Free Speech is for White People: Sam Harris Edition

I about threw my coffee mug into a wall just now. I just read this from the Sam Harris Blog:

I consider Salon to be among the worst offenders of the new pseudo-journalism, and I have long maintained a personal boycott of the website. I ask my publishers to ignore any requests from its editors for interviews or for review copies of my books. And on the rare occasions that Salon publishes good work—the articles of Jeffrey Tayler stand out—I decline to forward the links on social media. My reason is simple: Despite the work of a few blameless writers, Salon has become a cesspool of lies and moral confusion.

However, in response to the repeated requests of one Salon writer, Sean Illing, I decided to make an exception. I agreed to do an interview with Illing under two conditions: 1) I would get final approval of all the words attributed to me; 2) I could say whatever I wanted about Salon. These conditions were agreed to, and I spent several hours producing the following exchange by phone and email.

In the end, Salon published a bowdlerized version of my interview, cutting out the parts that were critical of the website. I don’t blame Illing for this. He was a pleasure to correspond with and appears to have made his best effort to get the whole text of our conversation published. And I’m actually happy that his editors decided to help make my case for me by further demonstrating their lack of integrity. Salon is irredeemable. I urge the few talented writers left there to flee a sinking ship.

Taking Harris at face-value here—not something I’m actually inclined to do, but whatever—it was bad for a reporter to say they’d violate basic journalistic practice and then go back on that. Both parts of that are a problem. Journalists can and should edit interviews, though we can argue about whether or not Harris was misrepresented. The point is, they should make that clear upfront. It is unusual for the subject to have editorial control, which is what Harris should have been told. Once such a bargain is struck, it is also unethical to go back on it; obtaining an interview under false pretenses is not generally considered ethical. My intuition here is that an editor cut them because Illing made a deal he should not have, but the correct thing to do was probably to pull the interview and reprimand Illing.

We can spend some time parsing if the cut would have been fair under normal editorial standards, but I’m going to punt on those issues for the most part. That is, I want to treat whether or not Harris was right to feel slighted by the particular cut as separate from the issues of editorial control. I want to juxtapose this with another big issue about coverage from just a few weeks ago. One that Harris alludes to in the section that was cut.

When Harris mentions in the cut part “political correctness and masochism”, he is alluding to the left’s attempts sway publications towards a certain narrative. I’m on record as being sympathetic to this, albeit with qualifications, so I will not pretend to be all that worried that Salon has openly advocated for it. But it is awfully rich to claim to be worried about the wrong narrative and journalistic integrity while complaining that a publication did not let you edit your own interview.

When protesters at universities have tried to bar journalists from covering or put conditions on access, they are doing almost exactly what Harris was. In both cases they worried that they would be misrepresented and tried to leverage their positions into what they judged was fair coverage. The main difference is that Harris, with his extraordinary privilege, parlayed a deal while the protesters often had to take a more confrontational route to assert themselves. Harris gets to dress up his complaints about unfair coverage in respectability while black protesters have to fight for their narrative.

To be sure, this isn’t to say I think every protest and every protester handled the press correctly—they did not. Likewise, I’ve been pretty candid that Harris has a legitimate beef with how this handled because of the multiple failures on Salon’s part. What I want to know is where is the outrage that Harris tried to make a deal with reporters to undermine the independence of the press? Why is this not a threat to the press? Why are black protesters an existential threat to democracy, but Harris demanding control of the press is not?

Right. Free speech is meant to work for white people.


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