can also be argued that the Times — and other media companies — must do a better job of making that distinction clear.
However, it doesn’t discount the argument that must be made for the publishing of the op-ed. An op-ed piece is the definition of a soap box, meant for notable individuals to share — and in some cases, lobby — their beliefs with others. Cotton’s editorial, no matter how dangerous and racist, does just that.
Cotton is a public figure; what he believes matters, especially since he will now be voting on police reform legislation in the upcoming months. His opinion isn’t just your racist uncle posting on Facebook — it is the opinion that could impact hundreds of millions of Americans.
Journalists and media organizations are the gatekeepers of information in our society, and even as the power of that position decreases with the prevalence of social media, it doesn’t discount the role that journalists play. It is not the place of the Times to put its finger on the scale, saying that voters don’t deserve to know what Cotton believes.
Let me be clear: I fully support the protests erupting across the United States. In fact, I attended a vigil in my hometown of Nashua, New Hampshire to memorialize George Floyd and celebrate the Black Lives Matter movement.
But the point of op-eds is to present contrary opinions and write down for the history books the beliefs of this time period. In 50 years, I pray that Cotton will be known for the disgraceful views expressed in his op-ed.
At the same time, I know that if it weren’t for his piece in the Times, we wouldn’t know what he believes, and wouldn’t be able to reflect on that belief in the future.
The Times was — and is, despite its retraction — right to publish the Tom Cotton op-ed.
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