Some lines are sacrosanct

Providing space for diverse opinions does not mean providing space for hate speech or the excesses of the state

June 08, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 01:00 am IST

A reader from Thiruvananthapuram, V.N. Mukundarajan, wanted this newspaper to emulate The New York Times ( NYT) and publish all kinds of opinions. He cited the example of Republican Senator Tom Cotton’s recent opinion piece which was published in NYT with the headline “Send in the troops”. The piece asked U.S. President Donald Trump to bring in the military to tackle the riots following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis while he was in police custody.

Debating Cotton’s piece

Before examining Mr. Mukundarajan’s suggestion, it is important to know the revulsion that the Senator’s article caused not only among readers but also within the NYT’s editorial team. The publication flip-flopped on its editorial reasoning — first, it published a convoluted justification for publishing the piece and then a retraction. The article did not find a place in the print edition.

When the NYT staff, including Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her brilliant exploration of the legacy of African-Americans in the 1619 Project, tweeted their disapproval of the opinion piece, James Bennet, the editorial page editor, explained why they chose to publish the piece. He tweeted: “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy. We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton’s argument painful, even dangerous. We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate.”

But with criticism against the newspaper gaining momentum, the head of communications at NYT, Eileen Murphy, came out with a statement that acknowledged the problems with the article. She said: “We’ve examined the piece and the process leading up to its publication. This review made clear that a rushed editorial process led to the publication of an op-ed that did not meet our standards.” From first defending the essay as an example of NYT’s commitment to airing a “diversity” of voices that differ from the paper’s editorial stance, publisher A.G. Sulzberger too later conceded that the op-ed should not have been published. He said the essay, in the view of many, “fell outside of the realm of acceptability, representing dangerous commentary in an explosive moment that should not have found a home in The Times, even as a counterpoint to our own institutional view.” He promised to host an employee town hall to discuss a host of questions, including about the op-ed.

Limits to diversity of opinions

Mr. Mukundarajan wrote: “I suggest that The Hindu should emulate the NYT and provide space to right-of-centre political views. Except for solitary pieces by the right, The Hindu ’s columns are monopolised by left-leaning commentators and writers. Take the case of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The paper gave disproportionate coverage to anti-CAA protests and opinion pieces ignoring the sentiments of large sections of society that supported the CAA.” His primary argument was that readers should listen to what the “other side” has to say.

The editorial values of the owning company of this newspaper are enshrined in a public document which clearly states that the company must “endeavour to provide in its publications a fair and balanced coverage of competing interests, and to offer the readers diverse, reasonable viewpoints, subject to its editorial judgment.” While it is a policy to accommodate diverse opinions, including those that are critical of the newspaper’s editorial stand, it would be a dereliction of duty if the editors chose to publish articles that fan bigotry and rupture our social fabric.

One of the criticisms against the media in the last decade is that in the name of providing space for contentious ideas, it has normalised hate. A responsible news organisation understands the crucial difference between editorial judgment and censorship. No article should be published simply because it espouses an opposite viewpoint. Every article, irrespective of its political or ideological affinity, should pass some crucial editorial tests. The questions editors ask are: Does the article normalise hate? Does it demonise the other? Does it weaken the institutional mechanism of checks and balances? Is it based on facts? Media scholars have argued for decades that space for diverse opinions does not mean space for hate speech or the excesses of the state.

Writing that tramples on people’s democratic rights, yearnings and aspirations, that refuses to respect the dignity of every citizen, cannot invoke the idea of diversity to find a dignified space in a newspaper.

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