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College Daze: On Campuses As In Newsrooms, Orthodoxy Rules

Jeff Robbins on

In a recent piece in The Atlantic, former New York Times staffer Adam Rubenstein went public with his firsthand account of what has become the classic story of the Times' surrender to the orthodoxy of a certain political set. In 2020, after white policemen murdered George Floyd, protests of police brutality, long an under-recognized feature of America's reality, erupted. Most were peaceful. Some were not; in some cities, police stations were torched, police cars firebombed and police officers themselves murdered.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., advocated invoking federal law to quell the violence. His opinion was supported by 53% of Americans at the time, according to a Morning Consult poll. The Times, which had already editorialized in support of Black Lives Matter and had published many columns sharply at variance with Cotton, invited the senator to publish his opinion -- on its opinion page.

Hell broke loose in the Times' newsroom at this effrontery. Fifteen-hundred Times employees signed statements furiously demanding retractions, editors' notes and discipline of those "responsible," claiming that the publication of Cotton's opinion placed them "in danger."

Never mind that the Times had had no problem publishing the "opinions" of tyrants like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia's Vladimir Putin. No, the publication of a U.S. senator's opinion on stopping urban violence was an impermissible outrage. Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, seeking to quell a newsroom riot, went into Full Toady mode, stating that the op-ed "did not meet our standards." Opinion editor James Bennet was forced to resign, and other heads rolled as well. Rubenstein, who edited the piece, wrote that even by merely asking questions about the lock-step, left-leaning political orthodoxy reigning at the Times, "I'd revealed that I wasn't on the same team as my colleagues."

The irony couldn't have been thicker. Here was The New York Times, paragon of First Amendment virtue, touting itself as the avatar of free expression, collapsing under incensed criticism from its own journalists for having published a senator's opinion about public policy.

And the message to any Times journalist even contemplating suggesting that the paper publish stories deemed verboten by the prevailing fashion at the paper was clear: if you value your career, keep your mouth shut.

The Times is hardly the only newsroom where orthodoxy reigns and silence is safest. College students writing for their college newspapers would take their social lives into their own hands by proposing articles that run counter to prevailing campus winds.

Consider this.

Qatar, whose emir exercises absolute power over its 315,000 citizens, is massively wealthy thanks to the vast reserves of fossil fuels it possesses. It also possesses a woeful human rights record: serious restrictions of the rights to free expression, peaceful assembly and political activity, flogging and imprisonment for same-sex sexual conduct and adultery, forced labor, and the widespread exploitation and abuse of workers, especially women, for starters.

 

It is a huge funder of Hamas, which slaughtered some 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7. It also happens to be a huge funder of some 60 American colleges and universities, and not for no reason. It invests strategically in international relations centers and journalism schools, hoping to advance Qatar's view of the world and to influence American policy for its benefit.

This fairly cries out for college journalists to ask: what are our institutions' ties to Qatar? How much do we receive, with what strings and with what payback? Are we transparent about it, or do we seek to hide it?

At a time when campaigns to divest from Israel are all the rage, would a college journalist have much incentive to risk the wrath of divestment activists by suggesting that questions be asked that would not be popular to ask?

They would not. To ask such questions, as Adam Rubenstein wrote, might suggest that one wasn't on "the right team." In this case, being on the right team would mean advocating for divestment from Israel, rather than from Hamas' staunch ally.

But where question-asking is considered a bad career move, it isn't "just" the truth that suffers. It's all of us.

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Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.


Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate Inc.

 

 

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