Opinion: Keep 'cancel culture' out of newsrooms

Maria Servold

Something is amiss in American journalism. If there was ever a place where freedom of the press was the most celebrated and respected, it’s here. But recent events at American newspapers and in academia show that respect is disappearing where it matters most.

At The New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer this month, top editors were forced to resign after members of their staffs and the public vilified them for doing their jobs — overseeing the cultivation and printing of opinion pieces in their newspapers.

At the Times, editorial page editor James Bennet resigned June 7 after facing significant backlash from the public and the Times newsroom over an opinion piece by Sen. Tom Cotton. While it does sound like Cotton’s piece needed better editing and fact checking, Bennet’s removal is an overreaction.

Printed paper on printing press, blurred motion

It is commendable that the Times was willing to feature a decidedly controversial opinion from a Republican senator. American newspaper opinion pages should be the place where robust debate on the issues of the day takes place. Cotton’s piece should have been fully fact-checked, but the nature of his opinion should not disqualify him from being printed in the Times.

In Philadelphia, executive editor Stan Wischnowski resigned after the paper ran an opinion column with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” written by the paper’s architecture critic. The headline was not a great choice, but the paper changed it, Wischnowski apologized for it, and he hosted a Zoom session with staffers to discuss race and equality at the paper. Still, that wasn’t enough, and he was forced to resign.

The rush to “cancel” Wischnowski is misguided for another reason. According to the Inquirer, Wischnowski made a concerted effort in the last several years to expand the diversity of the newsroom. He also helped form Spotlight PA, an investigative reporting team focusing on state government.

If one bad headline is all it takes to end that legacy, editors nationwide may start hiding under their desks. Or worse — avoiding important or controversial stories and opinions for fear of losing their jobs.

At Arizona State University, Sonya Forte Duhé, who was set to become the dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has had her offer revoked after a tweet she wrote supporting “the family of George Floyd,” “good police officers,” and “praying for peace.” This tweet, along with complaints from former students of hers that she is racist, were enough for the university to pull her deanship.

It is not as surprising that college students didn’t want to hear an opinion different than their own — intolerance of thoughts that don’t fit the prevailing narrative are old hat in academia. But the connection between Duhé’s situation and that of the two editors is concerning. The resistance of journalism students to a dean whose opinions are different from their own, and the removal of editors who allow non-progressive opinions to print in their papers show the industry is cracked from start to finish.

If students do not learn that editorial pages should host robust debates (because they won’t allow teachers who espouse that) and then later, as professionals, force the exit of Pulitzer-prize winning editors (like Wischnowski) because of bad headline choices, the freedom of the American press is doomed.

At the student newspaper I advise, students and I work together to create opinion pages that reflect a balance of differing opinions on many different issues. Yes, the pieces need to be fact-checked and headlines should not be intentionally inflammatory (both of which are issues with the pieces mentioned here).

Teaching students how to review, edit and print opinion pieces they may not agree with is excellent training. They may not agree with what they read (in fact, they may even be upset by it), but they must learn to treat the author’s work with respect. Reading and editing an opinion opposite of one’s own is an excellent way to understand and develop one’s own opinions and, sometimes, change them.  

If talented journalism students see that apologizing, working to correct an error, and seeking to do better isn’t enough to pacify those cheering “cancel culture,” they may opt for careers that won’t have them constantly wondering if they’ll be “cancelled” for doing their jobs.

Maria Servold is the assistant director of the Herbert H. Dow II Program in American Journalism and lecturer in journalism at Hillsdale College.