Editor's Space

The End of Freedom?

Ten years ago, my mother came from Cuba to visit me in New York. One day, she started describing the awful situation in Havana. Without noticing it, she lowered her voice to a whisper while criticizing the Cuban government. After living for half a century under a totalitarian regime, she was used to the lack of freedom that still prevails in Cuba.

I wonder too if people working at the New York Times are starting to whisper when expressing ideas not consistent with the “party line.” Recently, James Bennet, the editorial page editor, ‘resigned’ days after the newspaper’s opinion section published an Op-Ed by a United States senator calling for a military response to civic unrest in American cities.

The cause of his resignation, according to A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher, was that the publication of Senator Tom Cotton’s column had shown “a significant breakdown in our editing processes.”

The column contained no major factual errors and reflected the opinion of the majority of Americans according to a survey taken during that time. You can think Cotton was trying to sell a very counterproductive plan. You can think that using the military to control civil unrest at this point would be a disaster. But the message The Times leadership sent was that the idea wasn’t up for discussion and they would fire anybody that thought otherwise.

The decision to fire Bennet came after more than 800 Times staff members signed a letter protesting the publication of the piece. It was a case of “censorship from below.”

Katie Kingsbury, Bennet’s interim replacement, told staff shortly after her appointment:

“Anyone who sees any piece of Opinion journalism, headlines, social posts, photos — you name it — that gives you the slightest pause, please call or text me immediately.”

What kind of editorial page will they have based on those criteria?

We got a taste of the future last Sunday when The Times ran an Op-Ed piece by Mariame Kaba with the title “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.”

Short of abolishing the police in the United States, the author wrote that there’s “an immediate demand we can all make: Cut the number of police in half and cut their budget in half. Fewer police officers equal fewer opportunities for them to brutalize and kill people.”

Commenting on Senator Cotton’s column, several Times reporters retweeted that “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.”

Any reasonable person would think that abolishing the police — or half of them — will put many lives in danger. So far, no Times staffers have expressed any misgivings about Kana’s column. I wonder if they don’t feel as threatened by the column or if they are just afraid to say anything that contradicts the party line. Is it possible that some of them are whispering about it like my mother did when she was criticizing the Castro regime?

This is not happening just at The Times. Two weeks ago, Stan Wischnowski, the top editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, resigned after the newspaper published a headline lamenting damage to businesses amid protests against police brutality. The headline — “Buildings Matter, Too” — was certainly tone-deaf but it is hard to believe that the cause is just editorial malfeasance instead of offending the predominant line of thought.

Western civilization started 2,500 years ago when Greek philosophers decided that dialogue was the way to find the truth. That decision was based on the idea that none of us is the absolute owner of it. We can see today a growing inclination to think the best way to deal with our problems is to silence any idea the prevalent ideology deems unacceptable.

I don’t think this will be the end of freedom and I think our better angels will prevail, but in this horrible spring, these episodes are another cause for sadness and concern.

2 thoughts on “The End of Freedom?

  1. Who will tell me, figures like Trump in USA, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Boris in UK even though they are somehow over the top in taking decisions are not necessary, at a time in history to fill we need dismantle all this international extreme lefty politically correct madness? Why so many members of the Democratic Party like myself are signing off the membership and becoming independent or going to extreme and thinking there is a dangerously something in the air we have to stop?

  2. A careful reading of the rationale posited by the NY Times for removing the opinion piece by Sen. Tom Cotton doesn’t correlate with Mr. Dominguez-Lopez’s characterization. To my mind, the Times is quite explicit in explaining i’s concerns, which predominately relate to fact checking statements and tone. I would caution against painting a “party line” for the Times, when the actual reasons for removal appear to be far more nuanced and detailed. I do not believe their decision rises to the level of “censorship from below.” Nor does Katie Kingsbury’s announcement to the NY Times staff amount to censorship; rather, it reflects a desire for increased involvement by staff. It does not give staff ultimate control of content.