On March 9, Stanford Law School invited conservative Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, who currently sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, to speak at their campus. I think many of Duncan’s views are bigoted: Specifically, he has defended bans on gay marriage and supported restrictions on transgender people using their preferred bathrooms. But when Duncan attempted to speak at Stanford, he was unable to deliver his prepared remarks after he “was relentlessly heckled and traded barbs with students.”
While students certainly have a right to express their disagreement with Duncan’s views — through silent protest, tough questions or simply boycotting the event — their heckling and disruption clearly has a chilling effect on free speech. On a basic level, the event also did the liberal students no good. By engaging with the judge in an antagonistic way, they lowered the level of discourse. And because of their protests, a routine, nerdy law school event made it onto national airwaves — and the conservative judge received sympathy, not scrutiny.
This dilemma, when considered alongside the chaos of former President Donald Trump’s recent CNN town hall, has left me thinking about whether we should give a platform to people and ideas we fundamentally disagree with — and how to do so in an ethical and appropriate way. In other words, when does our quest to showcase diverse perspectives become, at best, a crisis of “both sides-ing” and, at worst, an antagonistic free-for-all?
There is no easy answer, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a high school student with relatively little experience in the real world of reporting.
But here are my thoughts, and a few strategies I will use to inform my work going forward.
First of all, journalists aren’t the only people who must weigh the consequences of “platforming.” However, they do disproportionately bear the responsibility. A few weeks ago, I talked to Emily Bazelon, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and co-host of Slate’s “Political Gabfest” for an interview on High School SCOTUS. Bazelon is well-known for covering controversial topics with a relatively even-handed approach, but — or perhaps as a result of this — her pieces often generate significant backlash.
When I asked for her take on the quandary, she gave me a typically nuanced response: “I sometimes think we don’t give readers enough credit,” she told me. “The whole idea is to present different points of view and let people make up their minds, and so you don’t want to be super heavy-handed often.” But at the same time, Bazelon acknowledged that there are questions she refuses to put up for debate; for example, “Is global warming happening, and is human influence a major reason why it’s happening?” In other words, it is a reporter’s job to present every perspective to their readers, but with the right context and situational awareness.
In an ideal world, I think Bazelon’s exactly right. However, it’s another issue entirely when you’re covering a major political figure who is likely to be part of the debate regardless — and whose views align with a large minority of the American population. In that case, the platform matters — as does your goal in creating it. At the CNN town hall, host and moderator Katilan Collins didn’t stand a chance. The town hall format was inherently flawed; there was no way that she could handle respond to Trump’s constant stream of lies, especially with an audience that was clearly biased toward Trump. More importantly, that shouldn’t be her job. She isn’t there to argue with Trump — that just delegitimizes CNN and the town hall further. The town hall begs the question: Did CNN actually want to engage with Trump, or was their goal merely to attract high ratings?
So how do we give platforms to people we disagree with in an ethical, reasoned and informed way? Frankly, I think we could do well to emulate “We the People,” a weekly constitutional debate show hosted by National Constitution Center President Jeffrey Rosen. Although the podcast deals with many of the most contentious social and political issues of our time — affirmative action, religious freedom, gun safety — it does so in an even-keeled manner, with an independent host who keeps the conversation strictly ideas-focused. The guests, inspired by their host, do the same.
As a high school journalist, I juggle the ethical dilemmas associated with platforming every day — and, I go to school with the subjects I cover. As an editor, I’m always looking for ways to guide my reporters through the same dilemmas. More often than not, I just ask my reporters to lead by example — to be reasoned, thoughtful and fair, in the hopes that their guests, subjects and readers will be, as well.
Elise Spenner is a junior at Burlingame High School. Student News appears in the weekend edition. You can email Student News at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Elise - I think you shot yourself in the foot. "I think many of Duncan’s views are bigoted: Specifically, he has defended bans on gay marriage and supported restrictions on transgender people using their preferred bathrooms." You are perhaps too young to understand that many agree with the Judge. That does not make many a bigot but they are adhering to a different opinion regardless of regulations and laws. You will need to grow and appreciate that we are not homogeneous and that this country originated because of disagreements with the status quo in countries that new arrivals fled for that very reason. When you already start by saying that you are liberal minded you are at risk of losing your argument. Otherwise, your writing skills are fabulous and will always be better than mine.
Thanks for your perspective, Ms. Spenner. I would hope any judge (conservative or not) would receive sympathy and not scrutiny after having been shouted down. But as happens more often than not in left-wing bubbles, left-wing folks shout at folks they don’t agree with, in such places at Stanford, Davis, Berkeley, and many other locations with “conservative” speakers… These folks usually have much more emotion than logic or truth behind their views. I’d bet that many, if not all, of these left-wing anti-free-speech advocates fell for the Russian Collusion Delusion and the so-called “insurrection” narratives. Meanwhile, you are correct that on the CNN Town Hall, moderator Kaitlan Collins didn’t stand a chance; when you push lies and fake news, they’re easy to refute. Even now, many on the left are afraid of reviewing Trump’s tweets on January 6 where he tweeted to “remain peaceful” or “Stay peaceful!” to his 80+ million followers, debunking the so-called insurrection garbage narrative. Based on your perspective calling for reason, thoughtfulness, and fairness, we can only hope that as an editor, you’re not pushing your left-wing bias onto their stories. Their credibility hangs in the balance, unlike the lost credibility from the NYT and Washington Post reporters awarded Pulitzer’s for fake news.
Your comment comes at a good time. I was just thinking about what fertilizer to put in the garden. I will print a few copies of it and add it to the rose bed. I am sure they will enjoy it.
Well said. There is an old saying that "it is not important what reporters write. What is important is what they write about." Your examples cite TV reporters, who are more entertainers than journalists. I am not being mean, but think about this: electronic news people are tied to the medium, prisoners of technology, limited by time and space. Look in to the AP, which sets the agenda for most news outlets yet is, by comparison, in the horse and buggy days. I'm sure you have heard that a reporters job is "to question authority." Today we live at a time when mass media is "the authority." BTW: Why in your opening is the judge labeled a "conservative" while the protesters aren't called "liberal"? See what I mean?
Elise - Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful writing which I hope sparks some serious thought and courteous discussion. I agree that we can all learn something from civil debates about contentious issues, where people have come to very different conclusions and find themselves on very different sides and we're truly blessed to live in a country where, for the most part, people can express themselves without fear of being arrested and disappeared. I spent a big and formative part of m life in a place where that was not the case and sadly, in too much of the world today, people who express opinions/thoughts not approved by those in power face violence, imprisonment and death. An American journalist is languishing in a Russian prison right now just for doing his job. I'm heartened to read work by someone your age who is grappling with what it means to be a journalist in America, and pray that those who may vehemently disagree with something they see in their local paper, on cable news, or on the Internet will always pause, despite their angst, and give thanks that they live in a country where folks can express unpopular opinions safely. An article from The Hill said: "The First Amendment, ratified in 1791, guarantees that Congress shall make “no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Judges have stated that the Constitution guaranteed a “marketplace of ideas” where the truth would win out. The antidote to bad speech and false statement is more speech, not suppression of speech. Or as Justice Holmes put it, “free thought—not … for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” Let's remember that!
It is your earnest hope and prayer "that those who may vehemently disagree with something they see in their local paper, on cable news, or on the Internet will always pause, despite their angst, and give thanks that they live in a country where folks can express unpopular opinions safely."
I'm sure we'll see some of that angst later this week in the DJ, but I'm not so sure those disagreeing with what they see and hear in the news truly embrace the "marketplace of ideas." IMO that angst often leads to a lot of mean spirited rhetoric, and that type of rhetoric feeds divisiveness. America needs a whole lot less of red vs. blue and us vs. them.
Enjoy the week and the Memorial Day holiday drawing nigh.
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