In the late first century after the birth of Christ, the Roman poet Juvenal asked a simple question: “Quis custodes ipsos custodiet?” Who will guard the guardians themselves?
Juvenal was talking about sexual fidelity, but in our intellectually desiccated era, the question is most often applied to governments.
However, it should most reasonably apply to those who identify themselves as the guardians of the public good in our society — the free media. Is the media the “enemy of the people” as some have claimed? They are not.
But neither are they the tribunes of civic virtue and steady, unbiased tellers of truth. In many instances, they are, unfortunately, the unwatched watchmen.
Let me offer three examples, each drawn from The New York Times, which styles itself as the paper of record (whatever that means) in the United States.
First, we come to the 1619 Project, which posed the hypothesis that 1619, the year that slavery was introduced to English North America, represented the “real” founding date of the United States. That project won all sorts of acclamations, prizes, ribbons and what not.
Its only problem appeared to be that it was wrong. It was attacked almost immediately upon publication as inaccurate and overblown nonsense by actual historians. The Times initially tried to defend the project, then started to erase the more egregious falsehoods.
What The Times has not done is issue any material or formal correction or apology. Nor have they returned or called for the return of the Pulitzer Prize won by the reporter who wrote the essay that launched the project.
That’s all good and well within their rights. But as long as they fail to acknowledge the extent of the mistake and why it was made, it is difficult to imagine The Times as the “paper of record” or as guardians of civic virtue.
Second, and much less well-known but equally troubling, the leadership of The Times has remained silent as one of its top reporters has posted and then deleted tweets that — without any evidence of any kind — link a specific industry to white supremacy.
At the beginning of this month, the reporter, Hiroko Tabuchi, tweeted: “I’ve been thinking a lot about fossil fuels and white supremacy recently. Almost every single oil executive, lobbyist, spokesperson I’ve dealt with is white and male. It’s difficult not to see the link.”
In a tweet in June, she observed that the industry is white and, therefore, that’s a problem. In September she linked police violence and the oil and gas industry. Ten years ago, she tweeted that “Toyota sucks.”
It is important to know that Ms. Tabuchi covers the oil and gas industry for The Times, as climate change is her specific beat. Given the centrality of oil and gas to this election, that seems very important. It is a clear conflict of interest, and one that the editors have known or should have known about for some time.
Maybe they finally do. Ms. Tabuchi’s Twitter profile indicates that more than 10,000 tweets have been deleted from the account since the end of September. However that happened, it seems contrary to The Times’ own guidelines on the deletion of tweets, which state: “Be transparent. If you tweeted an error or something inappropriate and wish to delete the tweet, be sure to quickly acknowledge the deletion in a subsequent tweet.”
Let me offer my own disclaimer. I have previously represented customers in the oil and gas industry for a number of years. I’ve purchased and used oil and natural gas for a number of years, and I’ve been a white male for a number of years. None of that changes the gravity of the conflict at The New York Times.
The final example is that of Sen. Tom. Cotton. His crime? The Arkansas Republican wrote a column calling for reestablishment of law and order in those communities in which it had vanished. For that, the guardians at The Times demanded wholesale firings of the opinion side of America’s “paper of record.”
Many reporters at The New York Times are friends of mine and professionals at the very peak of their skills and abilities. Their silence in all three of these instances is understandable, but discouraging.
The lesson is simple. When journalistic norms are breached, the watchmen at 620 Eighth Street, New York, New York, will probably be busy sleeping.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.
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