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Letters to the Editor

Letter: The role of a free press

Thursday, October 8, 2015

To the Editor:

The only standard that you should use to determine whether to publish anything is the quality of what is written. If you made an error by publishing something that was of inferior intellectual quality and included factual errors or widely discredited and offensive or inciteful material, then you should be commended for admitting your mistake, highlighting it and publicizing it.

But you should be in the business of critical thought, which requires that students engage with different views, including those that are ugly and even contrary to substantive liberal ideas. The most sacred liberal idea, which I was taught at Brown, is the exchange of free ideas so they can be tested in the open marketplace of ideas.

If you publish garbage, let it be adjudged as such by the community. You are a newspaper not a censor, though you should maintain minimal standards particularly with respect to certain ideas that the community has long ago determined have no place in liberal society, such as overt racism. But other ideas, such as so-called micro-aggressions, which are largely imaginary and frankly political agenda items, could be censured if you are not careful.

You are always better off allowing the community to act as the arbiter of ideas. That is what a free press does in a free society.

Michael Lewitt ’79

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  1. Boo Thinking says:

    But the Ministry of Truth is here to protect us! Whatever will we do if we have to think for ourselves? What if our Great Leaders did not shelter us from triggering, problematic material? I just, like, I can’t. I literally can’t even.

  2. YES! This is all I have been thinking. It’s OKAY that the paper published something the majority of the student body doesn’t agree with. Just because an article is deemed racist doesn’t mean the publisher is. It’s an OPINION column. We are allowed to publish opinions that do not coincide with our own. Hell, a ton of articles written on the Herald do not coincide with mine, but I don’t go around blaming the herald for it. I disagree with the writer, not the paper.

    • Irritated student says:

      Except that the majority of the student body disagreed because it was SUPER RACIST, not a “micro-agression” which is seriously just code for plain ol’ racism.

      • contented student says:

        Where, exactly is the “belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races, or prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”

  3. Problem is, Michael, the generations currently winding their way through Brown’s halls do not value or even desire a press or a free society. They want to be protected- from guns; from different opinions; from people in military uniforms; from anything which might upset their tidy little intellectual apple cart.

    Amazing how often the alumni “get” what the student body is clueless about; and yet it so often falls on deaf ears. Take heed, Brunonians, and despair- I’m willing to bet that in 20 years many of you will be a fair bit less liberal than you are now. It’s what happens when you have to exist in the real world with real people, and see the real consequences of unchecked progressives.

  4. '`*-.,_,-*'`*~-.,.~*'*~ (2014) says:

    not sure how i feel about this particular case, but two years ago a BDH commenter made me reconsider my opinion about whether it’s necessarily productive to provide a stage for any given viewpoint. i had never thought twice about it – i’d always figured, you know, “the more discourse the better!!”… but maybe not. the comment is here; the article is ‘Ingber ’15: Free speech at Brown?’ (because yes, this comes up about 5x a year, whether it’s in response to a douchey BDH column or a student protest of a campus visitor or panelist). i recommend reading the whole thing, but here’s the first para:

    I think there is an undeniable liberal student attitude on campus but the idea that solution is always presenting a counter position and argument seems woefully inadequate. The article doesn’t address the complications and potential negative effects of the classic journalistic impulse to always present “both sides” of the argument. The best example that comes to mind is with media coverage of climate change debates where scientists against global warming who were widely discredited by the scientific community were presented as having equal authority to their debate opponents. By presenting them as the counter argument it legitimated their arguments and presented them as having equal authority on the topic. This has helped perpetuate the idea in the American public that there is still a debate on the authenticity of climate change within the scientific community despite its almost 100% acceptance of climate change as fact. Presenting this counter argument has been extremely damaging to progress on climate change in ways that will really only become evident as time passes and we began to see the full consequences of inaction.

    of course, we’re brown students and we’re good critical thinkers, blah blah blah, so it’s not like we will blindly subscribe to the opinions of whatever the BDH chooses to publish. but yeah, it might sometimes be the case that journalistic integrity involves using your discretion to prevent someone from standing on their soapbox to propagate harmful ideas.

    • Man with Axe says:

      Your example disproves your point. Science does not work by consensus.

      “We should not publish arguments by scientists who disagree with Einstein’s static universe theory. That will only lend them an authenticity they don’t deserve.”

      “What’s that? Hubble’s red shift work claims to disprove Einstein? Don’t publish it. Hubble is probably a shill for the oil companies.”

      No, science requires that all theories be viewed in light of all the evidence, including evidence that contradicts the received wisdom. There is no “fact.” There is only theory and evidence. When new evidence or a better theory comes along, it would not be possible to consider them if “the science is settled” and the contrarians are not allowed a voice because “everyone else accepts a certain theory and we don’t want to hear anything against it.”

      Your view is that your biases should be set in stone because you are afraid to find out that they might be wrong. If you believe you are correct, listen to the other side and refute them. If you can’t do that you are either a coward or a hypocrite or both. You are certainly not a scientist or an intellectual.

      • '`*-.,_,-*'`*~-.,.~*'*~ (2014) says:

        your points about evidence and scientific theory are so obvious that they’re hardly worth taking the time to type. to gain a more nuanced perspective of scientific progress, particularly scientific revolution, you might want to look into thomas kuhn’s philosophy of science, especially his “paradigm shift” model. in ‘the function of dogma in scientific research’, he gives a few arguments for the importance of tradition in scientific research. i haven’t looked at this material in a while so i couldn’t refer you to anything offhand, but the wiki page for his book the structure of scientific revolutions has a lot of good references and info about his and his opponents’ ideas.

        anyway, my view is that it may be responsible for a publication to think about whether it’s productive to showcase – and thus legitimize – a given view. you don’t need any particular philosophical framework of science to support that view. it’s easy to oppose it with a very juvenile “but but marketplace of ideas!!” argument that you’re spewing all over the place in these comment threads.

        it’s p unobjectionable to say that open discourse is valuable – or at least, that legally restricting it would be harmful. however, it’s certainly an empirical question whether it’s necessarily a good idea to give a stage to a particular opinion, taking into account its social importance in conjunction with its credibility. based on the climate change example the other commenter gave, i’m not convinced that it always is. (there are lots of obvious dissimilarities b/w that example and the maier pieces, to be clear; it’s just a good illustration of the general principle.)

        you’re like, 14, right? that’s what your argumentation style indicates to me. keep at it. you’ve got a strong grasp on grammar, and i see that your critical thinking skills are beginning to develop, even though you can’t quite keep up with the adults yet.

        • Man with Axe says:

          I have to hand it to you. This is the first time I’ve ever been thoroughly convinced to switch my beliefs by a combination of appeal to authority and ad hominem. You have a gift for logic. I want to start by apologizing to you for being obvious and juvenile, for spewing, for appearing younger than my age, and for failing to keep with the adults, by whom I assume you mean yourself.

          Are you a proud alumnus of the Keith Olbermann school of journalism, by any chance?

          The comment that generated my response asserted that media coverage of those who are skeptical of climate hysteria (I’ll call them climate skeptics; you would call them climate deniers) should not be “presented” to the public.

          Climate change is only partially a scientific question, and on that the “consensus” is no where as complete as people such as yourself believe. There are many scientists of renown who deviate a little or a lot from the position of the hysterics. Many of these skeptics are leading figures in their fields. I wonder if you could name one without using google.

          But more importantly, climate change, in conjunction with the rest of the world’s problems, it is a question of economics and public choice. Is cutting back on carbon dioxide the best thing to do with the world’s limited resources? What about using some if not most of that wealth to give clean water to billions of people who don’t have it? Or feed the hungry? Or create technologies that will help us adapt to the change in climate that you believe humans are causing and I believe will happen no matter what we do with carbon dioxide. These are not questions for scientists, rather they are questions for economists, politicians, and others who have to think about a lot besides the climate.

          But if you get your way the public will never hear any of this. I’ll bet you’ve never heard any of it, or you would not be so arrogant as your comment to me implies that you are. One day, when you are no longer an undergraduate, I hope that you will come to understand that there are things in the world that you don’t already know.

          • '`*-.,_,-*'`*~-.,.~*'*~ (2014) says:

            loool i hope you’re not actually this dumb

            saying, “hey, check out some philosophical work on this topic to understand that there are subtleties to these issues” != an appeal to authority (keep in mind that i directed you to criticisms of kuhn, too)

            & saying you seem like a teenager bc of your sophomoric arguments & overwrought speech != an ad hominem, since i’m not trying to be persuasive. i’m not saying you’re wrong b/c you’re stupid, i’m saying you’re stupid b/c you’re wrong

            your second-to-last para, which was the only one with any substance whatsoever, contained a bunch of trivial truths stated with a laughable amount of condescension. ofc it’s an empirical q how best to allocate resources; i don’t see how that’s an argument for anything. nice job, enjoy the rest of yr high school quarter, eat yr veggies &c

          • Man with Axe says:

            A better word for second-to-last is “penultimate.”

            A person with your mindset and attitude can neither learn nor persuade. So at least you will have learned a new word. Go in peace.

  5. Mr. Lewitt, how do you interpret the New York Times’s motto: “All the News That’s Fit to Print”? Inherent in the words printed on the upper left corner of every newspaper they put out is the idea that there are people who assess what is and is not worthy to fill the pages. It is not “All the News We Proofread and Found to Be Free of Grammatical Errors.” Editorial teams are always making that call, day in, day out. That’s what they do.

    • Man with Axe says:

      After something is printed you don’t apologize and say it will never happen again, and we’re sorry if someone’s feelings were hurt. Feelings get hurt. Let them write a rebuttal, for crying out loud.

  6. Okay let me publish a pro nazi article glorifying the holocaust.

    • Man with Axe says:

      If you do, people won’t like it, but let me refer you to the 1st amendment. Freedom of speech. The remedy for speech you don’t like is more speech.

    • Read before you respond says:

      Did you fail to read this letter thoroughly? He explicitly states that it is understandable for the BDH to avoid publishing blatant racism and other overt prejudices. Glorifying the holocaust is not a remotely accurate comparison in this situation. And sure, if you want to write an article glorifying the holocaust, by all means go ahead. Free speech permits you to, and you will likely be fairly criticized with more free speech.

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