Did The New York Times Make a Mistake?

Defending Freedom of Expression and the False Idea that Newspapers Must Publish Everything

In early June, the US Senator for the state of Arkansas, Tom Cotton, penned an article on the opinion page of the American newspaper The New York Times asking for the intervention of the Armed Forces to contain the protests against the death of George Floyd, a black man murdered by a white police officer.

The article received almost 2,400 comments, many of them negative. Also, part of the newsroom reacted formally, with a letter to the newspaper signed by about 1,000 employees, according to New York Times media columnist Ben Smith.

The New York Times did not delete the text online, but it did add an explanatory note. The internal crisis culminated in the departure of the newspaper's opinion editor, James Bennet.

In an editorial published on Thursday (11), Folha decided to comment on the case.

It stressed that the senator's article "fit perfectly into the canons of free debate" and that, given its defects, the text would eventually offer ammunition to opponents. It also said that, in the face of the protests and their developments, the New York Times did a "disservice to freedom of expression."

I do not believe that the case is as simple as the Folha editorial makes it seem.

In fact, the defense of freedom of expression is indisputable, and a newspaper that seeks to be diverse and relevant needs to give voice to different positions - especially those with which it does not agree.

In addition, the Republican senator not only occupies an immensely representative position (and, therefore, his ideas, theoretically, have relevance for a newspaper and its readers), but he is also free to defend whatever comes to his mind - even if it is to send the military to attack the people.

However, it is necessary to take other aspects into account to understand the outcome of the event better.

On the part of New York Times professionals, they claimed that asking for troops on the streets would put journalistic work at risk, especially for black professionals. Let's remember the CNN reporter arrested live by the police without plausible justification.

A. G. Sulzberger, the newspaper's publisher, said he could not continue with Bennet at the head of the opinion section because there were flaws in the editing process.

Bennet admitted to the newspaper's editorial staff that he did not read the text he published. Regardless of the content of the article, how is it possible to publish something that has not been read?

The idea that the Armed Forces are a national institution and don't belong to any administration seems to be taken seriously by the Americans, to the point that the country's primary military authority, General Mark Milley, had to apologize for having given that impression.

Therefore, the content of the text contradicts an idea dear to American democracy. The senator, however, could have gone further and suggested bombing protesters. The editor would not know, since he did not read the article, abdicating his function.

Another essential point in this equation is that the defense of freedom of expression, which, of course, must prevail, covers up a false idea that the pages of newspapers are all-embracing and that journalistic processes are infallible.

We know that this is not true. Who can access the opinion pages of a widely circulated newspaper?

The episode shows that there was no discussion about the relevance of the senator's text, but something closer to a portfolio of a prominent politician, who seems to have used one of the most influential newspapers in the world as if it were one of his social media accounts.

In the editorial in which Folha criticizes the New York Times, a few more points drew attention.

Folha says that there may be a generational factor in the editorial movement of the American newspaper, because "most professionals working today were trained at a time when freedom of expression was never threatened."

It is not so. According to Ben Smith, the newspaper's media columnist, American newsrooms have been hiring black reporters over the years on the unspoken condition of not talking about racism.

Folha's editorial states that "moments of emotions at the top of the skin often fall into obscurant acts." Advances can also result.

It is possible to start by reflecting on who are the people who most frequently make up noble spaces of newspapers. If the criterion used for this is diversity, it must be said that we are still in bad shape.

Finally, Folha says it is "sad that journalists, in particular, do not understand the value of publishing ideas that go against their own head-on."

There is something that you cannot disagree with.

Flavia Lima

A reporter specializing in economics, she graduated in social sciences from USP and in law from Mackenzie. She has been the ombudsman for Folha since May 2019.

Translated by Kiratiana Freelon