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Opinion New York Times has stopped defending its Tom Cotton op-ed

Sen. Tom Cotton (R- Ark.) (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

This article has been updated.

Update: A statement from a New York Times spokeswoman on Thursday afternoon signaled that the newspaper has stopped defending the op-ed: “We’ve examined the piece and the process leading up to its publication. This review made clear that a rushed editorial process led to the publication of an Op-Ed that did not meet our standards. As a result, we’re planning to examine both short term and long term changes, to include expanding our fact checking operation and reducing the number of Op-Eds we publish.”

Reporting from the New York Times itself revealed that Editorial Page Editor James Bennet had not read the op-ed prior to publication.

Original story

A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, wasn’t going to let this crisis fester.

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In a letter to colleagues Thursday morning, Sulzberger addressed a growing backlash against an op-ed published on Wednesday by the paper’s opinions section under the byline of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), with the headline: “Send In the Troops.” “One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” wrote Cotton. “But local law enforcement in some cities desperately needs backup, while delusional politicians in other cities refuse to do what’s necessary to uphold the rule of law.” Citing the looting and unrest that have followed peaceful demonstrations, Cotton noted that “the Insurrection Act authorizes the president to employ the military ‘or any other means’ in ‘cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws.’”

Readers inveighed on social media against allowing a sitting senator to advocate for such an extreme approach to the protests over the killing of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis while he was in police custody. But the objections to Cotton’s platforming at the Times didn’t come exclusively from outside the Times: Staffers at the paper cited their own concerns about the op-ed and the mentality that landed it on their website. Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for the 1619 Project, tweeted:

The NewsGuild of New York has circulated a letter hammering the op-ed on several fronts: “In publishing an Op-Ed that appears to call for violence, promotes hate, and rests its arguments on several factual inaccuracies while glossing over other matters that require — and were not met with — expert legal interpretation, we fail our readers,” notes the letter. “Choosing to present a point of view without added context leaves members of the American public — whom our newspaper aims to serve and inform — vulnerable to harm. Heeding a call to ‘send in the troops’ has historically resulted in harm to black and brown people, like the ones who are vital members of The New York Times family.”

In the op-ed, Cotton writes that Antifa has “infiltrat[ed] protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.” But the Times itself, argues the NewsGuild, has reported “that this is misinformation.” Sulzberger’s letter stresses that op-ed pieces “need to be accurate, good faith explorations of the issues of the day.”

“We don’t publish just any argument,” argued Sulzberger.

A NewsGuild spokesman tells the Erik Wemple Blog that he doesn’t have a tally of signatories.

In his letter, Sulzberger told his staffers that there will be an opportunity to speak directly about the op-ed in a newspaper-wide meeting on Friday. “In the meantime, I want to say two things. The first is to acknowledge the broader concerns I’ve heard, particularly from black colleagues for whom this moment feels both unprecedented and painfully familiar,” wrote the publisher. “The second is to make absolutely clear where The Times stands on the issue at the heart of this moment.”

In his own explanation, editorial page editor James Bennet stressed the points that you’d expect a veteran newsperson to stress: The New York Times op-ed space is designed to showcase countervailing ideas and thoughts; Cotton is a big shot with presidential ambitions, so his thoughts “may very well become government policy, which means it demands interrogation.” The official position of the editorial page, noted Bennet, has lauded the protesters as patriots and criticized the deployment of “federal forces” against the demonstrations.

Sulzberger expressed a commitment to speak with “as many of you as possible” in the coming days, a sign that this issue will reverberate within the virtual walls of the newspaper for quite some time. In that respect, it may resemble the firestorm of August 2019, when the Times headlined its coverage of Trump’s response to two mass shootings this way: “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.” Irate readers pelted the newspaper for its ridiculous framing of a divisive controversy. Executive Editor Dean Baquet addressed staffers’ concerns in a protracted meeting.

James Bennet first joined the paper in 1991, left in 2006 to helm the Atlantic magazine and in 2016 returned to the Times as editorial page editor. From his current perch Bennet has produced some great work and a string of boneheaded mistakes. In 2017, for instance, he edited an editorial suggesting that Sarah Palin — her PAC, actually — had incited the murderous rampage of Jared Lee Loughner in 2011. That bogus charge earned the New York Times a suit that’s still in litigation. Other low points: The section hired, then fired, journalist Quinn Norton after learning from Twitter that she had written about friendships with neo-Nazis. It faced similar pressure after hiring editorial board member Sarah Jeong, who, it turned out, had written derisive things about white people. She left the editorial board last year.

As Jack Shafer has noted, the Times opinion page exists to provoke. It has run op-eds by Moammar Gaddafi, Vladimir Putin and others. In a December 2017 staff meeting, Bennet addressed the difficulties of judging when a piece goes too far: “We’ve published Vladimir Putin,” Bennet said in the meeting. “Should we not allow Vladimir Putin into our pages? It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say that that would be doing a service to our readers. But as you can see, I mean, I struggle to articulate what those boundaries are.”

Others are now articulating those boundaries for Bennet. Here’s Jazmine Hughes, a story editor for the New York Times Magazine:

The case for running the op-ed might have been stronger if the idea had been fresher. On Monday morning, however, Cotton warmed up for his New York Times op-ed by appearing on “Fox & Friends” to tout his military intervention plan. “Let’s see how these anarchists respond when the 101st Airborne is on the other side of the street,” Cotton told host Brian Kilmeade. “If necessary, the president should use the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty military forces to these cities to support local law enforcement and ensure that this violence ends tonight. Not one more night,” Cotton argued.

Cotton on Thursday denounced the actions of a “woke mob” in the New York Times newsroom. “As soon as they’re presented with an opinion with which they disagree, they have a meltdown and demand censorship and firings.”

Read Sulzberger’s full letter below:

Everyone at The Times should feel pride in the brave, rigorous and empathetic work we’ve published, day after day, through this historic moment of upheaval. This week alone, we reconstructed the killing of George Floyd, investigated the President’s use of tear gas on peaceful protesters, exposed disproportionate police force against black people, and reported on-the-ground from Minneapolis about the city’s history of racism.
I’m writing today because, for many, pride in this work has been overshadowed by the disappointment and hurt felt over an Op-Ed we published online yesterday afternoon.
I’ve already heard from many of you and will do more listening in the days ahead, starting with smaller groups of our black colleagues, who are covering this story and living it at the same time. I know James, Dean and other members of the journalistic leadership will do the same. And we have an employee town hall tomorrow, where leaders from news, Opinion and business will be available for questions, including about the Op-Ed.
In the meantime, I want to say two things. The first is to acknowledge the broader concerns I’ve heard, particularly from black colleagues for whom this moment feels both unprecedented and painfully familiar. The second is to make absolutely clear where The Times stands on the issue at the heart of this moment.
I’ve heard from journalists on the front lines of this story about the trauma of watching brutality replayed on endless loops on television and social media. About conversations with your children that have brought you to tears. About being afraid to walk down the street, get in your car, or — particularly — put your safety on the line reporting from inside the protests. You’ve told me about boiling frustrations over entrenched inequalities that, as our colleagues have reported, are a matter of life and death.
Throughout this crisis and over the last several days, the Editorial Board has used our institutional voice to tackle many of these issues. In powerful, unapologetic language, we’ve defended the protests, the urgency of the issues underlying them, and the First Amendment protections that should guarantee the protestors the right to share “rage born of despair,” as we put it, without the fear of retaliation.
The Op-Ed page exists to offer views from across the spectrum, with a special focus on those that challenge the positions taken by our Editorial Board. We see that as a source of strength, allowing us to provide readers a diversity of perspectives that is all too rare in modern media. We don’t publish just any argument — they need to be accurate, good faith explorations of the issues of the day — and there are many reasons why Op-Eds are denied publication. It is clear many believe this piece fell outside of the realm of acceptability, representing dangerous commentary in an explosive moment that should not have found a home in The Times, even as a counterpoint to our own institutional view. I believe in the principle of openness to a range of opinions, even those we may disagree with, and this piece was published in that spirit. But it’s essential that we listen to and reflect on the concerns we’re hearing, as we would with any piece that is the subject of significant criticism. I will do so with an open mind.
Our journalistic mission — to seek the truth and help people understand the world — could not be more important than it is in this moment of upheaval. But so is the work we must do among ourselves, to listen to each other, and support each other. One of my most important responsibilities as we do so is to protect your safety so that you can do your vital work. There is nothing this institution takes more seriously, and I believe our long track record shows that in moments of crisis — whether on the front lines or in an ICU — The Times will do whatever it takes to protect our journalists. That commitment is unwavering.
I want to end by quoting from an editorial we wrote this week calling for sweeping police reforms. These are the words we stand behind as an institution. “Justice is still being postponed,” we wrote. “Racial inequality remains rampant in wealth, housing, employment, education — and enforcement of the law. This is not news, but it is the responsibility of all those in power to recognize and fix it.”
I look forward to speaking with as many of you as possible in the days ahead.

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