Digital platforms have empowered as never before small groups of critics to bully and silence views they deem politically incorrect.
America has awakened. Or gone woke. So has American journalism, or much of it. Only two decades ago, boycotts of unpopular ideas and the people who held them were confined to extreme newsletters, obscure journals and college campuses, where students have long taken pride in shutting down provocative speakers.
But the decline of "legacy" newspapers and the growing concentration of power and influence in the hands of Big Tech - primarily Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter - have enabled those behind these causes to exert far greater influence.
While social media and digital platforms feature more diverse views of dramatically varying quality from more people from across the globe than ever before, they have also empowered as never before individuals and small groups of critics to bully and silence views they deem politically incorrect.
Posts on Twitter calling for activists to "rise up" in response to perceived intellectual and cultural offences instantly go viral. Online shaming, callouts, doxing (digging up and disseminating dirt on targets and foes) and so-called "cancel culture" writ large have become the order of the day.
Such online intimidation often results in grudging conformity and silence, and not just among journalists. Many shop owners in riot-plagued Portland, Seattle and New York have posted "Black Lives Matter" signs on their boarded-up store windows. Many undoubtedly sympathise with the mass uprisings in May sparked by the brutal killing of George Floyd.
A shocking video of a cop's knee on Floyd's neck triggered not just months of protest against police brutality and America's lingering endemic racism, but sweeping demands for greater social justice. However, some others posted signs simply to prevent their businesses from being looted and trashed.
Meanwhile, the list of cancel-culture victims and targets continues to grow. What began with the targeting of Nineties sexual predators such as America's TV dad Bill Cosby, the late Michael Jackson, and media mogul Harvey Weinstein, soon spread to those accused of thought crimes.
Comedian Shane Gillis was hired and quickly fired by the television network NBC for defamatory comments about Chinese Americans, LGBTQ people and women. Another comic, Sarah Silverman, claimed to have lost a coveted movie role because she wore blackface in a comedy sketch in 2007. New films by Woody Allen, who has repeatedly denied having molested his adopted daughter, are not shown in most US cinemas.
Scarlett Johansson stands accused of "white privilege" and "cultural appropriation" after asserting that she should be permitted to play "any person, any tree, or any animal" rather than characters only of her own race, gender and sexual orientation. The online streaming service HBO Max recently slapped a moronic trigger warning on Mel Brooks's brilliant 1974 parody of the Western, Blazing Saddles.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the newspapers reporting such instances of cultural shaming would eventually be targeted. The paper where I worked for 28 years, The New York Times, has been at the forefront of this trend. It has repeatedly succumbed to the woke demands made by its young, mostly Left-of-centre staff, at the cost of its reputation, its mission of publishing "all the news fit to print", and its commitment to hosting a diversity of opinion on its op-ed pages "without fear or favour". Of course the Times was never "objective." Its overwhelmingly liberal staff ensured that. But its editors usually deleted the worst examples of reportorial bias, and it remained open to comment articles written by conservative politicians and commentators.
In June, however, the paper's publisher, A G Sulzberger, pushed out his editorial page editor, James Bennet, for having published an op-ed by the Republican senator Tom Cotton, which argued that the military ought to be deployed to US cities in order to quell riots. While polls showed that a majority of Americans agreed with him, Times staffers protested the paper's decision to give him a platform.
A month later, Bari Weiss, the Times's contributing editor and writer, also resigned under pressure. In a scathing open letter to the publisher, Weiss denounced the paper's failure to defend her against internal and external bullying for having strayed from an ideological orthodoxy. Because Times reporters and senior editors had so often succumbed to the prevailing intolerance of far-Left mobs on social media, she charged, Twitter had become the paper's "ultimate editor".
The Times is hardly the only paper to have suffered a collapse of moral courage in the face of an internal staff revolt and external pressure. But the failure of the "newspaper of record" to adhere to its principles and commitment to free speech both reflects and stems from broader troubling trends within the industry.
Newspapers have become an increasingly endangered species. Over the past 15 years, more than one in five American papers has closed. According to the Pew Research Centre, the number of journalists at newspapers has been cut in half since 2008. Hardest hit have been local and community papers, whose closure, purchase, merger or consolidation have turned many American towns into "news deserts".
Surviving papers, moreover, tend to have less ideological diversity, as both TV and newspaper ownership is increasingly concentrated. The largest 25 newspaper chains now own almost a third of the nation's papers, including almost half of its dailies - a historically high level of consolidation. The pandemic has accelerated local journalism's plight, according to Penny Muse Abernathy, a former Times journalist and now an academic at the University of North Carolina. Papers in dire financial straits tend not to be pillars of courage. They can no longer afford to offend remaining readers.
The revenue that ensured resources and relative clout has increasingly shifted to digital platforms - Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter - which have also become virtual monopolies. Protected at birth to encourage their survival, Congress exempted them from the many onerous requirements and the accountability that newspapers shoulder. Now, even Congress lacks the political will, or perhaps the ability, to control them.
Such massive technological shifts usually drive equally massive cultural shifts. While Twitter on paper barely breaks even, it has galvanised communities of the like-minded. In a defunded media environment, the younger masters of the new digital technology have disproportionate power. They can decide whether an article is worthy of professional approbation or is "racist", "offensive", and hence, cancellable.
What they can create - much to Twitter's financial benefit, since it exists simply to generate revenue by attracting clicks and keeping customers on its platform - is an instant, constantly powerful culture of complaint, accusation and smearing, whose perpetrators are unlikely to be punished. The Times, for instance, has rules against slandering colleagues on social media, which, as Bari Weiss painfully discovered, senior editors fear to enforce.
"The Times once had a professional hierarchy," said a journalist who has written often for the paper. "A young reporter lived in fear of being fired by a mid-level editor, who lived in fear of his senior editors. Now it's the reverse: top editors live in fear of the Twitterati, because they can get you fired."
A third source of cancel culture is Donald Trump. His relentless campaign against the "fake news" media is aimed at undermining the public's already fragile faith in the press, which not only monitors his almost pathological lying but acts as a constitutionally mandated check on his imperial executive aspirations. According to The Washington Post, Trump has made over 20,000 false or misleading claims in office.
But his incessant Twitter attacks on journalists as "liars", "human scum", and the "worst people in the world", and his hypocritical denunciation of cancel culture in the name of free speech, have further divided and polarised Americans. Because Trump has ignored activists' positive calls for racial justice and police reform, and has tried to turn to his political advantage the movement's reprehensible insistence on ideological purity and the loathsome heretic-hunting that have long characterised Left-wing (and Right-wing) movements, liberals hesitate to criticise their illiberal fellow travellers.
As the Times columnist Michelle Goldberg recently wrote, calling out Left-wing illiberalism in the era of Trump is like "complaining about a bee sting when you have stage-four cancer". If Trump is reelected in November, America's great cancel culture divide can only deepen.
This piece originally appeared at The Telegraph (paywall)
Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images