October 15, 2018

How American Journalism Lost Its Spine

“Ian Buruma was forced out last week as editor of the New York Review of Books after publishing an essay by a man who admitted that he has abused women. Mr. Buruma’s sudden departure caps a shameful season of American journalism.

In July, the Nation apologized for a poem for the first time in its 153-year history. In August, the New Yorker canceled a conversation at its annual festival between editor David Remnick and former White House aide Steve Bannon. All three publications were responding to outrage that they had dared provide a platform for views—or people—seen by a certain segment of the population as offensive, even dangerous.

The U.S. is deeply polarized, with divisions over race, class and sexuality widening under a president who exploits them. Social media brings out the worst in us. But good journalism has traditionally helped society find balance in unsettled times by giving voice to all sides of the debate, by helping people talk through their differences and seek compromise.

These three august institutions failed to do that. To put it plainly: They caved in.

In “How-To,” the poem published by the Nation, a street hustler offers advice on how to panhandle. The use of dialect suggests that the hustler is black, drawing complaints that the poem is racist. Because the hustler suggests faking a disability, it was condemned as “ableist.” The poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, who is white, was also accused of “cultural appropriation.” “We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem,” wrote the magazine’s poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Gimenez Smith. They said they were “revising our process for solicited and unsolicited submissions.” The New Yorker’s change of heart occurred after many liberals expressed outrage that Mr. Bannon had been invited to its festival and several celebrity speakers threatened to withdraw.”

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