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Tom Cotton Doesn’t Deserve The New York Times as a Platform

People take part in a protest outside the New York Times

The free press has never been more important, and providing platforms to underrepresented and marginalized voices is an essential part of implementing the systemic change that will help dismantle white supremacy. Major publications should feel an obligation to uplift diverse voices, but that does not mean they should be giving an equal space, or any space, to sitting senators espousing fascism.

That’s a long way of saying that the New York Times made a grave error in publishing an incendiary, terrifying take on the protests entitled “Send in the Troops” by Senator Tom Cotton. (We are linking it here but we don’t encourage you to click.)  In the op-ed, Cotton repeats claims he has made on Twitter that the military should be used against US citizens to end the “riots.” He justifies this with horror stories of violence and for good measure brings in the conservative boogie man of “antifa.”

One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers. But local law enforcement in some cities desperately needs backup, while delusional politicians in other cities refuse to do what’s necessary to uphold the rule of law.

This is a bad, horrifying take, from an elected official with power and influence. The content of the op-ed makes the protests sound dangerous and will inflame divisions and endanger protesters. In a bitterly ironic twist, Cotton’s editorial was published the same day Trump’s former Defense Secretary James Mattis, a four-star general, denounced the president’s leadership and handling of the protests, as well as the use of troops against civilians. While it is Cotton’s right to say whatever nonsense and hate he likes, it is not The New York Times’ duty to carry it.

Having this take published in the most prestigious and well-known paper in the United States, and possibly the world (sorry WaPo), gives a level of credibility and gravitas to this BS that it doesn’t deserve. Placing the full weight of the NYT behind this take, even if it is couched as an “opinion” piece, is dangerous. That’s not the say the NYT should not have covered Cotton’s perspective. But there were many ways to do so without giving Cotton himself the platform—the legitimacy of his words and byline published under the Gray Lady’s banner. A fact-checked interview or report on his opinion would have allowed him to make his case while also exposing its wildly flawed perspective.

Multiple staffers from the Times tweeted their objection to the piece, noting that it was not just a bad take but one filled with misinformation and fascist sentiment that would embolden people to hurt Black Americans. Despite a draconian social media policy in place at the paper, many staffers also called out the piece and the decision to run it on Twitter.

But in his own series of tweets, editorial page editor James Bennet justified running the piece. Bennet argued that the Times editorial board and page have stood up against police brutality, racism, and defended the protests as patriotic, but …

The thing is that the “counter-arguments” are dangerous and inaccurate, and more importantly, there are other places to find them. Tom Cotton has been tweeting this bile for days, and pounding his war-drum for years; he doesn’t need the platform and support of the New York freaking Times. Medium and a whole slew of other platforms are available for him to make his odious counter-arguments to the cause of human dignity and the value of black lives. It doesn’t need to be in the paper of record (on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, no less), and the Times publishing this is just giving more room and weight to the very sort of racist, racist bull shit that people are protesting. Was The Federalist unavailable?

Also, as WaPo’s Karen Attiah pointed out, if public scrutiny and debate was the Times’ stated intent, why did they not initially allow comments on the piece?

This isn’t just true of the Times. It strikes at the heart of the on-going battle over social media and calls for Twitter and Facebook to better supervise the content they publish, for instance: dangerous, racist takes by people like Tom Cotton and President Donald Trump. And before you cry censorship or free speech, let me remind you that those only apply to state action. Trump and Cotton still can say whatever they want, but no private company or platform is under an obligation to support or amplify them, and in fact, if they are serious about social change and making a difference they are under a moral obligation not to.

We don’t need major papers publishing takes like Tom Cotton’s. We already know what Cotton and his crowd think, and we don’t need to further validate their push toward racist violence with a flashy byline in the most powerful publication in the world. We need to stand up and not just say that they are wrong, but that they are so wrong that their bad arguments don’t deserve a place on platforms with a conscience.

Enough is enough.

(image: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.