By: Elisheva Kohn  | 

On Silencing Controversy: Why The Commentator Would Have Published Sen. Cotton’s Op-Ed

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” — George Orwell

Recently, the New York Times published an op-ed by Tom Cotton, a Republican Sen. from Arkansas, calling for the military to be deployed in order to deter further nation-wide rioting and looting. The title of his piece, “Send In the Troops,” seems almost gentle compared to the potentially dangerous consequences of his suggestion to use an “overwhelming show of force” towards Americans. Cotton’s op-ed sparked a wave of outrage from readers and Times journalists; its allegedly flawed editorial process ultimately led to the resignation of Editorial Page Editor James Bennet, as well as five paragraphs worth of editors’ notes to appear at the top of the original article, explaining that the piece “should not have been published” in the first place.

Did I find Cotton’s op-ed distasteful? Yes. 

Would The Commentator have published his piece? Absolutely.

In fact, the very same day Cotton’s op-ed was published, The Commentator’s leadership and opinion editors were faced with a somewhat parallel dilemma as The Times. We received an opinion piece titled “The Seventh Option: A Nuanced Approach to the LGBT Debate on Campus,” which established a difference between showing “love” versus “respect” in the attitude of Orthodox Jews towards the LGBT community and calling for the formation of an LGBT club with “careful oversight” from the administration and RIETS roshei yeshiva. The paper’s leadership and opinion editors were aware that the article may spark controversy, however, the author’s approach is shared by lots of students at YU, many of them in the “right-wing crowd” — arguably a majority on the Wilf Campus. As a campus newspaper, we felt that it was our duty to promote an opinion shared by so many members of the YU community; thanks to this article, the overall student body is now aware of an alternate viewpoint on this matter. Perhaps you may wonder whether it is The Commentator’s duty to promote ideas just because they represent a unique take or a majority on campus. That’s a good question, but more on that later. 

As we predicted, dozens of Facebook users –– most of them current or former YU students ––  commented on the article’s Facebook post in the harshest of terms. While the comment section consisted of numerous users who engaged in the public debate by directly addressing the arguments in the piece –– on a personal note, I agreed with most, if not all, of their points –– other users seized the opportunity to denounce The Commentator for publishing the piece in the first place. Many of the 40 comments were responses like “shame on the Commie for publishing this” or “I lose more faith in humanity every day from this disgrace of a magazine.” 

Four days later, The Commentator published a features article presenting in-depth perspectives from nine members of the LGBT community and LGBT allies at YU. The article, titled “LGBTQ+ and Ally Student Insights on the LGBTQ+ Discussion at YU,” took many weeks to complete; the research process was detailed and the material gathered was vast. I recommend you read the article; it’s an important piece of journalism. As of publication, this features piece generated just a single comment on Facebook. The attempt to diversify our paper, unfortunately, seemed to have gone unnoticed. 

Essentially, those claiming that The Times should not have published Cotton’s op-ed, and similarly, the readers who condemned The Commentator for publishing the “Seventh Option,” were disturbed by the content of the articles. New York Times readers and staff pointed to dishonest claims made by Cotton and Facebook users called out the “Seventh Option” for its questionable tone and failing to mention that a committee, led by Senior Vice President Rabbi Josh Joseph, had already been formed to address LGBT-related matters on campus. 

I find The Times’ statement that Cotton’s op-ed “falls short of the thoughtful approach that advances useful debate,“ as well as the outrage expressed by some readers, deeply unsettling. Cotton is a Senator with close ties to President Trump who could very well appear as a presidential candidate in the near future. It is The Times’ responsibility to expose their readers to his opinions, regardless of how harsh they may seem, for they are highly relevant to the American public and can lead to public scrutiny and debate. This man is a policymaker; his op-ed is not some vague suggestion; it is a testimony of how Republican senators, and arguably, roughly half of the American people (they did, after all, elect the current president), tick. I acknowledge that Cotton’s op-ed genuinely frightened readers and Times employees; many Times journalists responded to the publication of his piece by tweeting, “Running this puts Black @nytimes journalists in danger.” 

However, silencing evil will not make it go away. Some argued that the op-ed should have been edited more heavily; it included inaccuracies and overstatements. Why readers would want to read a toned-down, gentler version of Cotton’s article baffles me. Times readers ought to know how extreme Cotton’s views are, and they should be properly informed of the intentions of the people who run this county. Cotton made false claims in his op-ed; that, too, is important to note, for we are now fully aware of how ill-informed this Senator is of what is really going on in American cities. Readers deserve to be exposed to the raw, uncensored words of people in power. 

Despite the potentially dangerous consequences of Cotton’s op-ed, his words were not hateful. Cotton made a careful distinction between looters and “law-abiding protesters” and argued that a “majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.” His op-ed represents an attitude shared by many communities across the nation, albeit a less politically correct one.

Similarly, “The Seventh Option” was criticized for its questionable language and failing to acknowledge recent efforts by YU students to implement LGBT-friendly policies on campus and establish a club, but it did not spread hate.

Some who opposed the publication of Cotton’s op-ed maintained that the Senator could have published this piece in any other newspaper. The New York Times, they argue, is better than that; the paper’s editors ought to consider how utterly offensive Cotton’s words are. However, if The Times had refused to publish Cotton’s op-ed, and he, in turn, had published it elsewhere (perhaps a more right-wing publication), those of us who look to The Times for a high standard of journalism would have been deprived of reading “Send In the Troops.” We would not have been exposed to how certain segments of the American people view the protests that swayed the country; we would not have understood what reasoning lies behind Republican policies. In other words, we would have lacked a disturbing yet highly relevant insight into American society and its leadership. 

Another compelling argument those who condemned the publication of Cotton’s op-ed presented was that The Times could have published a news article, not an op-ed, covering Cotton’s recommendation to deploy the military to deal with the nation-wide unrest. This, they argue, would expose readers to Cotton’s views while not offering a platform for him to spread questionable or inaccurate statements without reasonable pushback and fact-checking by the editors. However, why would The Times want to serve as a secondary source and cover something someone said somewhere else if they had the opportunity to present Cotton’s perspective on their own pages? The Times could (and did) publish additional news or opinion pieces as supplementary materials to Cotton’s op-ed; they certainly have the resources to provide their readers with a nuanced, accurate understanding of the issue at hand. Similarly, the opinion section of Volume 86’s first issue contains articles advocating on behalf of the LGBT community at YU and challenging the status quo in the Orthodox community, thereby presenting contrasting perspectives to “The Seventh Option.”

Is it The Times’ responsibility to present a variety of perspectives in their opinion section? I think so. Publishing Cotton’s piece was the right decision for so many reasons, including the diversification of The Times’ opinion pages.

Prompted by this debate, a friend of mine challenged my interpretation of journalistic integrity. Would I, he asked, publish an interview with a known white nationalist, a man who self-identifies as a “racial realist,” as Tablet Magazine did recently? (The journalist who interviewed him argued that he wanted to show the world what anti-Semites and racists “sound like.”) Essentially, my friend was wondering if my “publish all evil!” mentality had a limit. 

I would not have published an interview with that man. His statements spew racism and hate, and they are, quite frankly, unimportant. By contrast, Cotton’s words were extreme, but not outright hateful. “The Seventh Option” was not popular among the more “left-wing crowd” community at YU, but it was certainly not evil.

I do not want to draw a direct parallel between “Send In the Troops” and “The Seventh Option.” The former is significantly more problematic than the latter; a militarized response to the nation-wide outrage would directly endanger American lives. Cotton fails to address police brutality or the potential repercussions of deploying the military in response to rioters and looters. However, I could not ignore the fact that both authors represent what may be considered a “silent majority.” Furthermore, I could not overlook the controversial nature and scrutiny revolving around both articles. 

“The Seventh Option” deserved to be promoted –– I use the word promoted, not endorsed –– in the pages of The Commentator because the perspective it offered is undeniably shared by many in the “right-wing crowd,” a dominant group at YU. By giving their voice a platform in the paper, The Commentator was fulfilling its duty of informing the public on matters relating to student sentiment. I cannot speak on behalf of The Times, but I would assume that Times editors would also pride themselves in producing a paper that presents a diverse array of opinions.

Ultimately, the debates regarding The Times’ op-ed and The Commentator’s piece revolve around one question: Do we, as editors, assume responsibility towards our readers and provide them with a wide range of perspectives, or should we rely on them to explore various publications if certain viewpoints are not represented in our paper? 

Arguably, in a saturated market of news and opinions, The Times may want to stand out by offering a very specific angle. Why should The Times be responsible for their readers’ intellectual honesty? Perhaps it really should be up to individual readers to properly inform themselves and actively seek out contrasting opinions on various matters. After all, the United States has become increasingly polarized; why not reflect that phenomenon in the media as well? This argument may be compelling with respect to a publication such as The New York Times, which boasts a very large readership, but it certainly would not apply on the same scale to The Commentator, a smaller paper with a niche audience.

Ideally, all YU students would be well-acquainted with people from every possible corner on campus and have an accurate understanding of student sentiment across the spectrum. Sadly, that is not the case; YU boasts a large, multi-faceted campus, and it is almost impossible to properly gain insights into every micro-community. However, as editors of a campus newspaper –– with a more diverse editorial board than you would expect –– we have access to a variety of perspectives. Thus, we are acutely aware of our duty towards our readers –– primarily YU students, faculty and staff –– to provide a paper that accurately represents all of them. 

The Commentator will not shy away from controversy, but we will also not actively seek it. Some consider us kefira, others claim we are “the conservative paper on campus.” Either way, if you believe your perspective has been overlooked, there is a simple fix: submit your article to The Commentator.