The internal backlash led to a review of the publishing process. A lengthy editorial note was added to the online version of the essay noting it contained unsubstantiated assertions. Editorial page editor James Bennet resigned his post.
“The essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published,” said the editors’ note, published on June 5.
The venerable New York Times was hugely embarrassed and barraged with internal and external criticisms. Journalists tweeted their views on the editorial politics of the controversy. Pundits from other news organisations weighed in. The paper had become the news.
Criticisms fell sharply into two camps – those who said the paper had allowed itself to be used as political cover for a call to violence against unarmed civilians, and those who were appalled that a paper of record should back down on publishing the views of a senator and potential presidential candidate.
The controversy is very specific to the United States, but more broadly, it exposed a fault line being tested in all countries where free speech exists.
In a divisive age where the US President frequently tweets lies late into the night, and when a spotlight has been placed on inequalities of gender and race, the boundaries of acceptable speech are being challenged.
The small-L liberal shibboleth that all views should be aired so they can be interrogated in the marketplace of ideas, is no longer settled.
Social media has democratised punditry in a way that is powerfully challenging to traditional journalism.
But it has also led to a backlash against so-called “offence culture”, where, some say, the offence and hurt felt by discrete groups are prioritised over the freedom to speak, or even think out loud.
Says Jack Latimore, an editor with NITV in Australia: “With my journalist and editor hat on, of course, in the right forum, we should be interrogating these issues, themes and topics.
“But there is a nuance in there. It needs to be recognised that some views are violent towards blackfellas or persons of colour.”
In Australia, similar issues arise with increasing frequency. Channel Seven’s Sunrise program has been criticised for welcoming One Nation leader Pauline Hanson as a regular guest. The same program was lambasted in 2018 when it featured a panellist saying of the Stolen Generations: “we need to do it again, perhaps”. This week it was announced by a group of Aboriginal elders and young leaders that they would sue the program for racial discrimination over the broadcast.
Last week ABC’s Insiders program had an all-white panel discussing the Black Lives Matter protests. This week it will feature its first-ever Indigenous panellist, reporter Bridget Brennan.
In 2018 veteran ABC journalist Sarah Ferguson came under fire when she interviewed far-right former Trump strategist and Breitbart News founder Steve Bannon, and tweeted out a photograph of herself with her subject. Ferguson was accused of giving a platform to neo-Nazis.
Journalist Osman Faruqi tweeted that Ferguson and those defending her had “zero awareness of what it might be like to be one of the very few PoC [people of colour] journalists at the ABC, watching the biggest names throw you and people like you under the bus”.
Reflecting this week, Ferguson admitted she was “surprised” by the backlash. She still cannot understand how “there were journalists who said Bannon should not be interviewed”.
“You do have to be careful what you do when you give people time on-air,” she says.
But with the Bannon interview, it seemed “so obvious” why he was a valuable subject, particularly on the subject of China, which was one of the primary motivations for doing the interview.
More generally, it was an insight into the mind of a man who had read the mood of the US electorate better than the pollsters.
“They [Bannon and Trump] had understood moods in the voters,” Ferguson says.
“Polling gets them wrong, but every now and then there are political strategists who see and sense people they can take advantage of and bring to their cause.”
Faruqi, who left the ABC to work at Schwartz Media, which publishes The Saturday Paper and The Monthly magazine, says he never objected to the interview itself, only the way it was prosecuted by Ferguson. He believes she did not interrogate Bannon’s views on race as closely as she should have.
“I don’t think that diversity in newsrooms fixes all these problems but if the Four Corners production team had more people in it directly threatened by the ideas Bannon espoused, then it might not have gone to air dismissive of the idea that his ideas are threatening,” he says.
Ferguson rejects that characterisation. She says “the most important thing for Australia at that time was to understand Trump’s likely actions on China”.
Trump’s 2016 victory, orchestrated by Bannon, is often attributed in part to a revolt against the emergence of a youthful “woke” culture which was challenging norms.
But even former President Barack Obama called out this culture at a summit last year.
“I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough,” he said.
“That’s not activism.”
Former NSW premier and federal foreign minister Bob Carr had his own brush with so-called “cancel culture” in 2018 when he was disinvited from the Brisbane Writers Festival, along with feminist and author Germaine Greer, who has offended many with her comments on rape and transgender people.
Carr warns against the “group think and political orthodoxy” which he believes is a “particular danger for the centre-left because it invites a backlash”. He attributes Trump’s election, in part, to that backlash.
“Let extremists talk and let their arguments die in the air,” he says.
But such tolerance is increasingly being challenged.
David Smith, senior lecturer at the United States Studies Centre of Sydney University, says it is naive to maintain that extremist opinions can be rationally debated by a well-informed public in a fictional “marketplace of ideas”.
The problem with that, Smith says, is that Trump has brought things that were previously “beyond the pale” – conspiracy theories, the promotion of violence and outright lying – into the political mainstream.
“We have seen what happens when people refuse to be arbiters of truth or opinion,” he says.
“You get Mark Zuckerberg – no fact-checking of any political speech on Facebook.”
Latimore says the tribalising effect of social media, turbocharged by populist leaders, has forever changed the media landscape.
“If we think back even to the ’90s and further-back generations, there wasn’t as much ideological tribalism as there is these days,” he says.
Ferguson makes a similar point.
At the time of the backlash to her Bannon interview, she was “outraged by the outrage”.
“I am less outraged now. I am troubled,” she says.
“Barack Obama warned us about this happening – people retreating to their groups so that we no longer have zones of inclusion.
“If we don’t listen to each other, we are screwed.”
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Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards