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TONY RIDDER: Democracy and The New York Times


Having spent my life as a newspaperman, a career that culminated in a decade running the second-largest newspaper company in the country, I was aghast that James Bennet was forced to resign as editor of The New York Times' opinion section.

The op-ed page, which is separate from the paper's editorial position and also from the paper's newsroom, had run an essay, authored by a United States senator, which argued that the U.S. military should be used to quell protests nationwide as a last resort if local police and National Guard are overwhelmed.

Whatever your view of the underlying contention, Bennet's forced resignation suggests that the media is falling into the same trap that has undermined the legislative process in Washington. It is a worrisome turning point.

The fourth estate has long served as a bridge between people who disagree and a gateway to understand how others understand the world. That's the grist for any democracy. And if an editor at the nation's newspaper of record can't survive running an opinion piece that cuts against prevailing sentiment inside the newsroom, public discourse is bound to go the way of congressional deliberation--namely nowhere good.

Set aside the merits of Tom Cotton's argument, which I failed to find convincing. Set aside even the complaints about the process of selecting, editing, and publishing the piece--concerns about the veracity of the facts, or whether or not Bennet himself read it (he claims not).

Most importantly, set aside the complaint that the piece imperiled reporters' lives; the Times certainly published pieces arguing in favor of the Iraq War, and those arguments certainly imperiled lives, of journalists, soldiers, and civilians alike. Opinion pieces in the newspaper of record are often high stakes.

The core argument here was about whether the Times should publish a piece that many in its newsroom found morally repugnant. Maybe more pointedly, the question was whether, if an editor did select for publication an opinion piece that others found morally repugnant, he or she might be deposed.

For generations, the country's great newspapers have argued, both in the spirit of free speech and in the tradition of frank and honest debate, that, yes, of course, a paper would have license to publish a piece on a topic of the day from a United States senator, regardless of what anyone working at the paper thought of the argument. And certainly no editor's job would be imperiled by their decision to accept such a piece.

But beyond issuing a correction to any factual errors, after initially defending the decision to run the piece, the Times' decision to apologize for the piece and then to force Bennet's resignation suggests that the tradition of nurturing broad-ranging debate is deeply endangered.

American journalism was once defined as a profession by the Evelyn Beatrice Hall aphorism that "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Clearly, that's no longer true. If editors are not empowered to publish op-eds that run counter to a particularly political persuasion, public debate will suffer. And in the end, so will democracy.

To be clear, the real problem here is not only that the Times' leadership caved to the outrage from the paper's staff. It's that the paper's staff had embraced the belief that the paper should blacklist articles they consider too far outside their mainstream. (Note that a majority of Americans support military intervention to stop civil unrest.)

If an editorial page editor is prevented from presenting that argument for fear of being forced out, newspapers would cease to be public forums. In the past, the Times' opinion page has run pieces authored by Vladimir Putin, the Taliban, and others many Americans would find unsavory, to say the least. If the nation's major newspapers are no longer forums, how on Earth are American citizens supposed to understand those who come from different backgrounds? Let alone engage with them? Let alone govern with them?

This decision by the Times harkens back to Washington's sad decline. Congress has always been a divided institution. But much as Ronald Reagan disagreed with Tip O'Neill, the two were willing to sit down and hash through their differences. The same was true in congressional committees, where Republicans and Democrats regularly worked together for the good of the country.

Today, by contrast, members are incentivized not to reach across the aisle, but rather to wall themselves off. They excoriate one another on cable news, and send fundraising letters that frame the other side in the harshest terms. Engagement is a sign of weakness. Willingness to compromise a kind of vice.

Ordinary Americans don't see the nation's challenges that way. Many see at least some merit in both sides of any argument--or at least they want to understand any deep disagreement. Journalism's role in American life has long been to explain to the public the broad sweep of what's happening in Washington and the world.

If op-ed pages are no longer able to serve as a forum, journalism risks being sucked into the black hole of Washington's partisanship. Readers deserve better. Democracy demands it.


Tony Ridder is retired chairman and CEO of Knight-Ridder and National Leader of No Labels.


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