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10 June 2020

First Thoughts: The New York Times debacle, and why the NHS has been overwhelmed

The paper was right to publish an article by the Republican senator Tom Cotton, but journalism is now so partisan I might be the only leftist on the planet who holds such views.

By Peter Wilby

The New York Times (NYT) was right to publish an article by Tom Cotton, a Republican senator, which demanded “an overwhelming show of force” to put down riots in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. It was wrong, after protests from readers and journalists, to apologise and describe the essay as “short of the thoughtful approach that advances useful debate”. And though the opinion editor James Bennet should have certainly read his pages before publication – he didn’t on this occasion – it is deplorable that he was forced to resign.

Quite possibly, I am the only leftist on the planet who holds such views. Journalism has become so partisan, and its readers so embedded in their ideological silos, that almost nobody understands the concept of publishing a paper that offers a wide range of opinion.

But that was what the great US newspapers, particularly the NYT and Washington Post, once aspired to do. They were often pompous, boring and prolix, but they were also reliable, even-handed and open-minded, which is more than you can say of our own Guardian and Daily Mail.

Incendiary views

The NYT leans left, though more so on social and cultural than economic and foreign policy issues. It hasn’t backed a Republican for president since the 1950s, but it supported the Iraq War and opposed Bernie Sanders. Its news, however, remains as unbiased as that from Reuters news agency (which serves media of all political colours across the world), according to a recent study from Columbia and Rutgers universities.

On appointment in 2016, Bennet said he wanted “to challenge our own and our readers’ assumptions”. But as one critic says, the NYT’s columns mostly scan the small ideological gap “from establishment centrist Democrats to establishment centrist Republicans”. These viewpoints no longer reflect the reality of US politics, and publishing Cotton’s article was a rare departure.

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Yes, Cotton’s piece was incendiary, ignorant and borderline racist. But Cotton was elected with 56.5 per cent of the vote in Arkansas in 2014. He could have been Trump’s defence secretary and some tip him as a 2024 presidential candidate. Let NYT readers be exposed to his grotesque opinions without them being edited into something “thoughtful”. Let them also hear from resurgent US socialists. Then the paper’s centrist assumptions would be truly challenged.

Wish away

Statues have always been controversial. MPs were deeply divided in 1895 over putting up a statue outside parliament to Oliver Cromwell. Conservatives and Irish Nationalists opposed it, objecting to his brutality against royalty and Irish Catholics respectively.

Since almost anybody of any era who attained public prominence will be imperfect in someone’s eyes, you could  make a case for dismantling every statue in the land. Cromwell, for better or worse, is part of our national history. Edward Colston, the slave-trader whose statue was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters, is part of Bristol’s history. He cannot be wished away. A bigger monument should be raised nearby to the tens of thousands transported into slavery or death by a company of which Colston was deputy governor.

Self-delusion

Ministers congratulate themselves that the NHS was not “overwhelmed” by the coronavirus. Given the high death toll, the failure to provide sufficient PPE or testing capacity, and now the widespread flouting of social distancing rules, that is the only achievement the government can plausibly claim. Except that the NHS was overwhelmed. Essex University research shows that almost two-thirds of Britons with life-threatening conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure missed vital treatment.

Jackpot

“This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” chortles my local butcher. Since lockdown began, his normal business has trebled. Moreover, in his post one morning he found a £10,000 cheque from the council. “And I don’t even pay business rates,” he says. “The shop’s too small.” It’s an ill wind. 

This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt