Last week the editorial page editor of The New York Times resigned after he was criticized for publishing an op-ed by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton that called for the use of federal troops to quell violence in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Over at Politico, historian David Greenberg puts this story in historical perspective. Here is a taste of his piece “The New York Times Used to Be a Model of Diverse Opinion. What Happened?“:
All might be surprised to know how uncannily these debates echo those of 50 years ago, during a period of equal or greater turmoil. In 1969, the Wall Street Journal reported on a 21-year-old Raleigh News and Observer reporter, Kerry Gruson, who declared objectivity a “myth” and insisted on wearing a black armband while reporting on the “Moratorium,” a nationwide day of protest against the Vietnam War. Five hundred miles to the north, her father, Sydney Gruson, a muckety-muck at the New York Times forbade some 300 of his employees from using the paper’s auditorium for an antiwar teach-in, declaring, “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I feel strongly about the purity of the news columns.” (The Journal piece is cited in the scholar Michael Schudson’s classic history of objectivity in journalism, Discovering the News).
Similar clashes in this period took place at other publications. They revolved around civil rights, gender equality and diversity in the newsroom. All generally pitted older, stodgy traditionalists (mostly white and male) against more diverse younger journalists seeking to test the boundaries of how much viewpoint and even activism they could get into print.
In our dismal times, it may be encouraging to note that a détente, of sorts, was reached—suggesting there may be a satisfactory way forward as newspapers face a similar crisis today.
One reason quality journalism survived after the 1960s is that institutions like the New York Times bent so as not to break. Under pressure to make room for more subjectivity and analysis, they innovated, permitting in their publications a greater range of topics and writers, more personal voice, more political opinion and more in-depth exposés—but each in its proper place. These developments allowed journalism to become more interesting, useful and appealing to audiences without sacrificing its bedrock principles.
Read the entire piece here.