Freedom of Expression: A Casualty of the US Race Agitation?

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The USA has intermittently been in the throes of crises emerging from the killings of African-Americans at the hands of the police. On 25 May 2020, Minneapolis police officers arrested a 46-year-old black man, George Floyd, following a 911 call by a convenience store employee that Floyd had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Within seventeen minutes after the first squad car arrived at the scene and his initial resistance, Floyd was dead under the weight of three police officers -- one of them had his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

The coast to coast race agitation that followed, largely under the “Black Lives Matter” banner, was marked by peaceful protests as well as by arson, violence and looting. On 1 May 2020, President Donald Trump vowed to bring the military in the US cities to quell the riots if the Governors were not willing or able to do so.

As the country was debating -- in the midst of night-long protests violating the curfew orders -- whether the President could constitutionally use the military against a civic unrest, protests of a different nature and from an unexpected place came in that threatened to choke off the flow of information and even freedom of expression.

On 6 June 2020, the staff members of the 191-year-old daily, The Philadelphia Inquirer, protested and staged a walkout over the publication of an article with the headline, “Buildings Matter Too.” The anger of the newsroom journalists and staff over the article that dealt with the effects of riots on the city’s buildings was so powerful that the top management of the newspaper capitulated, its top editor, Stan Wischnowski, stepped down and the Inquirer tendered an apology.

In an identical show of strength leading to a similar result, close to 800 staff and journalists of the New York Times protested against the publication of an Op Ed article on June 3 by the U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, titled "Send in the Troops." James Bennet, the New York Times editorial page editor responsible for publishing that column, was fired by the Publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, who had initially stood behind publishing the column.

The two high-visibility incidents mentioned during the crisis in America must have rattled not only senior editors all around the world working with different news outlets, it felt like a stunning blow to the believers in Press Freedom and in Freedom of Expression.

The management’s tight control over the news and views of a newspaper group is nothing new -- we are all aware of that. Yet, when that happens in the established and time-tested newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times, it must raise an alarm. It has to be taken seriously when the editorial objectivity, neutrality and independence are sacrificed at the altar of political correctness or for the appeasement of one section of people.

Unless it’s an advocacy or political ideology-driven partisan publication, it must not bow to the pressure of one opinion, interest or ideological group. Navigating through the competing narratives, it must present the two sides of the argument and speak out its own mind without any fear or favor. If the truths are not told and an honest, clear picture is not laid out, the publication will end up hurting its own readers it’s striving so hard to serve. Its credibility will suffer.

So what happened in each of the two cases?

Well, following two days of rioting (30-31 May 2020) in many cities of the USA, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a column by a senior contributor, Inga Saffron, on June 1st wherein she made a simple point that damaging buildings disproportionately hurt the people (i.e., the poor Blacks) the protesters were trying to uplift. This was too much for the journalists in the newsroom -- by one account, mostly left-leaning staff of color -- who were of the view that the destruction of buildings (and, by implication, violence and loot) didn’t matter when black Americans were being “brazenly murdered in cold blood by police and vigilantes.”

Responded Inga Saffron, 'People over property’ is great as a rhetorical slogan. But as a practical matter, the destruction of downtown buildings in Philadelphia - and in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and a dozen other American cities - is devastating for the future of cities.”

She made the argument that the neighborhoods burnt down during the civil rights uprisings of the 1960s had not yet fully recovered and the buildings now gutted were havens providing jobs to many poor people of color. But they were not convincing arguments for a section of learned journalists; their collective voice made the management cave in and the editor was shown the door.

In the case of the New York Times, the newsroom staff weren’t happy about what amounted to offering a platform to the conservative Republican Senator to “weaponize” his message of violence and thereby risking the lives of the protesters.

Extending his support to the President in view of many cities descending into lawlessness, Senator Cotton had opined, “Some elites have excused this orgy of violence in the spirit of radical chic, calling it an understandable response to the wrongful death of George Floyd. Those excuses are built on a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters. A majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.”

In his opinion, “nihilist criminals are simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction, with cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.”

The senator also argued for the federal government to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would enable it to call up the military to put down riotous protests in cities across the USA.

Many readers who even disagreed with Senator Cotton’s views didn’t approve of the idea that he should have been denied a space on the Op Ed page. Contrary to the demand put forward by the newspaper staff, who were labeled by a commentator as “Young Turks courtesans with computers,” publishing the opinion did more good than harm. Scores of readers wouldn't have known what the Senator’s views were until they had read the piece. The engraved motto of the New York Times is: "All the News That's Fit to Print." The Senator’s views did make the news.

There have been and will always be news/views potentially disturbing to the editors and journalists working in the press rooms; however, their job is to report and present to the readers all sides of the arguments, pointing out inaccuracies wherever applicable, based on a rigorous fact-check.

If we have to thrive in open societies, it requires open thought and that includes those we don't like and don't agree with. George Orwell observed that “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

However outraged I might be with the views, I would always be reminded of what Voltaire said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."


Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.

Dr. Prasad administers a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.

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