By Todd Smith | The Caledonian Record
Two weeks ago the New York Times published an op-ed — “Send in the Troops” — authored by Senator Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas. Cotton pointed to lawlessness resulting from nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd.
“The rioting has nothing to do with George Floyd … nihilistic criminals are simply out for the loot and the thrill of the destruction, with cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.”
Cotton called for “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.” He invoked the Insurrection Act that authorizes the President to deploy the military to restore order.
“The American people aren’t blind to injustices in our society, but they know that the most basic responsibility of government is to maintain public order and safety,” Cotton concludes.
The op-ed kicked up a hornet’s nest of howls and protests, including a revolt among New York Times news staffers who said publishing the opinion put their lives in danger. From there, dominoes fell quickly.
The next day, Publisher A.G. Sulzberger apologized for the piece and said it shouldn’t have run. Shortly thereafter Editorial Page Editor James Bennett resigned and one of his deputies was re-assigned. Sulzberger said the opinion “did not meet our standards,” and blamed a “rushed editorial process.” He said the Cotton flap was just the last straw for Bennett, whose high-profile missteps overshadowed an otherwise decent career.
This, of course, got conservatives all riled up. Trump supporters jumped on the developments as proof-positive that the New York Times wasn’t a band of professional journalists as much as they were social justice warriors, trying to lead the country straight to hell.
There’s nuance to the truth, of course. The biggest thing is that opinion editors and newsrooms have different missions and are firewalled to prevent cross-contamination. That’s true, and the decision to push out Bennett was unlikely to have been decided by upset staffers or irate readers.
But in today’s social media world, the truth doesn’t matter. Rabid liberals wanted Cotton’s voice silenced and they sort of claimed a victory. Conservatives wanted the New York Times silenced and they also sort of claimed a victory.
The big loser was a country that once-upon-a-time could handle opposing viewpoints. The aforementioned “cancel culture” is changing all that.
Consider things closer to home.
Two weeks ago we got a helpful letter from a reader who said if our editorial writers would just smarten up and support Trump, then the Caledonian-Record wouldn’t go out of business. That sentiment was echoed by a letter writer today who said she’s cancelling her subscription because of an anti-Trump cartoon. These letters are inversely proportional to similar missives we received when we (often) criticized the Obama Administration.
The Ithaca Journal, a daily newspaper in Ithaca, New York, has one person left in their newsroom. It’s an affluent college town with 32,000 people. The Caledonian-Record has a dozen journalists covering a much poorer, dramatically smaller area.
The “cancel” folks we mention apparently don’t value the journalists employed to objectively cover our region on a daily basis. Or at least those fact-based reports — which fill 95% of every edition — pale in comparison to the outrage of an opposing viewpoint. Spare them the lofty talk of a crumbling democracy, for them it all comes down to a cartoon with which they disagree.
And this poses two major problems for society.
First, there’s no room for opposing viewpoints. That means conversations can’t happen and middle ground becomes scorched earth.
Second, there can be no more financially sustainable, independent media committed to airing a wide range of opinions. That means quality, fact-based information can’t happen and our entire democracy becomes scorched earth.
Cancel culture is a tactic of tyrants, but is absolutely the right term for what we see happening before our eyes. Once a society censors all voices with controversial viewpoints, there can be no culture at all.
Todd M. Smith is the publisher of the Caledonian Record, where this editorial first appeared. He lives in St. Johnsbury.