By Edward Achorn
As a newspaperman for 41 years, I have watched with great sadness as many newspapers lost subscribers and advertisers. That decimated their ability to provide news and opinion.
Even sadder, though, was seeing newspapers abandon their core mission of holding the powerful accountable and defending America’s freedoms, especially the First Amendment.
When I started in the business in 1979, that mission served Democrats and Republicans alike.
As the years went by, people employed in the news media increasingly dropped the cloak of objectivity. They became advocates for progressive ideology. Journalists came to regard fairness and, in some cases, accuracy as impediments to their advocacy, which they believed served the public better than old-fashioned attempts at objectivity.
Accordingly, they increasingly shielded favored politicians and political organizations from serious scrutiny and accountability, while heaping abuse on others. They promoted political hoaxes. They erased the line between news and opinion. And they advanced a narrative, day after day, depicting those who hold traditional values — and America itself — as systemically evil.
In short, they became propagandists.
While this shift won over some readers, I believe it seriously damaged people’s trust in the news media and other institutions. And I believe it hurt our republic.
The blessings of liberty
Not so long ago, many journalists appreciated the hard-won blessings of individual liberty, self-government, property rights, limits on government power, due process, the right to self-defense, and equality under the law.
In the bloody annals of human history, brutal oppression has been the standard method of governance. In the last century alone, totalitarian (mostly Marxist) governments killed their citizens by the tens of millions. While no country is perfect, America’s incredible empowerment of the individual created an unprecedented explosion of wealth, power, opportunity, and scientific achievement over a scant 244 years. This is the reason that people of all races clamor to come here.
Because of freedom, America remains, as Abraham Lincoln put it, the “last best hope of earth.”
At the heart of this greatness is something that totalitarians cannot abide: the open, free and robust discussion of ideas, including arguments that offend powerful interest groups. While free speech can be hurtful, it is essential to promoting justice, undermining oppression, and preserving liberty.
In America, the philosophy has long pertained that no one party has a lock on truth; that we approach the truth only through arguments that are constantly tested and challenged. Yet many in today’s news media are no longer faithful champions of such freedom. Many, indeed, seek to silence any speech they deem offensive.
At The New York Times
The New York Times, perhaps the nation’s most influential newspaper, recently drove out its opinion editor after publishing a mainstream op-ed by a Republican senator that vocal leftists in the newsroom disliked. This week, a New York Times opinion writer named Bari Weiss alleged in a public resignation letter that the paper fosters a climate of bullying and intolerance for differing views.
“Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. … I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative,” she wrote.
“My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m ‘writing about the Jews again.’ Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly ‘inclusive’ one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are.”
Ms. Weiss chided Publisher Arthur Sulzberger for permitting such behavior to fester.
“Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired,” she wrote.
In 2016, the newspaper’s reporters and editors famously could not recognize what was transpiring in the presidential election and report that faithfully to readers. They failed to learn any lessons from that experience, Ms. Weiss argued — “lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society. … Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”
The totalitarian spirit
This totalitarian spirit has gone far beyond the news media, of course, corroding our free society. People are being ruined for diverging from orthodoxies (which constantly mutate into more extreme positions) in business, government, entertainment and, perhaps most regrettably, education. Most of our nation’s leaders have been silent as this despicable bullying — far uglier and more pervasive than the hated McCarthyism of the 1950s — became embedded in America.
I believe that our republic has a greater need than ever for unbiased reporting. Americans crave facts and a range of arguments, rather than one ideological narrative, so that they can make up their own minds.
Growing numbers of elites, unfortunately, oppose open debate and the dissemination of facts that challenge their ideology. At bottom, they do not trust the people to make up their own minds about anything.
George Washington, the founder of our freedoms, warned in 1783 that if freedom of speech were ever taken away, then “dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.” There is a reason that activists want to tear his statues down.
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)