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The New York Times and the Importance of Conclusion Neutrality

Earlier this month, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas wrote a controversial New York Times op-ed arguing that President Trump should send the US military to quell riots in cities across the country. The article produced a staff mutiny within the Times and a predictable and philosophically banal debate outside it. On one hand, there was a defense of a free press—in the pages of the Times itself, Bret Stephens wrote “it is not the duty of the paper to make people feel safe”—and on the other, a call for the Times not to provide platforms for “dangerous” ideas.

This episode is representative of a longstanding debate over where the line around permissible opinion should be drawn by the media. When David Remnick disinvited Stephen K. Bannon from the New Yorker Festival, we witnessed the same argument between those who emphasize the hypothetical dangers of some speech, and those who believe open intellectual inquiry is the best means of ultimately overcoming “bad” ideas. Invariably missing from these debates is a thoughtful interrogation of the principle upon which media organizations like the Times should base editorial decisions.

If, like me, a reader wants to see a publication like the Times carry a wide variety of perspectives, it is not enough to cheer for the “open marketplace of ideas” or “more speech.” Bromides like these do not answer the tough question of whether supporting free inquiry really commits a publication to the untenable position of publishing all viewpoints. Clearly, the New York Times, like any media outlet that wishes to offer a spread of perspectives, should publish progressive as well as conservative ideas. But, equally clearly, it should not publish defenses of Nazism or genocide. A serious defense of intellectual diversity in the press cannot simply reiterate that there are problems with delimiting legitimate perspectives; it must establish a principled standard of acceptability.

The need for such a standard is particularly urgent at the Times because no one on its staff seems to have offered a coherent account of how to make this assessment. A.G. Sulzberger, the Times’s publisher, affirmed his belief in the “principle of openness to a range of opinions, even those we may disagree with.” But in regard to actually deciding which arguments to publish, he appears only to have said that “they need to be accurate, good faith explorations of the issues of the day.” James Bennett, who oversaw the publication of Cotton’s article, penned a defense of intellectual diversity and championed the Times’s fundamental purpose—“Not to tell you what to think, but to help you think for yourself,” but then immediately confessed that this position “probably just sounds platitudinous.” He said he took “seriously” the fear that publishing Cotton’s piece “endangered our colleagues,” but did not get into the challenging question of how and where to draw the line. In any event, whatever bulwark Bennett’s support for open debate may have provided against progressive orthodoxy, in the aftermath of the controversy, he resigned. Meanwhile, Bari Weiss—along with fellow Wall Street Journal alumnus Stephens, one of the most prominent defenders of free speech at the Timesacknowledged “limits” in the “open marketplace of ideas,” and admitted that Cotton’s op-ed may have fallen outside them. However, she didn’t explain what these limits consist of, or in what sense Cotton and the Times had violated them. A clearer principle is necessary if all such choices are not to be ad hoc.

Obviously, an independent organization like the Times is free to use any standard it likes. But if a publication wants to provide a proper forum for non-partisan debate, it ought to use what might be described as a conclusion neutral standard, under which arguments are judged by the reasoning that they employ and not the conclusions they draw. Arguments should be presented to readers for their contemplation based, not on whether or not they reach acceptable conclusions, but on the strength of their reasoning. In principle, this means that liberals and conservatives have an equal chance of representation, since neither enjoys a monopoly on empirical rigor or rationality.

The conclusion neutral standard is the journalistic expression of classical liberal values. Like analogous manifestations in philosophy and law, it does not intend to restrict what individuals may express but only how they may express themselves. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued that the government should not use force against individuals unless they are causing others harm. In principle, the government does not set any positive limits on people’s actions even if others believe them “foolish, perverse, or wrong.” No individual way of life is prohibited unless it violates a standard of harm by which all individuals are expected to abide. The Supreme Court continues to protect free speech under the longstanding concept of content neutrality. As Justice Thomas wrote in the majority opinion for Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015), “Government regulation of speech is content-based if a law applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed.” Generally, such laws are unconstitutional. This principle requires the state to be ideologically neutral and leaves individuals free to work out their own perspectives.

If the curation of a newspaper’s opinion section is to be intellectually impartial, it must provide an unbiased procedure for making editorial decisions. Conclusion neutrality, earnestly pursued, is the only means of doing so. Otherwise, arguments will always risk censure merely because of the position they take. This is not to say “anything goes.” Like other classical liberal principles, conclusion neutrality does establish limits on what the media should publish. But these limits are not determined by excluding conclusions deemed unacceptable a priori, but rather by quality of reasoning.

A more radically minded person might wonder about the utility of having any standard at all. Perhaps media outlets should operate more in the manner of online platforms like Facebook or Twitter. To some, this may be the ideal of open debate. But it serves the public interest to have some mediation between writers and the public, and it is on the quality of that mediation that a newspaper’s reputation as a forum for informed commentary depends. In college, for example, professors do not let students design their own course syllabi. Rather, they curate material to (in theory) help sharpen their students’ critical thinking. Professors may have flawed judgement, but the goal is not to restrict what students think, but to help them become intellectually mature. In the same way, conclusion neutrality encourages columnists to use their knowledge of public affairs to present the public with the most thoughtful arguments and analysis. This allows individuals to develop their own perspectives in a constructive and relatively organized manner.

Given this structure, conclusion neutrality provides maximum room for the individual exploration of ideas. It allows writers the freedom to articulate their ideas, so long as they do not violate the norms of reasoning with which all arguments must comply. Additionally, it allows readers the freedom to formulate their own perspectives without editors determining what is or is not an acceptable idea on their behalf. In doing so, it addresses Bennett’s fear that media organizations may decide for their readers what they ought to think: Readers are able to consider, not what editors deem appropriate views, but the best arguments.

It also escapes the false dilemma of having to choose between a free exchange of ideas and the avoidance of bigoted writing. In addition to being immoral, indiscriminate animus towards groups of people based upon shared unalterable characteristics is plainly irrational. Carefully reasoned arguments on any topic will in effect prohibit such conclusions. Anyone who argues for white supremacy is not merely outside the bounds of polite discourse; he ought to be considered outside the bounds of rational discourse.

It is tempting to argue that publications should also consider the morality of arguments in an effort to avoid publishing disturbing ideas, but a morality-based standard quickly runs into trouble. Many people believe socialism to be immoral, but as its doctrines experience a resurgence of support, the New York Times can hardly avoid well-reasoned arguments in its defense. Discussions about immigration, abortion, gun rights, euthanasia, taxation, stem cell research, climate change, and almost any other disputed area of policymaking require writers and commentators to contend with ethical issues and complex tradeoffs between conflicting values that are fiercely moralized by both sides. A morality-based standard leaves open the possibility that reasonable arguments on either side of such debates will be prohibited by the private moral views of individual editors.

Some may maintain that the moral standard is less susceptible to manipulation than a reasoning-based standard. Reasoning can be hard to assess and many arguments involve subtlety and sophistication that can be difficult to distinguish from sophistry. But as the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his essay “Originalism: The Lesser Evil,” the problems with a theory should be judged in relation to the task at hand. It is a journalist’s job to marshal evidence and make persuasive arguments, even if the frailties and biases to which we are all subject necessarily make this process imperfect. There is no reason to assume, however, that they have any particular moral insight.

As with virtually any principle, there are certain reasonable limits to the application of conclusion neutrality. First, arguments that incite imminent and unlawful violence should not be published. This ideologically neutral principle seeks only to maintain public safety. It is not to be confused with the much broader and more easily exploited standard of rejecting arguments that are, in some general sense, “dangerous.” Like the morality standard, that risks proscribing viewpoints based, not upon what is objectively threatening, but upon what editors do not like.

Even if we assume for the sake of argument that dangerous ideas are those that may, at some unspecified point in the future, risk violence, this is a poor standard. In attempting to secure an ambiguous benefit—safety from some distant and unclear outcome—this practice objectively and presently narrows public debate. It prevents individuals outside the mainstream from defending their perspectives, and it undermines the public’s opportunity to consider and to engage with new ideas. This unjustifiably rejects manifest harms in favor of causal speculation.

It is also by no means illegitimate for publications to operate according to the principle of relevance. It would be unfair to expect the Times to publish arguments on any subject. The limited space and resources of a major publication should be devoted to significant matters of the day. Along with quality of reasoning, the news-worthiness of an argument may guide publication decisions. Nor is it reasonable to expect every media outlet to adopt content neutrality. Some are explicitly partisan and exist to promote a particular perspective. They are not, therefore, aiming to provide a forum for open or thought-provoking debate. But a publication like the Times which employs conservative and progressive commentators in an effort to keep its opinion pages (if not its editorial line) non-partisan, should adopt this standard in keeping with its mission.

By the standards of conclusion neutrality, whether or not Tom Cotton’s piece should have been published remains debatable. As the Times has pointed out, Cotton made unsupported and widely criticized allegations about organized violence. But what specific arguments ought to be published is a practical question that individual editors will have to consider. What qualifies as sound reasoning is rarely unambiguous, notwithstanding widely shared norms such as well-supported claims, intellectual good faith, and a charitable approach to arguments with which one disagrees. Nevertheless, the fundamental point of principle remains—conclusion neutrality will support non-partisan and open-minded public debate. At a time when the boundaries of acceptable viewpoints are constantly being called into question, adopting this principle could scarcely be more important.

 

Max Diamond was an investigative reporting fellow at RealClearPolitics, and a reporting fellow at the Raleigh News & Observer. He has written for the Washington Post, and is currently working on a documentary film about education in New York’s Hasidic Jewish Community. You can follow him on Twitter @maxlevydiamond.

Image: Congressman Tom Cotton of Arkansas speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr.)

Comments

  1. Some points.
    First, let’s regard the notion of “dangerous ideas” with a little more scrutiny than the author does. I have always been loathe to use caps, so excuse me this one time but MOST ideas are dangerous. I’ll give you a simple example: the coronavirus. Let’s assume it’s a real threat, then saying the threat is exaggerated is dangerous. Now let’s assume the threat is exaggerated, then exaggerating that threat is dangerous.
    Second, MSM publishes very dangerously now. It should know race stories lead to riots. In fact, it does know this. It wants the riots. It wants new stories, damn the consequences for society. It defames without apology too.
    Third, MSM is not interested in conclusion neutrality. It wants a particular narrative. This is not an offer it finds enticing. Why would, let’s say, Jack Dorsey accept “conclusion neutrality” as Twitter’s immortal savior?
    Fourth, regarding the sentence
    “Obviously, an independent organization like the Times is free to use any standard it likes.”
    Why is this obvious? Does the Constitution not apply to corporations? For example, does Twitter have the right to decide what the president can say? If a product can only be used by people with a certain ideology, is that a free market?
    Finally, while the author does claim “dangerous” ideas should be allowed (“Even if we assume for the sake of argument that dangerous ideas are those that may, at some unspecified point in the future, risk violence, this is a poor standard.”), he himself imposes limits, saying arguments for white supremacy go beyond rational discourse. No offence, but you know what goes for “white supremacy” nowadays? Saying it’s “okay to be white” is “white supremacy”. Examining crime stats or IQ figures is “white supremacy”. Saying “I didn’t own slaves, so piss off” is “white supremacy”.
    Seriously, free speech means every opinion is allowed. The only really dangerous idea is compelling people to voice opinions they don’t believe.

  2. *But, equally clearly, it should not publish defenses of Nazism or genocide. *

    That is not at all clear. Once you start to ban some things, you end up banning more and more things you don’t agree with. And who makes those decisions?.. Who gets to say what is allowed and disallowed?.. You?.. Well no thanks. I’d like to make up my own mind. And what are you afraid of anyway? That some one will defend genocide so well, we’ll all end up voting for it? No. Have a little more trust in people to be able to to see through that for themselves without your censorship.

  3. Based on what has been published about Bennett’s ritual professional suicide, it appears that the propulsive force applied to him came almost entirely from his subordinates.

    Copy editors and staff reporters in “town hall” meetings expressed anger at how editorial decisions were being made without their knowledge and consent. The group wasn’t being given a representative say in the political role of the newspaper within American society, as well as daily editorial content.

    It was a mob action at the level of the shop floor. Progressive socialism, red in tooth and claw.

  4. I don’t subscribe to the NYT, or give two-shits about their editorials. Years ago, we did subscribe to their Sunday edition, because there was plenty of non-political content to be worth the $3 or whatever it was at the time, and my wife liked their crossword puzzles. Also, there was a lot of pages, which were good for packing boxes, covering floors when painting, potty training your dog, lining bird cages, wrapping up fish down at the fresh fish market, etc.

  5. This article struck me as needlessly ponderous. Everyone already knows what the problem is. The Woke have been spilling out of the colleges with their degrees in lesbian dance theory (thanks for that one, Ben Shapiro) and into Google and the New York Times Op-ed page.

    In other words, the grand old newspaper is rapidly turning into an activist rag.

  6. It is hard to believe in these times that anyone can have a serious discussion about ethics or integrity at the New York Times, as if there were still any doubt about what the newspaper really was in terms of blatantly partisan woke advocacy journalism.

  7. “As the Times has pointed out, Cotton made unsupported and widely criticized allegations about organized violence.“

    Such as?

  8. The same thing is happening on the other side of the pond. The BBC was recently criticised for the statement “27 police officers injured in largely peaceful protests”, as well as cutting out images of any violence on the part of protesters.

    We are living in an Orwellian age…

  9. In addition to being immoral, indiscriminate animus towards groups of people based upon shared unalterable characteristics is plainly irrational.

    The New York Times has been guilty of this exact offense for ages. Like all bigots, they don’t hide it and they’re not ashamed of it.

    “But if you’re examining the paper’s coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world.”

    – Source: New York Times.

  10. This is mostly a response to @K_Dershem calling me biased for reading “right-wing caricatures” that misrepresent the NYT that apparently publishes excellent “analysis”, but this post very much deserves to be in this thread.

    The Steerpike column of the Spectator has a pretty good collection of NYT blunders, bloopers, howlers, stinkers, half-truths, non-truths, and outright lies.

    For those of you who don’t yet pay for the the best (and oldest) English language magazine since the 19th century, here’s a little collage of my favourite ones.

    Let’s start with the absurd. This one appeared just yesterday.

    Come to think of it, I can’t actually name as single place that really is a swamp in the UK (we have marshes, but that’s different); apart possibly from the Civil Service, the BBC and other Quangos that blight our lives…but that’s another topic.

    Now let’s move onto slander.

    For those who still love the NYT, isn’t it reassuring to know that when NYT want an accurate portrayal of a multi-faceted political, social, economic and historical issue such as Brexit, they turn to a novellist. Enjoy your fantasy world, NYT readers!

    Now let’s head over to hyperbole (note that this is from February 2019 - pre-covid!)

    So this time it is an art critic’s opinion that forms the basis of the NYT article… That’s what happens when novellists are in short supply to provide the NYT with fake news.

    I stress that this was February 2019 - there was no “economy thrown into paralysis” but instead the UK was achieving it’s lowest unemployment rate in 70 years… So that was a lie. I hope that now that people have lived through Covid and have seen what a paralysed economy and what empty supermarkets do look like, they will avoid making stupid hyperbolic comments like above in the future… but I somehow think they are too well mentally insulated from reality to ever learn.

    Our next destination is self-delusion (this could have been above in the humour section too)

    The final stop is just outright lies.

    I apologise that I can’t link all the embedded images (like the graphs mentioned above) into the quote.

    This was written in 2018. The trends of continued job growth in particular carried all the way until the start of the Wuhan Virus. The £9 minimum wage (8.72 for nitpickers) was brought in this year; and was a 6% increase on last year - I’ve certainly never head a 6% pay rise in my life.

    TLDR: now I know why the NYT needs novellists and art critics to confirm its biases against Britain - anyone who actually checks the facts sees that reality undermines the whole narrative they are trying to spin on my country.

    So, is @K_Dershem still going to call me biased?

  11. According to the NYT > Cotton made unsupported and widely criticized allegations

    If this is their standard, explain to me, then, how they continue to justify the 1619 Project.

  12. Isn’t Conclusion Neutrality just a fancy word for what we used to call ‘News’???

    It is disappointingly difficult now though to find any story, anywhere, that isn’t tainted with some whiff of political pandering - be it left or right to some degree. I don’t know exactly what political party Walter Cronkite was, and don’t think every report pointed one direction. I could be wrong there, but I certainly don’t remember hearing what party he supported - nor did I hear about sexual preferences or political leanings of actors and other celebrities. I miss the days of just being able to enjoy a book, song or show for what it was, and not be hit over the head to remind me of what I SHOULD be thinking politically about what is happening.

    I have children at home in middle and high school, and I find it very difficult to translate what they are hearing or seeing around them at school so that they learn ‘how’ to think, and that I don’t just perpetuate the problem by telling them what to think (that is usually different from what they see at school or in social media). Seems like my parents had it easy…

    I think the erasure of the tolerance of opposing views is such a terrible slope to be sliding on now. Erasing, and not being able to contextualize history, however awful it was, is a surefire prescription for doomsday up ahead. I mean who would have thought Winston Churchill would have been on the sacrificial block? How about John Wayne? A few years ago, on The Babylon Bee would have been the only place where a ridiculous possibility of getting rid of Uncle Ben’s Rice was worth spending any time at all thinking about. The ‘where will it stop’ seems scary, until we are locked in to the homeostasis of 1984 (the book, not the year, which I would love to be in again, as I was in college, and having a great time of life).

    I saw in our local paper’s home page today a banner to click on that said ‘Silence is not an option’. Really? I can’t be quiet? Just, like, not participate? Isn’t Freedom still allowed? (I know, it is only allowed if it is in lockstep with the oppression olympics scorecard). I clicked on it to find a black woman’s face up close with tears running down it. Then I clicked out… It reminded me of what I remembering hearing when I lived in Prague, and it was May Day (during the Soviet occupation) and the communist parades were filling Wenceslas Square, and the Stasi were told to go to apartment buildings to make sure all residents were out in the streets supporting the Party - ‘Not attending was not an option’. Sound familiar? This ‘coercive progressivism’, with no religious underpinning, is definitely frightening. This article was instructive on the problem with ‘Christianity without Redemption’.

    As a Christian, I can handle ones own, or another’s failings, because forgiveness and redemption are a feature of the Christian ethic. The Cross of Jesus represented that transaction. But with progressivism, and no Cross, the sacrifices have to take out the sinners. Of course the problem is obvious, and becoming more so as we unveil more and more racist (according to today’s standards) comments from the past, as no one is exempt as ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’, meaning that the purity black hole will have to annihilate literally everyone on the planet to get to spotless, Utopian perfection. Of course, it hasn’t even taken two weeks to watch the CHAZ/CHOP debacle drift down the only road i could imagine when I heard about its’ birth - violence, disagreements, warring factions (including some with arms), crime, and all the other 100% predictable outcomes that Mayor Durkan acted like weren’t going to happen when she announced it may just be a ‘Summer of Love’ in Seattle this year… Give me a break…

  13. This is the worst article I’ve read on Quillette. Op-eds should be judged not on ideas but on “Conclusion Neutrality” it says, well, except for this nasty idea, and this other nasty idea, and let’s just keep adding nasty ideas that clearly shouldn’t ever be printed because they’re so nasty.

    Really, just imagine what would happen if there was a defense of Nazism in the New York Times. People would have heart attacks, drop their phones, and die from the coronavirus in some hospital after heart attack treatment. Think of all the broken screens!

    But really, Conclusion Neutrality is the way to go, except wait, I’ve come up with more thoughtcrimes. For example:

    In addition to being immoral, indiscriminate animus towards groups of people based upon shared unalterable characteristics is plainly irrational.

    We have no way of knowing whether many characteristics are unalterable. Really, skin color can be changed, so is racism ok as long as long it’s just because you dislike dark skin? Being dead is certainly unalterable. Must I allow dead people into my business? What if we discover genes for criminality? Then it’ll be irrational to have any animus towards criminals, right? I wonder if there are genes for being racist. People keep telling us their gender and sexuality are unalterable, but then they keep changing their minds. Why does it matter if something is unalterable or not? If I don’t like short people, and I want to write about that in the New York Times, are short people too fragile to be exposed to that? Luckily, religion is alterable, so I’m in the clear to publish all the anti-Semetic op-eds I want. I just have to make sure it’s clear I’m not advocating for full-on Nazism.

    By the way, it sure seems all right these days to have animus towards white people. I wonder why that’s accepted on these premises. Why isn’t black supremacy listed as one of the unprintable ideas?

    But ok, I’ve read your article, and I still agree overall that Tom Cotton’s op-ed should be published based on “Conclusion Neutrality”. So, what’s the verdict? Oh, you don’t even want to do the thing that you think the New York Times’ editors should have been able to do. That’s a really fulfilling conclusion.

    Really, the whole article should have been an examination of whether Tom Cotton’s op-ed deserves to be printed, demonstrating Conclusion Neutrality in action. That would have been an informative example of the process. Instead we mostly get a list of exceptions to know when it’s wrong to use.

  14. Yeah, I read a bit of Chomsky, and realised that he used excess verbiage to disguise the fact that he is a propagandist rather than an intellectual. I think this is why he has such a large audience, because his philosophy is so very simplistic: America is bad. Of course, America has done some very evil things (putting Pinochet in power is but one example) but Chomsky can only see American evil, he is more recalcitrant to see it in other countries. And he cannot accept American goodness, even as he basks in it.

  15. This is one of the things I hate most about modern journalism - it’s how they always hide behind the passive form.

    How many times have we clicked on an article with the headline “X is criticised …” or “X is accused…”
    just to get midway down the article to realise the one making the criticisms is some Twitter nobody, or some clout-chasing minor celebrity, or some pompously named activist outfit without a shred of credibility?

    Imagine if all the papers adopted the active form. It would change all those articles starting “The president faces criticism…” to “Jane Fonda says that…” - not quite the same, heh?

    This abuse of passive forms is intentionally made to focus the attention on the accused without having to cross examine the accusers. It is made to create a false illusion of there being some unanimous consensus on a topic.

    Now I understand why we were taught at school to avoid the passive form - it really is a tool for intentionally misleading people.

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