If you haven’t been following or up to date on the stories about newsroom leaders making terrible decisions in the wake of protests about the deaths of Black people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor… I don’t know why you read this.
A lot of this news has been portrayed as either some of vicious rebellion of “old” journos versus young “new” journos, as alluded to by the tweets of a certain New York Times columnist I won’t name, or as the overdue reckoning of newsrooms with legacy staff in coming to terms with the realities and failures of their hiring, retention, and support of journalists of color, especially Black journalists. (I will state for the record that I do not use the phrase “people of color” to mean “Black people” — and neither should you erase the particular experiences of Black people so.)
But the departure of James Bennet, the editorial page editor of the New York Times and formerly considered to be a top choice to succeed Dean Baquet as the Times’ top news editor, has been met with dismay by some journalists who think that Bennet was unfairly “thrown under the bus” for doing his job as an opinions editor, and that the Times had been responded unreasonably to a “mob” of online comments.
I have already shared my thoughts on criticisms of referring to a “mob” in this tweet:
The marketplace of ideas
The discomfort prompted by the circumstances of Bennet’s departure (technically, a resignation invited by the Times’s publisher) and of criticism of “bad takes” published in and by Times opinion, and by opinion sections of news publications generally, is that such supposed retaliation for unpopular opinions injures the “marketplace of ideas” — the notion that the opinion pages of a newspaper are a forum for the free expression of opinions and thoughts.
Under such a philosophy, a news organization like The New York Times should publish pieces in its opinion pages even if they are widely unpopular with its readers, like advocating the use of military force against peaceful protestors as written in the Tom Cotton op-ed that began this latest controversy. The goal is for such opinions to be aired out such that the public may comment and respond to them, as has happened in this instance; and that counterarguments and alternative viewpoints may be put forward, so that we the people, well-informed on policy debate, can navigate the imagined marketplace and settle on the “best” ideas.
This idea is clearly shown in how Bennet, before his dismissal, thought that the appropriate response to criticism of the Cotton op-ed was to point out that the editorial board had taken the opposite position. (It’s the first tweet in his Twitter thread on the topic.)
It is a wonderful idea in theory, and one that I hope to dismantle, bit by bit, with teething, unforgiving critique; for it is a philosophy that is fundamentally flawed, and I am using every tool supposedly guarded by this ideology in the hopes of destroying it.
First, as the events surrounding the publication of the Tom Cotton op-ed shows, this is not a free marketplace. The op-ed was not pitched by the senator to the Times’ opinion section, but was solicited by the Times; the senator is free to express his own opinions and attempt to pitch them to news organizations, and it would have been better — although probably no less controversial — had the Times picked up the piece precisely because they found it interesting and novel from a rising political figure.
But most of us (including myself) have not and likely will not be solicited by the Times’ editorial pages to write controversial opinions, meaning that our opportunity to express ourselves in the New York Times is limited to the whims and woes of Times editors, nearly all of whom are unnamed and identities are unpublished by the Times itself, and who all operate within the closed, black-box editorial processes of The New York Times. (The same is true for nearly any other news organization.)
Second, the Times’s obligation to facilitate a marketplace of ideas and the freedom of expression is not supported by other parts of its journalistic operations. The elimination of the public editor — a position specifically designed and meant to represent and respond to reader’s interests — means that there is no space within the Times to appeal issues of suitability or lack of access to the Times-facilitated ideas marketplace. Instead of being full participants in the Times’ editorial operations, readers of the Times — the closest group to the public — are forced to either voice their opinions outside of the Times’ published content, or pitch them to the same opinion section guarded and bounced by often the same editors whose opinions they wish to critique.
Instead of having an independent ombudsperson to even try to create a process of appeals and semi-independent scrutiny, the Times relies on the same people who hired the administrators of the marketplace to oversee and review their decisions. The basic rules of conflict of interest prevent market administrators (like the stock exchanges) from being their own regulators; the same principle should, but apparently does not, apply to the marketplace of ideas.
Third, the Times’s identity as a private entity means that the blanket rule on the freedom of speech is not forced upon it. Unlike government and public authorities, which in the United States are restricted from infringing on the freedom of speech by the First Amendment, the New York Times has no constitutional or legal obligation to ensure or provide a space for unfettered speech.
That the Times does so — and subscribes to an ideology of the marketplace of ideas within its pages — is a choice by the Times, and is one that can be altered or rescinded at any time by the publication’s management. That someone can do something and if someone should do something are two orthogonal questions, but because the Times can change its stance, it has an ethical obligation to consider, and continually reconsider, whether it should — and what limits are acceptable for the sake of itself and its obligation to readers.
Speak somewhere else
My key question to people who subscribe to a philosophy of the marketplace of ideas is this: Is the marketplace of ideas you’re supporting one that’s truly a free market of ideas? Or are you just supporting a marketplace whose ideas are selected by a handful of unknown editors operating in the dark?
There is a vast difference between the expression on ideas across all platforms — on Twitter, in email, on blogs, and in this newsletter — and the expression of ideas solely within the pages and website of The New York Times.
Indeed, we will all notice that I have not published this on nytimes.com. I have no access to the Times platform or megaphone — but I can and have shared my thoughts and perspective. The freedom of expression has not been damaged or restricted simply because I don’t have the luxury of all of the resources and reputation of the nation’s storied newspaper.
The Times has no obligation to publish anything and everything that anyone wants to say, nor does it even attempt to do so. The marketplace of ideas has never been anything more than a fantasy. It is a dream construct, and it must come down.
This opinion piece was not published by The New York Times, but was published by me! Please subscribe and share to support me and my hot takes.