The New York Times and the Importance of Conclusion Neutrality
Congressman Tom Cotton of Arkansas speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr.)

The New York Times and the Importance of Conclusion Neutrality

Max Diamond
Max Diamond
7 min read

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.

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Max Diamond

Max Diamond was an investigative reporting fellow at RealClearPolitics, and a reporting fellow at the Raleigh News & Observer.