I Don’t Want to Hear It!
By Patrick F. Cannon
For increasing numbers of our fellow citizens, “freedom of speech” is limited to what they have to say or are willing to hear. Not for them the famous quote attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” Nowadays, it’ more like: “I don’t agree with you, so shut up!”
While James Madison drafted the Bill of Rights, whose first Amendment admonishes Congress not to “abridge the freedom of speech or of the press,” he did it in consultation with Thomas Jefferson and others, who remembered only too well the power of the British state to put people in jail for speaking out. The other nine amendments are largely designed to keep the government off our backs in other ways.
The framers, much like politicians then and later, sometimes had reason to wish there was less freedom of speech, and especially of the press. As soon as 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which sought to limit both. Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus during the Civil War, partially to punish dissenters. Woodrow Wilson jailed opponents of World War I, and radicals of various kinds during the “Red Scare” of the late teens and early 1920s. And Franklin Roosevelt interned American citizens of Japanese descent in 1942.
In many cases, we have the press to thank for holding the government to account. It took guts, for example, for the New York Times to defy the government in publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971. So, it seems ironic to me that the same newspaper has recently been involved in suppressing an opinion it disagrees with editorially.
The so-called Op-Ed sections of newspapers, where differing opinions on a variety of issues are published, are largely based on a section started by the Times itself. Yet, on June 7 they fired their Opinion editor, James Bennett, for publishing a piece by Senator Tom Cotton (R, AR) that advocated the use of Federal troops in quelling the recent rioting and looting (as distinct from the mostly peaceful protests). It would be difficult to find a politician I hold in lower regard (he’s and avid Trump supporter), but in fact his opinion was held by a significant number of Americans, and deserved some space in a newspaper with few conservative voices.
The Times publisher claimed Bennett was asked to resign because he published the piece without prior editing, as if you could ask someone to express their opinion, then take out the stuff you didn’t like!. He was actually fired because the news staff rebelled, claiming that his views threatened them with actual harm. The reality is they rose in righteous rebellion because his views were abhorrent to a news staff of largely liberal and progressive opinion. In another, less well known case, a reporter was forced to apologize for quoting a source accurately.
In an article he wrote for Intercept, a publication that appears in a variety of formats (on-line, podcasts, videos, etc.), reporter Lee Fang quoted an African-American resident of East Oakland, California, Maximum FR – who himself had lost two cousins to gun violence – to the effect that while the killing of African-Americans by police officers was front page news nationally, he rarely saw any mention of the killing of African-American young men by other African-American young men. For using a quote that was not only accurate, but demonstrably true, Mr. Fang was accused of being a racist by his fellow Intercept journalists. To keep his job, he was required to apologize.
Regardless of one’s political opinions, we are getting on dangerous ground when the news staff of a great newspaper is able to leap the wall between the news and editorial staffs and decide what is acceptable opinion. And just when did telling the truth become racist?
Copyright 2020, Patrick F. Cannon