A new tone at the paper hints at a broader change
America’s culture of free speech is in danger. So argues the New York Times editorial board in a piece published this morning.
Citing new polling showing that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe it is a problem that ‘some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations’ and that a majority of Americans have, over the past year, ‘held their tongue’ over fear of ‘retaliation or harsh criticism’, the board concludes that Americans ‘are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds.’
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This is an odd piece for the Times to publish in 2022. ‘Free speech’ has been highly politicised since at least the late Obama years, and debates over it have tracked the progress of the ‘Great Awokening’. Since speech is rarely curtailed by the government, the debate is generally over whether private institutions should tolerate speech that violates the taboos of young, woke progressives.
Throughout the Trump years, the Times tended to side with the young and woke, albeit with some reservations. They published an op-ed about how “Free Speech Is Killing Us” and one extolling “What Snowflakes Get Right About Free Speech.” To quell newsroom revolts from junior staff, the paper publicly apologised for publishing a Tom Cotton op-ed at the height of the summer 2020 riots, and, last February, fired a veteran science reporter for using the n-word in the context of a conversation about the word (i.e., not as a slur directed against any individual).
So why is the paper now shifting gears? Part of the reason may be internal — reporting from the Cotton and McNeil controversies, and from a more recent one involving a Times reporter caught badmouthing his woke colleagues, suggest a split in the newsroom, with older employees irked by the perceived oversensitivity of the young. Perhaps the adults are winning the day.
But the editorial also comes at a time when, after the excesses of the Trump years (and especially 2020), many liberal opinion leaders are tacking back to the centre. For nearly a year now, Times star David Leonhardt has been waging a one-man jihad against Covid panic, stressing that it’s out of step with the views of most Americans; Matt Yglesias and Times Magazine writer Jay Caspian Kang have recently attacked the liberal campaign against “disinformation”; and in his first State of the Union speech in February, President Biden explicitly repudiated progressive sacred cows like “defund the police” while urging Americans to take off their masks and get back to the office.
In other words, with Trump gone and the midterms looming, liberals are starting to reckon with the fact that many of the cultural stances they’ve taken over the past four years are deeply unpopular with the American people. It’s an encouraging trend, but one suspects that the radicals — now institutionally entrenched, and with long careers ahead of them — won’t roll over so easily.