No, The Resignation Of NYT Editor James Bennet Does Not Mean American Newsrooms Have 'Turned Into College Campuses'
from the don't-host-the-trolls dept
On Friday we wrote about the uproar regarding the terrible op-ed piece by Senator Tom Cotton in the New York Times, calling for the use of the US military against protesters in the US. There was widespread anger against the decision to run the op-ed, and then a backlash from some who argued that this showed the people complaining about it were somehow “unwilling to listen” to viewpoints they disagreed with. In my piece, I argued that if the NY Times didn’t publish my op-ed on why the Opinions Editor James Bennet was an incompetent dweeb, then clearly, they hated free speech and were unwilling to confront difficult ideas.
Over the weekend, the news came down that Bennet had resigned, leading to a new round of hand-wringing from people who want to appear to be among the Serious Thinkers™, fretting that American newsrooms were “becoming college campuses” full of “safe spaces” and “political correctness.”
Again, this is just silly. I’m probably more extreme than most in arguing for free speech and the importance of listening to viewpoints and ideas that people disagree with. And while there have been incidents on college campuses where students have pushed back on hearing uncomfortable ideas, there’s a big difference between an unwillingness to listen to “uncomfortable” ideas and an unwillingness to support disingenuous ideas that are simply designed to rile people up.
Again, as we discussed last week, while some people were freaking out about so-called “censorship,” the issue was actually about editorial discretion — which is something wholly different. When you consider every act of editorial discretion to be the same as censorship, then the real problem is on your end. You can disagree with the decision (in either direction) and speak out about it (because there are many ways to speak out these days). But a single platform choosing to publish a terrible, disingenuous op-ed whose entire point appeared to be to piss people off, and then the person in charge resigning following the controversy, has nothing at all to do with censorship or safe spaces or avoiding difficult conversations.
The issue, again, is whether or not the editorial discretion is well applied. And the evidence — which goes way beyond that one op-ed — says that it was not. Indeed, an honest look at Cotton’s piece showed that it was incredibly dishonest and deceptive in describing a “problem” that did not really appear to exist, and a solution that would have made actual problems much, much worse. That’s why people said it was dangerous to publish — not because they were afraid to discuss and debate ideas, or because of political correctness.
It comes down to this simple point: there are certain elements in society now who are simply trolling. And Tom Cotton is a giant troll. Whether he intends to be or not, he has all of the characteristics of an internet troll. He’s posting dishonest claptrap, designed to enrage. He’s cherry picking his facts and ignoring any countervailing evidence. He frames his nonsense with claims about wanting to be a part of the debate, but as anyone who has ever dealt with internet trolls knows, that’s all part of the game to keep people engaged.
The general rule of thumb on the internet is “don’t feed the trolls.” I don’t always agree with that wisdom, as there is sometimes value in a one-off response to trollish behavior to highlight for others why the troll’s disingenuous claims are bullshit. But, there’s an issue beyond just not “feeding” the trolls: you never need to elevate them and act as if they are in the debate for honest and reasonable reasons. That’s where the NY Times Opinion section has failed miserably over the past few years. In its attempt to “both sides” every damn issue, it has ignored constructive debate in favor of elevating trolls who are simply playing the Times and (until now) Bennet, using the fact that the Times wants to appear to host “multiple viewpoints” to their advantage.
You can feed the trolls in the comment section if you want, but the NY Times shouldn’t be elevating them. That’s not because they’re college campuses, too politically correct, or afraid of difficult ideas. It’s because if you want serious debate you figure out who the trolls are and leave them in the comment section. There are serious, non-trollish people with opposing viewpoints. Editorial discretion is finding them. Bennet didn’t. And now he’s out of a job.