Civility in public discourse
When I came home from the hospital 70 years ago, The New York Times was delivered to the door of my parents’ apartment on East 88th Street and read religiously. Ever since then, despite frequently moving from one end of the country to the next, the Times has remained my hometown paper.
When I was arrested in student demonstrations at Columbia in 1968, the Times published my name. When I married in 1981 in Alexandria, Virginia, the Times published the details—the social editor calling to double-check the ceremony was taking place. When I arrived late for a Passover seder, my unsympathetic family was sympathetic that the News of the Week in Review editor kept me late rewriting. My first trade book began as a NYT Magazine piece. When my kid sister published an op-ed piece, it represented her coming of age.
My relationship to the paper of record is much like my relationship with my children. I am not always pleased with their behavior, but no matter what, I love them. I did not like it when the Times published Nixon’s transcripts substituting his obscenities with “expletive deleted.”
As a reporter on agriculture policy, I condemned the Times for failing to publish in 1976 the exact words of the obscene “joke” Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told which resulted in the removal from office of the longest-sitting cabinet member in the Nixon-Ford Administrations. And yet…
I was shocked to read repeatedly in the Times the obscene words the President uttered at the Oval Office when negotiating an agreement on immigration policy. The editorial decision to publish language previously not published is to my mind a Rubicon. So completely has President Trump debased civil discourse in our country that even here in my family paper, his obscenity must appear in print.
Nearly every night at 9 here in the euphemism for a nursing home where I live in Downtown State College, PA, my neighbor John Harris, a devoted Times reader, discusses with me the news of the day. John has only been reading the paper for 30 years. I regard him as a parvenu coming as he does from Westport, PA where—despite condemnation from his parents– John faithfully read “that New York paper.”
Frequently, I complain about our paper, detailing what you have done wrong or should have done better. John’s view is that in the environment where the Times is condemned as fake news, I should withhold criticism because, “When it is under attack, you are obliged to defend it. regardless.”
Nonsense, The New York Times is my hometown paper. With family, I do not pretend.
Joel Solkoff is the author of The Politics of Food.
State College, PA 16801