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Monday, June 8, 2020

The Tom Cotton op-ed affair shows why the media must defend America’s values

New York Times editor James Bennet resigned yesterday after backlash from publishing an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton. | Eduardo MunozAlvarez/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images

It cannot remain neutral when those values are under threat from racialized authoritarianism.

Last week, the New York Times editorial page published an op-ed by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton calling for a wide-scale military crackdown on protests against police brutality.

It immediately caused an uproar both inside and outside the Times, as covered in the Times itself, the Washington Post, Slate, and here at Vox, by my colleague Zack Beauchamp. That was followed by a plaintive editorial from the head of the Times opinion page, James Bennet, attempting to explain the decision to run the piece, then an official apology from Times editors, and then, on Sunday, Bennet’s resignation.

In his excellent explainer on what happened and the history of tensions between the Times opinion and news sides, Beauchamp asks some questions that I want to pull out and mull over. They get at a core dilemma facing political media in the Trump era.

“Does every idea that’s popular in power, no matter how poorly considered, deserve some kind of respectful airing in mainstream publications?” he asks. “Or are there boundaries, both of quality of argument and moral decency, where editors need to draw the line — especially in the Trump era?”

There clearly are boundaries. The Times would not publish an op-ed advocating for a return to chattel slavery in the US. Presumably no mainstream US publication would. If it was found that a US senator (or a group of them) believed in the return of slavery, the Times would not give the senator space to make his case in the op-ed section. It would assign reporters to cover the story, like a scandal.

That slavery is abhorrent is taken as a background assumption informing coverage, not a subject of legitimate debate in which both sides deserve a hearing.

So the question is where are the boundaries and, just as importantly, who draws them? Who decides what is in bounds and out of bounds? Is it the press’s job to draw those lines and defend those boundaries?

These questions are at the heart of the Cotton affair, and they have haunted all of journalism since Donald Trump became president.

 Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images
“The pace of looting and disorder may fluctuate from night to night, but it’s past time to support local law enforcement with federal authority,” Sen. Tom Cotton argued in his op-ed.

I’ll argue in this post that Cotton’s op-ed doesn’t meet the Times’s standards, not only because it contains inaccuracies but because it reflects a worldview incompatible with the baseline small-l liberal values that make the Times’s work, and journalism generally, possible.

That doesn’t just pose problems for the opinion side of the news business; it’s an even bigger challenge for the news side, which has been habituated to a notion of “objectivity” that makes telling the real story impossible.

The movement Trump represents, of which Cotton is an aspiring leader, has drifted into a racialized authoritarianism that is increasingly incompatible with liberal democracy. And because it is part of the core purpose of journalism to defend liberal democracy, that is the story is should tell.

Cotton’s perspective is based on error

In an email to Times staff, publisher A.G. Sulzberger explained how the Times decides what pieces to run: “We don’t publish just any argument,” he said, “they need to be accurate, good faith explorations of the issues of the day.”

Cotton’s op-ed did not meet either standard, accuracy or good faith.

First, accuracy. Cotton described the anti-police brutality protests, and specifically the rioting, as, “nihilist criminals are simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction, with cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.”

The Times’s own reporters looked into the rumor of widespread involvement in the protests of antifa, the quasi-anarchist, loosely organized leftist anti-fascist movement. Though dozens of Republicans have advanced that rumor as fact, the Times found it a piece of “protest misinformation” spread deliberately on social media.

Cotton overwhelmingly ascribes the scattered violence of the first few nights to rioters, listing every instance of a police officer being hurt, but does not mention any of the more numerous cases of injured protesters (and journalists). There are dozens upon dozens of videos from the last week showing police using rubber bullets, stun grenades, truncheons, and tear gas, without cause, on unarmed protesters. It is police, over and over again, turning protests into violent clashes, acting not as peacekeepers but, as Vox’s Anna North and Catherine Kim put it, as “counterprotesters.”

Cotton asserts that “one thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain, and ultimately deter lawbreakers.” But aggressive, heavily armed police have only exacerbated the violence. What seems to have reduced it in the past few nights is the drawdown in police presence (along with pleas for peace from figures such as Killer Mike). Sending in more heavily armed law enforcement geared up for hostile crowd control would almost certainly spark more violence, not less.

Meanwhile, as Maggie Koerth and Jamiles Lartey write for FiveThirtyEight, several cities and police forces have demonstrated that dialogue and deescalation work to avoid violence.

“There’s this failed mindset of ‘if we show force, immediately we will deter criminal activity or unruly activity’, and show me where that has worked,” Scott Thomson, the former chief of police in Camden, New Jersey, told them.

Cotton is simply wrong, about the level of violence, who is causing it, and what would work to end it. The op-ed is now topped with an editor’s note noting some of the inaccuracies.

Democratic institutions, including journalism, assume a level of good faith

The Times editors seem to have more trouble with the other part of Sulzberger’s requirements: “good faith.” The best they can bring themselves to say in the note above the piece is that “the tone of [Cotton’s] essay in places is needlessly harsh and falls short of the thoughtful approach that advances useful debate.”

The tone? Really?

Sulzberger and Bennet fashion themselves old-school, small-l liberals, devoted to an open marketplace of ideas where a range of differing views can be heard. Bennet in particular emphasized challenging the Times’s liberal readers (often with disastrous results, as Beauchamp reports), but that has been a goal of the editorial page from the beginning.

The small-l liberal model is roughly as follows: Certain shared values and rules, enshrined in America’s founding documents and developed in its social and legal traditions, define the small-d democratic playing field. Values like respect for accuracy and shared facts, devotion to equality under law and democratic participation, and opposition to unlawful power are necessary to create a level playing field, but on that field, ideas about government and issues of the day should compete on merit. The more speech the better; let the best speech win. (Obviously I’m describing the liberal ideal, never actually reached in practice, either journalistically or politically.)

To act with good faith in this model is to accept those shared values, rules, and norms and agree to compete within the boundaries of the playing field — to play by the rules. The marketplace of ideas only works if it is open to any idea that conforms to those rules and closed to ideas that reject them.

Here’s the thing, though. While Cotton very deftly exploited the liberal tolerance that Sulzberger and Bennet are so proud of to get his piece published, he does not share that tolerance. The movement he represents — he is often identified as the “future of Trumpism” — is ethnocentric and authoritarian. It is about maintaining the power and status of rural and suburban white people, even as they dwindle demographically, by allying with large corporate interests and using the levers of government to entrench minority rule.

Such a movement is incommensurate with the shared premises that small-l liberals take for granted. Minority rule is incompatible with full democratic participation. A revanchist movement meant to restore power to a privileged herrenvolk cannot abide shared standards of accuracy or conduct. Will to power takes precedent over any principle.

By Sulzberger’s standard, the GOP is not acting, and cannot act, in good faith.

I’ve written about the Republican Party’s decline in more detail here and here (and of course literature on the subject is voluminous, including an excellent book by one Ezra Klein), but for now it is enough simply to note that the party has remained steadfastly and obsequiously supportive of Donald Trump, whose hostility to small-l liberal values is, at this point, unmistakably clear.

There is no way to square support for Trump with the respect for accuracy and good faith that are the Times’s minimal standards, because support for Trump means support for an ever-shifting set of rationales and conspiracy theories reverse-engineered to serve a will to power.

There is no Trumpism but Trump

A few days before Cotton’s op-ed ran, Attorney General Bill Barr personally instructed federal troops to clear Lafayette Square near the White House so that the president could hold a photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Around half an hour before the city’s stated curfew, federal agents used tear gas and rubber bullets to drive peaceful protesters out. Among those driven away by the gas were clergy from the church itself, who said they were never notified the president was coming and later expressed horror at how the church was used.

Trump tromped in, held up a Bible for the cameras, and tromped back to the White House.

It was pure authoritarian theater, gassing protesters so he could signal to his white evangelical base that he is still on their side.

 Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images
Around the same time that Trump began to address the country, federal law enforcement officers used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear out peaceful protesters in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
 Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Several minutes later, Trump emerged from the White House to have his photo op in front of St. John’s.
 Patrick Semansky/AP
President Trump was joined by (from left) Defense Secretary Mark Esper Attorney General Bill Barr, White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
 Roberto Schimdt/AFP via Getty Images
The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop for Washington, DC, condemned President Trump shortly after law enforcement officers used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a peaceful protest.

Trump has made no secret of his feelings toward protests and law enforcement generally. He once told Breitbart, “I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

He has advocated for the failed and racist “stop and frisk” policy to be expanded to new cities and called Democrats “anti-police.” He removed Obama-imposed limits on military equipment sold to police, encouraged police brutality, told states to “dominate” protesters, threatened protesters with “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons,” and tweeted, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a prominent segregationist rallying cry from the civil rights era. He wanted to deploy 10,000 active-duty American soldiers to US cities to quell domestic protests and considered firing his secretary of defense, Mark Esper, when Esper resisted.

All this comes in the context of a long history of lurching authoritarianism. The first thing Trump did on entering office is flout the longstanding US tradition of presidents separating from their personal financial interests while in office. His business interests are still mixed up in affairs of state in ways no one fully understands, and his administration is openly deferential toward sectors of the economy that pledge loyalty to him.

He has completely shut down congressional oversight and is currently engaged in a purge of inspectors general, the independent watchdogs within government agencies. One of those IGs, at the State Department, was in the final stages of an investigation into whether some of Trump’s arms deals with the Saudis were legal.

He has pushed for loyalty tests at the FBI, the State Department, and the Department of the Interior, put immigrant kids in cages, used state power to force international allies to launch bogus investigations of his political opponents, and flouted impeachment despite compelling evidence of his guilt. He voiced support for the armed mob of right-wing protesters that stormed the Michigan legislature.

He has waged relentless war on independent journalism, called journalists enemies of the people, threatened to sue journalists, and denounced or threatened any media platform that fact-checks him.

Throughout it all, he lies, lies, lies — 18,000 times during his presidency, as of April. There is no discernible set of principles or governing philosophy at work, only Trump’s day-to-day impulses as he watches Fox News, stews in the residency, and tweets.

Trumpism, if there is such a thing, is a shameless disregard for norms and laws in service of a will to power. It runs on demands for loyalty, disregard of oversight, and devotion to dominating and humiliating opponents.

Yet the GOP has supported him, enabled him, and protected him from accountability, right up to voting him free of impeachment, covering for his disastrous coronavirus response, and echoing his calls for state violence. The party has followed his every impulse.

The GOP has made a devil’s bargain with Trump. They will overlook his rhetorical incontinence, disastrous incompetence, nepotistic corruption, and authoritarianism as long as he protects his corporate sponsors and wages a culture war on behalf of rural and suburban whites.

That’s why he’s going around shouting “LAW & ORDER!” He means “law and order” the way Nixon meant it, as Chris Hayes has described: as a dog whistle to refer to state repression of the “other” — immigrants, deviants, hippies, antifa, gangs, “nihilist criminals simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction,” and always, always people of color, especially black people. It is black people who will bear the brunt of the military crackdown Trump and Cotton envision.

 Evan Vucci/AP
President Trump, surrounded by his top advisers, speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden on June 5.

Racist authoritarianism is at the core of Trump’s movement. It cannot be truthful or democratic, because neither the facts nor a majority of Americans support it. It cannot engage in good-faith argument, because good-faith debate, like democratic liberalism itself, is premised on values that transcend partisan advantage, and the GOP no longer feels bound by any such principles.

What it has to offer is not “accurate, good faith explorations of the issues of the day,” but what is found in Cotton’s op-ed: paranoid domination porn about state violence visited on political enemies, meant to whip up authoritarian sentiment.

Should the New York Times play a role in channeling those sentiments to its readers? On the opinion side, the answer seems easy — no — but on the news side, matters are more complicated.

Journalistic objectivity looks different from the outside

There has been endless debate about how the press should deal with Trump and Trumpism. Few people seem to think it is doing very well.

The problem is not that the Times and other mainstream outlets aren’t publishing lots of true and important stories. The problem is that they don’t seem to be naming the rise of racialized authoritarianism, which is a very different thing.

Complaints about this come in various forms, that the press is “normalizing” Trump by downplaying the extremity of his actions, or that “both sides” journalism is presenting racist authoritarianism as a legitimate political stance.

If a journalist makes the baseline assumption that a political act or expression was undertaken in good faith — as part of a contest held within the boundaries of democratic liberalism and its assumptions — then she will attempt to remain neutral, presenting it and its critics as equivalent positions in an open political dispute.

Over years of relentless “working the refs,” bullying reporters and editors for more favorable coverage, conservatives have convinced journalists that the initial assumption of good faith is what it means to practice journalistic objectivity. One must accept every new claim as though recently dispatched from the turnip truck.

What would it mean to behave differently? Think of foreign correspondents, dispatched to other countries to cover politics. They are skeptical of everyone and, ideally, objective in a way only an outsider can be.

But that objectivity does not result in an equal measure of good faith extended to everyone, or an equal measure of positive and negative coverage for all parties. Why would it? That’s not objectivity, that’s a very rigidly proscribed subjectivity, an imposition of symmetry on social dynamics that are rarely symmetrical. Indeed, it is precisely the objectivity of the foreign correspondent that allows her to learn from experience, identify those who are and aren’t abusing power, and call out guilty parties without fear or favor.

What would a foreign correspondent think? Let’s ask her. Here’s Amelia Brace, an Australian reporter who was covering the protests in Lafayette Square. Though she identified herself to police as a journalist, she, along with her camera operator, was attacked and beaten by them as they cleared the way for Trump’s photo-op.

“I’ve been in protests just as serious as that, but I’ve never, ever seen police behave that way, not just to the media but to the protesters on the street,” she told the Times. “If we’re getting attacked, it’s just another part of democracy falling down here.”

Democracy is falling down here. The president’s party is no longer committed to it, at least not at the expense of white minority rule. As the two come into conflict, Republicans are throwing democracy overboard, suppressing minority votes and working to ensure that the November elections are as chaotic as possible.

The GOP today is acting in bad faith. To any foreign correspondent, it is obvious. They have seen right-wing strongmen use resentment and violence to turn democracies into autocracies. They know there are far-right parties across the world’s developed democracies that would do the same if they could. It is a familiar story, and it is playing out in almost caricatured fashion in the US today.

Journalism in an era of bad faith

The rise of right-wing authoritarianism is the headline story of US politics, but the domestic mainstream media is prevented by its own anachronistic habits and norms from telling it.

That’s because US journalists, under the funhouse-mirror version of objectivity that dominates mainstream media, are not allowed to learn anything about Republicans. Failing to extend the presumption of good faith to people who have betrayed it repeatedly for decades is “bias.” Covering too many of one side’s lies without ginning up some sort of equivalent negative coverage for the other side is “bias.”

Because journalists must encounter each episode anew, free of assumptions, Trump is forever allowed to set the pace. He does or says something unhinged, and as the marketplace-of-ideas fact-checkers scurry to correct the record, he does or says something else unhinged. He is always the protagonist, with “critics” trailing in his wake like a Greek chorus.

From kids in cages to migrant “invasions” to impeachment to coronavirus to racist police violence, the news is coming at everyone too fast, one gut punch after another, with no time to regain our senses. Even if the media reports on all of it accurately, it’s wildly difficult for the average half-tuned-in media consumer to figure out WTF is going on — what it all means.

The media has largely failed to convey that all these episodes are part of the same drama: a major political party’s escalating attempts to entrench a durable autocratic regime.

(Times media reporter Ben Smith has a story about how this very critique is breaking out in national newsrooms among a new generation of reporters. Ex-Times ombudsman Margaret Sullivan has a great column on the same issues.)

Why isn’t the Times covering rising GOP authoritarianism as a scandal rather than yet another partisan disagreement? Why doesn’t the publication consider it out of bounds, beyond the boundaries of good-faith dispute within a democracy?

 Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
President Trump walks with Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley, and others from the White House to visit St. John’s Church after the area was cleared of people protesting with tear gass and rubber bullets.
 Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Secret Service in riot gear stand guard while President Trump stands in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo.

Times editors might say the very fact that authoritarianism is a reasonably popular position (estimates put the hardcore Trump-loving GOP base at around 20 percent of the country) puts it in bounds. But that is tantamount to saying that there are no boundaries at all, that America is whatever the loudest and most powerful voices say it is, that any political movement is, from the perspective of the objective journalist, as good or bad as any other.

It is tantamount to saying that journalism requires neutrality in any conceivable political debate, that there are no values, norms, assumptions, or practices that the media should actively defend and advocate for, as an institution.

Press critic Jay Rosen of NYU took on this dysfunctional notion of objectivity recently in a column about how the press should deal with Trump. His message was simple, captured in his headline: “You cannot keep from getting swept up in Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own.”

The media must begin to assert some agency over the stories it covers and how it covers them, based on its own values. In discussing journalistic objectivity, Rosen agrees that the media’s work should not be politicized, i.e., produced expressly to help one party/candidate or another.

On the other hand, he says, media cannot help but be political. Modern journalism was meant to play a political role, to expose the truth and hold politicians accountable to the small-l liberal values that make liberal democracy possible. It can not remain neutral when those values are under threat. Like other institutions — science, the academy, and US government itself — its very purpose is to both exemplify and defend those values. Its work is impossible without them.

The press should always be fair in the application of its values and standards, but doing so will mean making clear when there is an asymmetry.

The Democratic Party is basically an amalgam of center-left and left parties familiar in other advanced democracies. It has a fairly normal distribution of opinion, a normal level of infighting and incompetence — it is, in the grand scheme of advanced democracies, a normal political party.

The Republican Party has drifted further right than any major party in the democratic world and descended into a paranoid fantasia, shielding an aspiring autocrat from accountability and echoing his calls for loyalty tests and military crackdowns.

The American public, by and large, does not understand this asymmetry and its implications. They do not understand that right-wing authoritarianism is perilously close to toppling US democracy, because they are not able to pick that signal out of the noise of daily “balanced” news coverage, wherein everything is just another competing claim, just another good-faith argument to hash out through competing op-eds.

The signal is too faint. Some high-profile Republicans are trying to boost it, pledging not to vote for Trump. Longtime public servant James Miller tried to boost it by resigning from the Defense Department in the wake of Trump’s photo-op stunt. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former Chief of Staff John Kelly are trying to boost it. Hell, even Taylor Swift is doing her part.

But it is the media’s responsibility above all. It must sound the alarm, if only to defend the conditions that make it possible. The journalists injured and arrested so far would not be the last in Tom Cotton’s America.

Even in the face of the inevitable pressure campaign from the right, even amid an information environment choked with conspiracies and nonsense, the press must boost that signal — it must tell the real story of what’s going on — before it is too late.


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