Matt Taibbi Media Criticism

Matt Taibbi: World’s Dullest Editorial Launches Panic

In an inane sequel to the Harper's Letter fiasco, a New York Times editorial ignites a fury proving its anodyne thesis
Pedestrians pass by the offices of the dangerous radicals at the New York Times

By Matt Taibbi / Substack

The New York Times ran a tepid house editorial in favor of free speech last week. A sober reaction: 

One might think running botched WMD reports that got us into the Iraq war or getting a Pulitzer for lauding Stalin’s liquidation of five million kulaks might have constituted worse days — who knew? Pundits, academics, and politicians across the cultural mainstream seemed to agree with Watson, plunging into a days-long freakout over a meh editorial that shows little sign of abating. 

“Appalling,” barked J-school professor Jeff Jarvis. “By the time the Times finally realizes what side it’s on, it may be too late,” screeched Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch. “The board should retract and resign,” said journalist and former Planet Money of NPR fame founder Adam Davidson. “Toxic, brain-deadening bothsidesism,” railed Dan Froomkin of Press Watch, who went on to demand a retraction and a “mass resignation.” The aforementioned Watson agreed, saying “the NYT should retract this insanity, and replace the entire editorial board.” Not terribly relevant, but amusing still, was the reaction of actor George Takei, who said, “It’s like Bill Maher is now on the New York Times Editorial board.”

The main objection of most of the pilers-on involved the lede of the Times piece, which really was a maladroit piece of writing:

For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.

There’s obviously no legal right in America to voice an opinion without being criticized, so this line is indeed an error and an embarrassing one, for a labored-over first line of a major New York Times editorial. On the other hand, a lot of great liberal thinkers decried shaming tactics as utterly opposite to the spirit of free speech, with John Stuart Mill’s warning of a “social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression” being just one example. So, while the Times technically screwed up, cheering shaming and shunning as normal and healthy elements of life in free societies is a pretty weird gotcha. In any case, this bollocksed lede introduced a piece that had been in the works for a while, and came complete with a poll the paper commissioned in conjunction with Siena College. 

Its premise, tied to the uncontroversial observation that America has become dangerously polarized, is that “the political left and the right are caught in a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination.” Citing a poll that 84% of Americans (including 84% of black Americans) who said it was either a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that people are now afraid to voice opinions out of fear of “retaliation or harsh criticism,” the Times said “when speech is stifled or when dissenters are shut out,” that “a society also loses its ability to resolve conflict, and… faces the risk of political violence.”

The Times piece is pretty transparently a marketing ploy, designed to regain a foothold with the slew of demographics lost to the paper in recent years. It’s a campaign that deserves to fail if it somehow doesn’t. The internal Times debate over whether or not to broaden its ideological horizons has for years run along humorously obnoxious lines, like “Should we hire one never-Trump Republican columnist, or none?” Even this latest offering wringing hands about America’s lack of ideological tolerance doesn’t wonder at the paper’s own near-total absence of columnists and reporters positively disposed (or even just indifferent) to Bernie Sanders, or really any political viewpoint outside the two dominant theologies. 

Still, the Times was careful — conspicuously, agonizingly, excessively careful — to point out that the speech issue was not exclusive to one political side or another. They wrote that Republicans, “for all their braying about cancel culture, have embraced an even more extreme version of censoriousness” in the form of official bans on certain books or classroom ideas. Their approach here was similar to the now-infamous open letter in support of free speech in Harper’s from two summers ago, in which a handful of academics, authors, artists, and journalists, including Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie, J.K. Rowling, Wynton Marsalis, and others decried “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

In an effort to head off blowback, the Harper’s letter authors went to absurd lengths to create the most inoffensive conceivable statement in support of free expression, to the point where more than a dozen mainstream outlets ranging from The Daily Beast to the Washington Post to The New Yorker and beyond (as well as at least one of the signatories) used the term “anodyne” to describe it. 

“We went through dozens and dozens of drafts with a lot of input from various signatories to strike as nuanced a balance as possible,” says Thomas Chatterton Williams, one of the authors of the “Harper’s letter.” This was done, he said, “to make it clear that it wasn’t a one-sided attack on the left but an attempt to call attention to a problem that transcends the political binary.”

The caution not only didn’t help, but made things worse. The letter stimulated a host of bizarre controversies, including complaints from Vox staffers that kinda-sorta led to the exit of signatory/co-founder Matt Yglesias, whose crime was co-appearing on the Harper’s letter with people whose views on trans issues were deemed objectionable. Several signatories withdrew when they found out who else was signing (seeming to defeat the purpose of making a statement in favor of tolerating differing views, as signatories like Malcolm Gladwell pointed out). There were so many freakouts in the letter’s wake that Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland commented it “might be a rare example of the reaction to a text making the text’s case rather better than the text itself.”

This Times editorial is watered down almost to the level of a public service announcement written for the Cartoon Networkor maybe a fortune cookie (“Free speech is a process, not a destination. Winning numbers 4, 9, 11, 32, 46…”). It made the Harper’s letter read like a bin Laden fatwa, but it’s somehow arousing a bigger panic. Its critics view the mention of Republican legislative bans in conjunction with canceling as a monstrous affront, a felony case of both-sidesism. Obviously any implication that there’s any moral comparison between Republicans banning speech by law and Democrats doing it by way of informal backroom deals with unaccountable tech monopolies is unacceptable. Beyond that now, much of the commentariat seems to believe the op-ed page has outlived its usefulness unless it’s engaged in fulsome denunciations of correct targets:

“We need more shaming and shunning, not less,” is how Froomkin put it, putting the names of opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury and deputy opinion editor Patrick Healy up near the top of his piece “for the record,” in case anyone wanted to know who needs teeing up for the next #FireARandomPerson campaign.

It would be ironic if Kingsbury were forced out for running a lukewarm editorial in support of free speech, since she replaced the last Times opinion editor beheaded in the wake of a social media and staff meltdown, James Bennet. The latter’s offense two years ago was running an editorial by Republican Senator Tom Cotton that called for invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy troops during the George Floyd protests. 

When I asked Froomkin if the idea was to keep cycling through Times opinion editors “until you get one who’s appropriately focused in the direction you like,” he replied: “Yes, I would like them replaced with people who stake out bold, defensible, not-brainless positions, while publishing a very wide range of perspectives from others.” He then linked to an essay of his arguing that publishing “wide perspectives” would essentially entail coating any articles with which the “bold” op-ed board disagreed all over with warnings pointing out where they’re wrong, arguing in bad faith, or are “morally abhorrent.” (This incidentally is how the Cotton piece looks online now, a 970-word op-ed preceded by a 300-word Editor’s Note explaining why it sucks and shouldn’t have been published). 

This is the same terror of uncontextualized thought that’s spurred everything from the campaigns to place more controls on Joe Rogan to the mountains of flags and warning labels platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube pile on all kinds of content now (“Are you sure you want to read this debunked wrongthinker? Click yes/no”) to the bizarre new “fact-checking” movement that takes factually true statements and objects to them at length for “missing context.”

The underlying premise of all these formats is the conviction that the ordinary schlub media consumer will make the wrong decision if the correct message isn’t hammered out everywhere for him or her in all caps by mental superiors. This idea isn’t just insulting but usually incorrect, like thinking Lord Haw Haw broadcasts would make English soldiers bayonet each other rather than laugh or fight harder. Even just on the level of commercial self-preservation, one would think media people would eventually realize there’s a limit to how many times you can tell people they’re too dumb to be trusted with controversial ideas, and still keep any audience. But they never do. 

There may be plenty of reasons to roll eyes at the Times piece, but the poll numbers in there speak to this exhaustion, with what Chatterton Williams calls the “consensus enforcers who feverishly insist there’s no problem, and the fact that you disagree is evidence that you should resign your position.” It was crazy enough when jobs were lost over the Harper’s letter. But calling for firings over this? An editorial that drives two miles an hour down the middle of the middle of the middle of the road? If this is anybody’s idea of a taboo, we really have lost it.

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Divide, Griftopia, and The Great Derangement, is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and winner of the 2007 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary.

16 comments

    1. “Democrats doing it by way of informal backroom deals with unaccountable tech monopolies is unacceptable. ”

      Can you show me any evidence of this actually happening….ever?

      This seems like a false equivalency and borders on conspiracy.

  1. Absolutely hysterical! Best laugh I’ve had in some time. Thanks so much, Matt, in these anxious times, for a truly funny piece. You be so clevah, Man!

  2. Am I the only one out there who finds this article boring and somewhat incomprehensible?

    1. What MT wrote IS, as you say, //boring and somewhat incomprehensible.//

      Because the NYT editorial to which he was referring was exactly that. Yet its vague, mild tones were still enough to elicit outrage from the Ivy elite convinced that we working class illiterates aka “the ordinary schlub media consumer” need their constant intellectual and moral correction. Otherwise we, as MT has them dismissing us, “will make the wrong decision if the correct message isn’t hammered out everywhere for him or her in all caps by mental superiors.”

      For the NYT and WaPo elite readership, there is little room for disagreement, let alone dissent. Even the slightest wobble signals danger–after all, one falling domino takes out the whole. Therefore we peasants should mind our superiors and just keep our place.

      1. I am neither a fan of the NYT nor any of the MSM….I used to buy the NYT regularly believing it was the most reliable source of news….But when it, along with all the other MSM went Right (Neutral!!??) I gave up on it….That is why I go to Sheerpost and Consortium News for my news….I simply was unimpressed with this particular article.

        PS: Who is “MT”?

  3. Maybe. I for one found this essay enriching (aka not boring) and quite comprehensible.

  4. I agree with your points, except that I don’t think that “shaming and shunning” are the same thing as a refutation.
    I’m old enough to remember when, even as freshmen and sophomores in college, we were able to have debates with civility.
    I don’t know where this incivility in modern discourse came from, but I can pretty easily predict where it will end up.

  5. From above article footer, ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

    //Matt Taibbi, author of the New York Times bestsellers…//

    Shuckin’ or jivin’ a brother’s got to play da game

    1. Because a book is on the NYT best seller list does not mean they approve of Matt Taibbi. Nor does it mean he sucked up to them in any way. Hey, Bernie Sanders’ books were on the best seller list, too. And, as pointed out in this very article, Bernie’s name is absolutely verboten in the NYT.

      Besides all of that, because someone in some way can be linked to baddies doesn’t make them one. Guilt by association is not much of an argument.

      Then there’s the ad hominem. Even if he were a bad guy or a phony, (he isn’t) that doesn’t mean what he has to say is wrong.

      Leave the tactic of nasty name calling to the dog whistle Rs and Ds like Hillary Clinton with her “basket of deplorables.”

      1. Presumably Taibbi has some say over his endorsements.

        But I’m guessing Taibbi doesn’t actually know about the above. If he doesn’t, then his griping is utterly meaningless because the same standard should be applied to those he critiques..

        If he does know, then the endorsement is utterly hypocritical.

        Once you see that it’s just all about how people who write get paid, you can throw most of the writing out, because it’s reflexive, And I feel such is the truer state of elite media.

        The fact that Scheer has to traffic in this bullshit to survive means the whole damn situation ‘is a tarp’.

  6. The Times is already bathed in “both-side-ism” — it hired Bret Stephens to represent the Zionist-Apartheid “side” and lately anti-“woke” John McWhorter, a respectable version of Thomas Sowell — to assuage NIMBY liberal hypocrites who want their safe Rudy-Bloomberg New York back.

    Eric Adams, a former cop and advocate of stop-and-frisk, a perfect match for Kentucky’s Attorney general, another black official serving the interests of the white oligarchy, was narrowly elected there.

    The Times officially endorsed someone else, but Adams’ election was boosted by a one-two punch from its opinion section:

    First, Maureen Dowd posted a Big Wet Kiss interview with former Commissioner Bratton, who imposed the measures which targeted blacks and Hispanics.

    Key excerpts:

    “Bratton Last summer saw scenes of young white women, some in Lululemon pants and others holding signs made from Blue Apron boxes, getting up in the faces of Black D.C. police officers to scream at them about race.

    “Yes, but when they get assaulted on a Friday night after coming out of one of the bars, who are they going to call?” Bratton muses.”

    Charming. And who’s that doing the “assaulting?”

    That was classic.

    Then, Michelle Goldberg boosted Adams and dog-whistled the safer environment of the Bloomberg years. Of course she didn’t laud Rudy, her other “protector.”

    Nice work by the Two Karens

  7. I initially did not understand what this was about: I hadn’t heard about the latest embarrassing hand-wringing coming from the Ruling Class’ preferred paper. But I finally got what it was all about. And it isn’t much. Another sign of the fecklessness that is endemic in the US political class. It’s interesting that Taibbi brought up the that business about Harper’s. I’ve been reading Harper’s for over a decade, but I never saw the letter in question. What I do know is that the quality of Harper’s has taken a turn for the worse over the last few years, coinciding with Trump’s ascension.

  8. What Taibbi described here is just the far right being upset at the center right (political labels applying to the freedom of speech issue only here). No one with a brain thinks that the New York Times gives a damn about free speech. If it did, it would be loudly and vehemently supporting Julian Assange.

    The height of free speech in the U.S. was probably the Supreme Court case allowing publication of the Pentagon Papers. It’s been downhill since then, the establishment and ruling class realizing that if the truth were constantly published, they could easily lose their ill-gotten gains, and taking steps to make sure that didn’t happen again. Julian Assange and Wikileaks published more truths about U.S. war crimes, and you can see what the establishment did to them in retaliation.

  9. The idea of “thought police” always evoked a kind of fantastical, dystopian feel in my own mind, possible only at the level of “what if” thought experiments by sci-fi novelists challenging us to think theoretically about human nature in relation to freedom. Even the past decade or so, as chilling as it has been in the accelerated development of groupthink, left me feeling that there will always have to be some room for dissenting opinions, even if only in tepid, middle of the road ways, and that some diversity of thought must surely always prevail in spite of everything. I won’t pay for NYT anymore, but managed to read the article in question for free somehow before seeing Taibbi’s article here, and had the same reaction as Mr Taibbi – rather bland and obvious, hardly a revelation. After reading this article about some of the reactions to it I’m just like… well…. f**k. F**kety f**k f**k.

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