Tom Cotton, the New York Times and the purpose of newspapers

Ever since the Times published Tom Cotton’s opinion piece, “Send In The Troops,” I’ve been reading about the huge uproar over it. And thinking about it.

Initially, I didn’t read the piece. The title cry, “Send In The Troops!” did not attract my interest.

I get to do that, you see. To decide whether my instant antagonism to someone’s opinion — based on the title and following summary, “The nation must restore order. The military stands ready,” and the author’s ID, “By Mr. Cotton, a Republican, is a United States senator from Arkansas” — engages my curiosity.

It didn’t. I have strong feelings about our military but won’t go into that now. Well, except to say I’m never comfortable when people who have had military careers — that is, have had etched in them absolute obedience and conformity to superior officers — run for and get elected to Congress. I personally feel the military creed conflicts with democratic representation.

In any case, I’m a New Yorker and have enough questions about our own quasi-military forces, i.e., the NYPD, being sent into crowds of peaceful, if angry, protesters to do…what? The potential for violence is on exhibition, even in still photos of cops in armor, carrying heavy weapons and batons. Those photos scare the shit out of me, and then I watch the horrifying videos.

So, nah, Tom Cotton, a Southern boy nostalgic for the traitorous Confederacy. He wants to war all over again but this time win. Right.

But I was startled into reading it when whole numbers of people I follow on Twitter and elsewhere starting screaming at…the Times. At the editors. Who, they claimed, were acting as a Trump, a/k/a fascist propaganda arm by printing Cotton’s weird, unpersuasive and regressive splat. Which, as I pointed out about Trump’s initial “military! dominate!” speech, was barely modified from early Hitler proclamations.

Instead of arguing against Cotton’s easy-to-dismantle fascistic fantasies — which plenty of Times columnists did over the next several weeks — the critics were saying the Times was at fault for printing it.

They seem to be demanding the Times come out as a resolutely anti-fascist, anti-Trump publication…rather than a daily newspaper which reports facts I need in order to develop my own opinions.

My book, How I Learned The Facts of Life: Real news vs fake news in a time of plague, injustice, gobsmacking trumpery…and whatever comes next, specifically addresses how to get the facts from newspapers and how to distinguish news reports from op-eds.

That distinction between factual news reports and op-eds seems to be getting muddled in public opinion.

In the book, I lay out the job of a newspaper: tell me what has happened, tell me the story, the what, where, who, when and why – the facts of what happened. Then, let me know what editorial writers and columnists think about what has happened.

If all you want to read is anti-Trump stuff, or right-wing conservative stuff, or white supremacy or “libertarian” stuff, or Social Democratic or Black Lives Matter stuff, there are plenty of online and print journals and magazines where you can do that. Some are more credible than others, but what the hell. If you want to ignore the factual daily news and go direct to your choice of political furor…you can do that. Nobody’s stopping you. Nobody’s canceling you or restricting your rights.

Similarly, I’ve read more than one criticism of networks and newspapers for quoting Trump or broadcasting his so-called press conferences. And every time I do, I wonder what my newspaper would look like if Trump and all who ride on him virtually disappeared from its pages.

That would be surreal.

Besides, it isn’t the job of a newspaper to eliminate the “who” from news stories, just because one particular “who” is an egregious sociopath and dimwit who happens to have tripped into being the president of the United States. As nauseating as he is, I’d much rather read what he has said than have it all edited out of my view.

I mean, if I don’t know what Trump’s doing, I could not credibly call him an egregious sociopath and dimwit, could I?

What are these Times critics afraid of?

Clearly they’re not afraid that they’ll be brainwashed into accepting Cotton’s primeval scream. So they must be afraid for me and other Times readers. Well, gee, thanks for the effort but you don’t have to protect me from Tom Cotton. I’m fine on my own (see above, re my opinion of Tom Cotton). And if you read the the readers’ comments to the Tom Cotton op, you’d know Times readers are all fine, too. Tom Cotton did not send us out into the streets in rebel gear. Sort of the opposite.

Finally, the Times directly confronted the criticism. Published several articles about what was happening on the masthead and in the newsroom. It published ops from its own columnists about it. Indeed, I just counted the number of Tom Cotton-op-related articles, ops and comments in the New York Times: Thirteen.

I read every one of them. Some I agreed with, some I didn’t.

I, for one, need to know what the enemy is thinking. Until I do, I can’t challenge it, take up (intellectual) arms against it. I’d just be fighting ghosts.

If my own newspaper doesn’t let me know what Tom Cotton is thinking, I’d have to take out a subscription to his primary newspaper, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Which, after a search of its history and credo, might not be a bad idea, if I had the time. Which I don’t.

Here’s the credo of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It’s as good a description of the soul and purpose of a newspaper as any I can imagine.

“To give the news impartially, without fear or favor.” (Adolph Ochs, 1858-1935)

Impartiality means reporting, editing, and delivering the news honestly, fairly, objectively, and without personal opinion or bias.

Credibility is the greatest asset of any news medium, and impartiality is the greatest source of credibility.

To provide the most complete report, a news organization must not just cover the news, but uncover it. It must follow the story wherever it leads, regardless of any preconceived ideas on what might be most newsworthy.

The pursuit of truth is a noble goal of journalism. But the truth is not always apparent or known immediately. Journalists’ role is therefore not to determine what they believe at that time to be the truth and reveal only that to their readers, but rather to report as completely and impartially as possible all verifiable facts so that readers can, based on their own knowledge and experience, determine what they believe to be the truth.

When a newspaper delivers both news and opinions, the impartiality and credibility of the news organization can be questioned. To minimize this as much as possible there needs to be a sharp and clear distinction between news and opinion, both to those providing and consuming the news.

“A newspaper has five constituencies, including first its readers, then advertisers, then employees, then creditors, then shareholders. As long as the newspaper keeps those constituencies in that order, especially its readers first, all constituencies will be well served.” (Walter Hussman, 1906-1988)



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