February 21, 2020

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Free expression or propaganda megaphone?

The deputy leader of the Taliban wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list, wrote a piece for the Times’ Opinion section with the headline, “What We, the Taliban, Want.”

Haqqani writes, “The long war has exacted a terrible cost from everyone. We thought it unwise to dismiss any potential opportunity for peace no matter how meager the prospects of its success. For more than four decades, precious Afghan lives have been lost every day. Everyone has lost somebody they loved. Everyone is tired of war. I am convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop.”

So what should we make of this?

Is this an example of a free press giving a platform for someone to express his point of view and work toward a peaceful solution? Or is it an example of, arguably, the most influential newspaper in the world giving a megaphone to a terrorist to spew his lies and propaganda? After all, Haqqani and the Taliban are responsible for a lot of the “killing and maiming” that he writes about.

Even one of the Times’ own reporters had a problem with the op-ed. Mujib Mashal, the Times’ senior correspondent in Afghanistan, tweeted: “The piece by Siraj Haqqani in @nytopinion – which’s independent of our news operations & judgment – omits the most fundamental fact: that Siraj is no Taliban peace-maker as he paints himself, that he’s behind some of most ruthless attacks of this war with many civilian lives lost.”

The New York Post’s Maureen Callahan compared it to running an op-ed from a Nazi party leader during World War II. “Sounds like something out of The Onion, right?” she wrote.


As Americans, we would like to think of ourselves as the land of the free, where freedom of expression is not only tolerated, but encouraged — even when that expression doesn’t necessarily align with our way of thinking. As the Times puts at the bottom of every opinion piece: “The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor.”

That’s a noble sentiment — in theory. It’s much more difficult to actually practice.

Should that freedom of expression really be extended to the deputy leader of a murderous organization that is a sworn enemy of the United States? Or might there be something in that expression that could — somehow, someway — lead to peace?

This is not an easy call. Giving a platform to someone from the Taliban, on its face, seems like a horrible idea. But excluding someone from the table in a conversation that needs to be had is a bad idea, too.

The problem isn’t that the Times ran Haqqani’s words. The problem is the piece stands alone in the opinion section with no other context.

A better solution might have been to convince Haqqani to talk on the record for a news story. That way, along with allowing Haqqani to share his thoughts, the Times could have fact-checked his claims and pointed out his role, as well as the Taliban’s role, in the world. Or, perhaps, the Times editorial section could have written an editorial note explaining the things Haqqani and the Taliban have done. It could have included links to other Times’ stories pointing out the Taliban’s actions and activities.

Instead, the Times simply gave one of the world’s most notorious terrorists carte blanche to say whatever he wanted — unfiltered and unchecked. And that seems more dangerous and irresponsible than journalistically noble because of who Haqqani is and what he represents.

Eyes of the nation were upon you

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg at Wednesday night’s debate. (AP photo by John Locher)

The past couple of Democratic debates before Wednesday had drawn a TV audience in the 7.5 million range. With Mike Bloomberg joining the debate stage for the first time, I guessed there would be a bump to about 10 million.

Man, I was off. Twice that many watched. Early TV numbers are that about 19.7 million watched on NBC and MSNBC. That’s a huge number. In fact, it’s believed to be the most-watched Democratic debate ever, surpassing the 18.1 million who watched the second night of the first Democratic debate in June.

In addition, the debate averaged 417,000 streaming viewers, so that means more than 20 million people watched.

WSJ editorial board: Democracies rule!

The Wall Street Journal editorial board fired back at China after China expelled three WSJ journalists earlier this week. The journalists were expelled because Chinese officials objected to an editorial with a headline that read, “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”

In an editorial Thursday, the Journal’s editorial board wrote, “The truth is that Beijing’s rulers are punishing our reporters so they can change the subject from the Chinese public’s anger about the government’s management of the coronavirus scourge.”

The board wrote that it understands objections to the headline on the original editorial that started this feud, and said it will gladly publish letters to the editor expressing that viewpoint. The editorial also points out that the headline didn’t even run in China because the WSJ is banned there.

“What Chinese officials don’t understand is that a free press would have helped them better cope with the virus fallout,” the editorial said. “Democracies are resilient because a free media sends signals and information that allow an outlet for grievances and alert leaders to problems before they become crises.”

A sign of the Times?

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

In a somewhat surprising development, The Los Angeles Times is offering voluntary buyouts during a time when it seemed things were turning around under billionaire owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who bought the paper two years ago. In an email, staff was told, “Since the transition to local ownership, we have invested more than $100 million in staff, technology and infrastructure, and as we continue our transformation of the Times, we shall continue to invest. We know that to build a sustainable business and ensure our ability to provide vital journalism for decades to come, we need to move swiftly to make our product more digital, more nimble, and more attractive to loyal and new audiences. Buyouts will help us accelerate this process.”

The terms of the buyouts for employees who have been at the paper for at least two years are: four weeks of pay for the first year of service and, typically, two weeks for each subsequent year.

A source at the Times tells Poynter that management has said the buyouts are not a precursor to layoffs and that there are no other planned buyouts at this time.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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