Without a Trace

Sometimes a post on one issue turns up another. Ten days ago I posted a piece under the title “Black, White and Blue,” discussing a New York Times op-ed by Michael Eric Dyson, a prominent sociologist and public intellectual. Dyson’s essay was called “What White America Fails to See,” and appeared in the Times—the online version only—on the evening of Thursday, July 7. Dyson, who is African-American, wrote it after the killings of black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. The piece lambasted white Americans for their collective blindness with regard to such killings, and effectively charged that white privilege makes them complicit in what Dyson called “an undeclared war against blackness.”

I blasted out my post soon after Dyson’s essay appeared. But when I went to put it up the next morning, and clicked on the link to Dyson’s essay that I’d inserted, I noticed something strange. His essay had been changed, and pretty substantially. The most obvious change was the title, now recast as the far less accusatory “Death in Black and White.” A new lead followed, then a number of excisions and alterations throughout the piece. In a single italicized sentence affixed to the top of the op-ed, the Times informed readers that the essay had been “updated to reflect news developments.”

There was no doubt what those developments were. Hours after Dyson’s piece appeared, a black man named Micah X. Johnson had murdered five white police officers in a self-proclaimed act of retaliation for the killings in Louisiana and Minnesota. In the aftermath of that event, I guessed, either Dyson or the Times editors, or both, decided to soften Dyson’s essay.  

My own commentary no longer made sense in certain places, since it discussed sentences removed from the revamped Dyson essay, and I was annoyed at having to revise my piece simply because the Times had revised his. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered about that revision itself. To update a news story in order to include new information is one thing, but to change the tone and tilt—to change the meaning, really—of an op-ed piece, after it has been published, is something else. What about Dyson’s original essay? Did it still exist? I couldn’t find any links to it. If you googled his name and the phrase “undeclared war against blackness,” you got... nothing, because that key phrase had been removed. Dyson had written it. I knew he had, because I had read it and cut and pasted it. But officially, and effectively, that version no longer existed; and if you hadn’t cut and pasted it, you’d never know.

To me such actions raise challenging questions about digital journalism and the mutability of online texts. As I writer I can understand Dyson not wanting to take heat for highly critical racial commentary offered in an essay written hours before an enraged black man killed a bunch of white cops. But does that mean that the Times should airbrush parts of his published essay out of existence? That struck me as having difficult implications for journalistic practice. And especially for a newspaper of record like the Times. How are we to understand what “publication” means in online journalism? Why didn’t the Times simply have Dyson append a follow-up to the piece, revisiting it briefly in light of Dallas and showing, in effect, the evolution of his thinking? Where was the transparency? In making substantial changes to the rhetoric and thrust of the piece and then trying to fob those changes off as a mere “update,” the Times appeared to be bowdlerizing an essay in order to avoid controversy, and then trying to cover its tracks.

I pursued these questions with the Times Public Editor, the Times Op-Ed editor, and Dyson himself. You can read Public Editor Liz Spayd’s response to me here, and my own account in a subsequent piece I wrote for the Huffington Post. What do you think?

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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