In the Debate Over Free Speech and Cancel Culture, the New York Times Should Lead by Example

Cancel culture — or whatever name you care to give it — most certainly does exist, and it’s hardly a new phenomenon. Its perpetuation at the hands of hawkish conservatives in post-9/11 America was an important subplot to the nation’s misguided War on Terror and an effective weapon against patriotic dissenters who questioned and/or criticized the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. The efforts of liberal and progressive activists to elbow their way into the national discourse without being cancelled were noble, yet often proved futile. With right-wing media outlets like Fox News leading the way, the anti-war left found itself on the wrong end of a cancel culture campaign designed to shame Americans into supporting a war that should have never been fought and comply with a new set of rights-eroding rules that should have never been written.

The New York Times was right to condemn that culture in its recent, ill-received piece on cancel culture and freedom of speech. But what the Times fails to acknowledge is that cancel culture owes its existence in part to the very same media landscape that the paper itself has helped create, a landscape in which cancel culture campaigns built upon half-truths, hearsay, decontextualized quotes and video clips, and grossly uncharitable interpretations of people’s words and deeds are rewarded with and boosted by endless, unwarranted media coverage.

The 2010 witch hunt against former Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod is a particularly notable example of a cancel culture campaign that received a huge assist from mainstream media outlets that refused to do their due diligence before jumping into the fray. After Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government website published a clip of Sherrod seemingly owning up to her bigotry, the conservative blogosphere went wild, and Fox News jumped on the story. The Obama administration, anticipating a weekend-long public relations disaster at the hands of conservative media, went into damage control mode almost immediately, asking for and receiving Sherrod’s resignation.

When the full truth of the matter finally emerged and Sherrod was exonerated, the media — most especially Fox News — had plenty of egg to wipe off their faces.

The cancellation of Shirley Sherrod may not have been a smashing success, but it wasn’t a complete failure either. Breitbart’s reputation took a substantial hit, but he had shown the world just how easy it could be to cancel someone by manufacturing a misleading narrative, making it go viral online, and whipping the media into a frenzy. The speed at which he had managed to make the Sherrod story spread across the internet and catch the attention of the White House and mainstream media demonstrated the growing influence that bloggers and social media platforms exercised over American political discourse, portending a future in which traditional media outlets would become a key ally — sometimes purposely, sometimes not — in the perpetuation of cancel culture.

Nine years later, after an out-of-context video clip featuring a group of conservative high school students at a prolife rally went viral and led to a massive online backlash, the mainstream media showed everyone just how quickly it had forgotten the lessons of the Sherrod fiasco.

The Covington Catholic controversy centered around an out-of-context video clip that appeared to show a group of students mocking an elderly Native American man at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. After the clip was posted on Twitter, it quickly went viral and became national news. Shortly thereafter, a number of journalists and media outlets found themselves licking their wounds after all the facts of the controversy came to light. It turned out that the students had not initiated the confrontation, that there was no audio of them chanting “build the wall,” and that student Nicholas Sandmann had not placed himself in the path of Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder with whom Sandmann was seen standing face to face. Nevertheless, many progressive activists and pundits have long maintained that the students deserved exactly what they got despite a near-total absence of evidence that they were guilty of any of the original allegations against them.

In hindsight, it’s obvious that they were targeted for cancellation not because of anything they did, but because of the infamous red hats they donned that day in the nation’s capital.

The Times itself is no stranger to the phenomenon of cancel culture, having acquiesced on more than one occasion to the demands of outraged ideologues, activists, and even their own staffers. In 2020, Times Opinion editor James Bennet issued an impromptu resignation after his decision to publish a highly controversial opinion piece by Republican Senator Tom Cotton.

In the piece, Cotton advocated for the deployment of American troops on American soil to reign in rioters and looters during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. To any American with even just a passing familiarity with the history of U.S. government violence against civil rights protesters, however, Cotton’s position recalled to mind the unleashing of fire hoses and police dogs on innocent, peaceful activists for the sake of restoring “law and order.” It therefore drew swift and immediate condemnations from those who interpreted the piece as a public plea to President Trump to intimidate the BLM movement into silence and effectively rob its supporters of their First Amendment right.

Was Cotton entitled to the platform Bennet gave him? Absolutely not. A strong commitment to upholding freedom of speech in no way obligates any American media outlet to reserve a platform for any American citizen, no matter whether they’re a high-profile politician like Cotton or just a regular working-class John Doe or Jane Smith.

That being said, Tom Cotton is a member of the United States Senate. Until he is either voted out of office or decides not to run again, his opinions on current events, no matter how repugnant they may be, will always be newsworthy, if for no other reason than the window into his mind those opinions provide. The same could be said for every other member of the Senate regardless of which party they happen to call home. So even though Bennet wasn’t the least bit obligated to give Cotton a platform, his decision to publish Cotton’s op-ed wasn’t indefensible, and he shouldn’t have been cancelled because of it.

The preferrable option would have been for the Times top brass to insist on the publication of a rebuttal to Cotton’s argument and leave Bennet in place. Instead, they eventually surrendered to the very same culture that the Times editorial board decried in its free speech piece last week.

In January of last year, the Times stepped in it again when it cut ties with journalist Lauren Wolfe, much to the dismay of her industry colleagues. Wolfe’s unforgivable sin, according to a Vanity Fair article by Joe Pompeo, was that she got a little too political one too many times on Twitter.

In the tweet that broke the camel’s back, Wolfe said that she felt “chills” watching Joe Biden’s plane land at Joint Base Andrews the day before his presidential inauguration. Journalist Glenn Greenwald called attention to her apparent bias, and the Times was deluged with angry tweets from right-wing users soon thereafter (though it should be noted that Greenwald himself never called for Wolfe’s dismissal). According to the aforementioned Vanity Fair article, when the Times informed Wolfe of their decision, “she was told that her name and the Times’ name were all over the place, ‘and we can’t have that.’”

But why can’t the Times have that? Did Wolfe’s political biases compromise her journalistic integrity in any demonstrable way? Is there any evidence that she ever produced any work that was misleading, factually inaccurate, or poorly researched?

I’m as fond of accurate, honest, and ethical reporting as the next guy, which is why I never take any reports from any media outlet at face value. That being said, there is no such thing as the “objective journalist.” That mythical creature simply doesn’t exist. Journalists are human beings, and biases are among the primary features of the human condition. There isn’t a single journalist anywhere in the world who can claim to be perfectly and consistently objective.

However, there are journalists, editors, fact-checkers, and plenty of other workers in the industry who have made every effort to avoid letting their biases compromise the accuracy and quality of their work. Had Lauren Wolfe failed that particular test, her dismissal would’ve made more sense. But the evidence would seem to indicate that the Times prematurely buckled under the pressure of a relatively small band of right-wing cancel culture warriors on Twitter, and there’s simply no excuse for that.

The Times editorial board’s acknowledgment of cancel culture’s existence and its chilling effect on speech is all well and good, but it’s only half the story. For years, outlets like the Times have consistently indulged the masses of so-called culture warriors on both the right and the left, which in turn has legitimized those warriors’ bad-faith tactics and given them a measure of power and influence over the national discourse with which no one can or should be trusted.

The solution to that problem is for the Times and every other industry heavyweight to reclaim their autonomy and commit to reshaping the media landscape into a safe haven for spirited, honest debates. They must stand firm against online witch hunts by refusing to fire every reporter, editor, or freelancer who has ever said anything remotely offensive or tweeted something that might be considered problematic. They have to stop deferring to the judgment of social media activists and start behaving like an independent, autonomous news agency that prioritizes truth, accuracy, and the free exchange of relevant ideas over the advancement of ideological interests.

In other words, it’s long past time for the New York Times and its industry peers to stop feeding the trolls and start leading by example.

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