When journalists stop believing in debate

This journalistic outlook is rooted in some partial truths. Newspapers, magazines, and websites aren’t neutral billboards (like social media) where everyone gets a chance to post their opinions unfiltered, with only the most minimum of oversight. Editors exercise judgment all the time about what gets published and what doesn’t, what receives the legitimation of having been vetted and accepted for publication under the outlet’s prestigious brand. There are gatekeepers, and getting past them is hard. Those who would have denied publication to Cotton’s op-ed are saying that these standards should have been much stricter in this and similar cases involving incendiary opinions.

But why?

Because these critics presume that this power to disseminate and bestow legitimation upon opinions is enormous, amounting to far more than merely declaring the opinion worth taking seriously. They go much further to presume that publishing the opinion, releasing it into the world with the media outlet’s imprimatur attached, contributes decisively to its acceptance and affirmation by the nation’s citizenry. On this view, published ideas are a kind of ideological contagion. If the ideas are good, they can serve as a kind vaccination against evil. But if they are bad, they function as an intellectual and moral pathogen that are better off being eradicated.

This view of the press and the public is very different than the classically liberal notion of an active citizenry engaging productively with competing ideas in the public square, weighing evidence, and judging opinions responsibly and critically for themselves.