The New York Times editorial board should retract and resign

It’s hard to imagine a more fundamental misreading of the freedom of speech – or an organization whose credibility depends more on understanding it correctly – than today’s lead editorial from the New York Times editorial board.

The First Amendment asserts a right to free speech. It does not assert a right to not be criticized for speech. In fact, it protects critical speech.

And the protection is against government action, not against other people.

So it is beyond shocking to see this atop a New York Times editorial:

For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.

There is so much wrong with this, it’s hard to know where to start.

The fundamental right is to be able to engage in spirited debate without government intervention. There is no right not to be ratioed on Twitter.

No one should understand that better than the editorial-page editors of the New York Times, whose job is ostensibly to expose readers to a wide variety of important views, even those which some readers will find odious. (They could do a much better job of it.)

The forum they host is one of the most influential in the world. If they really believe that people have a right to voice their opinions without fear of being shamed, they should all resign.

For the record, Kathleen Kingsbury is opinion editor; Patrick Healy, who until recently was in charge of the Times’s abysmal political news coverage, is the deputy opinion editor.

How the Times editorial board ended up here is incomprehensible, but one key factor was clearly a succumbing to the “woke panic” that has addled the minds of so many other effete writers such that they see threats from an “illiberal left” as existential — even compared to actual, official censorship and the increasingly likely prospect of an authoritarian, anti-democratic Republican Party seizing and holding control of the U.S. government.

It comes, of course, on the heels of the Times’s publication of an infuriatingly misleading guest essay on March 7, in which the author (and the Times, by publishing it) confused “cancel culture” with being held accountable.

Another factor is the malignant spread of the Timesian drive to appear “above the fray” and avoid “taking sides” – even when the two sides exist in gross asymmetry. The editorial board used to embrace consistently liberal values. These days it seems to delight in trolling the libs instead. Both-sidesism has jumped the “wall” between the political news desk and the opinion side, leading the editorial board to create false equivalencies unsupported by reality. Case in point:

Many on the left refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all, believing that those who complain about it are offering cover for bigots to peddle hate speech. Many on the right, for all their braying about cancel culture, have embraced an even more extreme version of censoriousness as a bulwark against a rapidly changing society, with laws that would ban books, stifle teachers and discourage open discussion in classrooms.

Failing to acknowledge something very abstract is equated to active government censorship. Such twaddle.

What is “cancel culture”? The Times insists that:

However you define cancel culture, Americans know it exists, and feel its burden. In a new national poll commissioned by Times Opinion and Siena College, only 34 percent of Americans said they believed that all Americans enjoyed freedom of speech completely.

Yes, but an overwhelming 76 percent said Americans enjoy freedom of speech completely or somewhat (with “somewhat” being the most common answer to this and other ambiguously phrased questions.) That’s hardly the same as “knowing” that “cancel culture” exist.

And what is “free speech”? The Times editorial eventually considers it “worth noting” that there is an “important distinction between what the First Amendment protects — freedom from government restrictions on expression — and the popular conception of free speech — the affirmative right to speak your mind in public, on which the law is silent.”

But the former is clearly defined, and a right. The latter is neither.

The whole poll is worth reading, to show how intent the Times was on proving its point, and how ineptly it went about it. A whole series of questions, for instance, appears under this confusing prompt:

Consider each of the following examples of speech. While the Constitution protects them, tell me whether you think most people that you know support or oppose a person’s right to engage in that speech.

Examples included “Using social media platforms to call other people insulting names rather than stating disagreement with their views.” Two out of three people said “most people you know oppose” the right to do that.

This is meaningless stuff.

At heart, the questions raised by the editorial are:

  • Is it OK for people to harshly criticize some ideas?
  • Is it always bad when people self-censor themselves?

The answer to No. 1 is yes. Criticism is essential to the functioning of our public sphere. It’s true that the attention economy reward assholery, and that some criticism is harsher than it probably should be. But that’s no reason to assert a made-up right not to be mocked.

And answer to No. 2. is no. Certain views that most of us would consider odious – born of racism, misogyny, or homophobia, for starters — are held by a surprising number of Americans, and I look back fondly on the days when more of them felt they needed to shut up about it.

Many of the odious views that were in  remission in this country for several decades, at least as far as public expression goes, were successfully cultivated and amplified by Donald Trump and the leadership of the GOP over the past six years. Just about the only thing Republican candidates stand for these days are banning discussions of racism in public schools and discouraging Black and brown people from voting.

We need more shaming and shunning, not less.

The reason I’m calling for the whole editorial board to go is that this particular editorial was hardly something that slipped under the radar.

This was a manifesto. It was a declaration of intent:

This editorial board plans to identify a wide range of threats to freedom of speech in the coming months, and to offer possible solutions.

Here’s my solution: Correct this editorial and resign.

Twitter was appropriately full of shaming and shunning. Here is just a small selection:

22 COMMENTS

  1. Freedom of speech is more than just the First Amendment.
    If someone is fired for having a bumper sticker their boss doesn’t like, that is an infringement of their freedom of speech. It is not a violation of the First Amendment.
    And yes, the person firing is exercising their rights! Our rights conflict with each others’ all the time.
    It is absolutely true that the right attempts to impinge on speech more than the left, even beyond the insane bills being proposed and passed by Republicans. The right is more likely to follow a speaker at a school board or board of health meeting out into the parking lot and threaten them. The right is more likely to fire an employee for having a bumper sticker for the “wrong” candidate.

    • A good distinction, thank you. But we are all used to that “freedom of speech” not being “complete”. By contrast, the editorial establishes it as a “right”. Which is wrong.

      • Why shouldn’t it be a right to express odious opinions and *not* be fired?

        In Seattle, one cannot be fired for one’s political opinions, in addition to one’s race, religion, country of origin, etc. Hence one cannot be fired in Seattle for, e.g., having a Trump bumper sticker on one’s car.

        This is a government extended right, just not a Constitutional right.

        When the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written, very few people worked for corporations, or really for any large organizations, because corporations basically legally didn’t yet exist.

        Hence the large organization with power over one’s life that the founders cared about was government. Things have changed in the last 200 years. We likely need to extend the protections against governments suppressing speech to i
        nclude protections against businesses suppressing the speech of their employees and others.

    • While I agree with what you say to some extent, don’t think for a minute that the left is innocent; they’re much more vocal about shutting down free speech of those they don’t like. While conservatives are showing up at school boards in higher numbers now, it pales in comparison with what happens on campuses.

      And while you could argue that people coming in to shout down speakers is the natural and god-given right to hold people accountable when they speak, then when the police come and arrest said protestors, then the protestors can’t scream oppression, as their arrest for disruption is a consequence for THEIR speech.

      It either works both ways, or it doesn’t work at all

  2. I find it interesting that for all your crowing about race, almost everyone your link to is White and/or male. I guess other people criticizing the Editorial Board are not “important” enough for you.

    While I 100% agree with your writing on this… it may do you well to ask why the opinions of White men hold such sway over you.

  3. Finally the New York Times is telling the truth!
    For example calling for someone to be fired or even prosecuted for treason – as some have called for Tucker Carlson is exactly what totalitarian regimes like Russia, China do! Thankfully we are waking up to the realization that in a democracy we have the privilege of hearing opposing views that may be odious to us. For what is doctrinal truth for one group may be blasphemy to another group!

  4. So Froomkin and his “progressive” chorus mock free speech. Typical for what you have become. See you in November. You and your kind will be crushed, and hopefully you will react by ramping up your game. Please do it. Nominate Goldwater-McGovern and watch yourselves be exiled. Couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch.

    • Froomkin is not mocking free speech, he’s mocking an editorial opinion. Big difference. The Right have made up a culture war issue only because they’re deeply upset they can longer openly use the N-word; because they fear being shamed for using the N-word. So sad, right?

      This is the same American Right that adores Putin. That STILL adores Putin weeks into his war of conquest. The same KGB thug who’ll shut you in the Gulag for 15 years for uttering one forbidden word.

      The last time the GOP had power in DC, all they did was cut taxes on billionaires, and try to kill off as many elderly as they could with Covid-19. Great bunch.

      • Keep telling yourself that. Meanwhile, your president’s approval rating is at record lows, below Trump’s in spite of your failing legacy media’s attempts to support him. You will get creamed in November, then you will be even more “progressive” in reaction. That will be followed by an even bigger wipeout in 2024, and then you and your kind will be in the wilderness until at keast 2040.

        You are a “progressive.” You think you are better than everyone else. To quote an old song: “You’ve been telling me you’re a genius since you were 17/In all the time I’ve known you, I still don’t know what you mean.” So have fun with your media that tell you the lies you want to hear. See you in November, and not just 2022. You have no clue how thoroughly despised you are in America, a country whose guts you hate and want to destroy.

        Why don’t you just return to Venezuela with Bernie Sanders and Joe Xiden to beg for oil and build “democratic socialism?”

  5. In addition to the free speech points you raise well, Dan, some added thoughts.

    Cancel culture is a made up political term by right wing authors of trial balloon talking points. The term’s directed at speech as well as economic boycotts.

    Those who lack the capacity to have a civil and rational debate, who then resort to verbal bullying that gives way to whining about being mocked or shunned are not being ‘cancelled’. The problem is they hold views many find odious plus they’re too thin skinned to handle critique.

    This weak bully culture isn’t new. It’s merely repetitive, pathetic and lame.

    And when the weak bully is a talking head at a major media outlet, when they’ve forgotten the historical role of the Fourth Estate, when they no longer just genuflect to gain access but resort to a constant massaging of the egos and genitals of the government power holders, they should fully expect to be shamed and shunned as non-journalists. Companies buying ads that support their shows really should assess the quality of those shows by more than audience metrics but since they don’t, they’ll have to face a choice when economic boycotts occur.

    No company will fail because they have to change their ad buys. Society won’t fail. Even the odious poorly wrought opinion dispenser is unlikely to see their show cancelled unless their stench is pig farm odoriferous. But that’s not a cancel culture. That’s self-defeating behavior on the part of the incompetent host.

    The New York Times Editorial Board has apparently decided that hurt feelings is the measure by which speech will now be tested by and in so doing they promote the aims of the powerful which is to cancel free speech in the name of protecting it.

    I just wish Gore Vidal and Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko were still around to give them hell. I wish the mockery of Molly Ivins and Hunter Thompson upon their souls. And let Ida B Wells, Dorothy Thompson, James Baldwin, George Seldes, Damon Runyon, Lenny Bruce provide them the lessons of a real cancel culture they endured.

    I remain stunned at the nano-skinned who have inherited the mantle of a once-impressive publication. And more than that, they are utterly and completely wrong.

  6. Here is a comment I made to a friend on Facebook, which I’l post here.

    I read the ‘Press Watch’ piece you posted first. Then I read maybe half of the Times editorial, but stopped because it’s trite and boring.

    The fact that much of the reaction was “they need to resign” gets at what the Times was talking about– sort of. The problem isn’t so much lack of freedom of speech, in that people do and should have FOS to call on the Times editorial board to resign. The problem is a totalitarian mentality in which people can’t just be wrong in good faith, but rather have to lose their jobs, or be canceled if you will.

    Why? Why does everybody have to lose their freakin’ job? It’s the same mentality held by Mao’s Red Guards. Using modern media (i.e., Twitter), these are left-wing mobs.

    And then in academia, people actually DO lose their jobs. It’s a problem.

  7. Cancel culture very much exists.

    The right invented it. A century ago they fired people trying to organize unions. Seventy years ago, you better not wonder if capitalism is the best economic system–there was a database of *millions* of Americans who were excluded from work based purely on someone’s assessment of their beliefs. Then fifty years ago, the Moral Majority started blacklisting companies which did things that conflicted with their claimed religious beliefs. There’s David Horowitz and his “Networks.”

    In short, there are innumerable examples over the last century of organized right-wing attempts to deny people employment, ruin businesses, and ruin personal lives based solely on beliefs that people had.

    It is not good when lefties doxx right-wingers, harass them or their families, or otherwise behave badly. But if we’re going to end that sort of thing, then we need to acknowledge that the problem is a little bigger than ratioing someone on Twitter.

    • That is such a great point. And they still do fire people for organizing unions. I bet more people these days are fired for organizing unions than for any other kind of speech. I’d love to see some data on that.

  8. Mr. Froomkin’s headline displays an authoritarian arrogance that is rife in today’s so-called liberal left. In the article he attempts to discuss the accurate notion that the first amendment does not restrict speech that challenges ideas using rationale argument. However, I would suggest that his headline, which states the editorial board should retract the article and resign, is indicative of an authoritarian mindset in that it gives credence the following beliefs: ideas that don’t match one’s narrative should be kept from the public realm and that those having the gall to publicly espouse such ideas should be relieved of their means of making a living. Much of his thinking is utterly opposite to the spirit of free speech espoused by most liberal thinkers. I fear he, like many today, confuses emotions with knowledge.

    • The Froomkins don’t realize, or don’t want to realize, that they are playing a losing hand. Their media have lost their credibility. Americans aren’t walking away from ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, MSNBC, CNN, NYT, WaPo and the rest — we are running away. Our media lie, cheat, and steal every day. They get even the smallest stories wrong, because facts have long ceased to matter to them. So keep shaking your fist at a namby-pamby NYT editorial that only the “progressives” bothered to read in the first place. Froomkin and his amen chorus have no clue, but they will. Oh, will they ever.

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