“Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger,” tweeted staffers at the newspaper.
Within hours, Editorial Page Editor James Bennet took a defensive stance on Twitter, writing, “I want to explain why we published the piece today by Senator Tom Cotton.” His defense begat more outrage. On Thursday morning, Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger sent a memo to colleagues defending the decision. Bennet also wrote a more formal defense expanding on his tweets.
Yet, by late afternoon Thursday, the Times had bailed on the entire affair: “We’ve examined the piece and the process leading up to its publication,” the paper said in a statement. “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.”
One moment, Cotton’s op-ed upheld the “principle of openness to a range of opinions,” according to Sulzberger’s memo to staffers. The next moment, its publication fell beneath the newspaper’s lofty requirements.
What happened here?
A reading problem, for one. A staff meeting on Thursday afternoon produced the revelation that Bennet himself hadn’t read the op-ed before its publication, according to a report in the New York Times itself. The boss’s failure to inspect every piece of copy churning through the Opinion section is in itself no scandal, considering its voluminous output. The culprit in this case, however, was a collective, shared sense that Cotton’s proposal to invade urban America with U.S. troops was fit to proceed along the usual editorial glide path.
That, it was not.
The final word from the Times placed the Cotton episode in the realm of management breakdown. In this regard, it bore a resemblance to a high-profile mess at CNN in 2017. A trio of veteran CNN journalists resigned from the network after publishing a story about Trump associate Anthony Scaramucci’s alleged ties to Russia. CNN retracted the story because of a “breach in the process,” though it failed to specify what aspects of the story were false or misguided.
The Times management’s about-face has launched a backlash on the right, one that’s being led by Cotton himself:
As time wears on, the controversy will add another hate entry to the left’s love-hate relationship with the newspaper. With its scoop-happy Washington team — including top White House reporter Maggie Haberman — the New York Times generates an outsize proportion of exclusives on President Trump and the obscene mismanagement of the federal government over the past three-plus years. Along the way, it has angered liberals — especially those who hover on Twitter — with a tone-deaf headline here, a bizarre photo of Hope Hicks there, a “normalizing” profile of a neo-Nazi here, a dumb piece on Trump’s nicknaming habit there.
Such is the left’s scrutiny of the New York Times that the public knows about seemingly every imperfection that has surfaced in its pages since Jan. 20, 2017.
And much of the attention has fallen on Bennet’s opinion pages. He recruited former Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens in April 2017 and watched as his new hire’s first column — about climate change — got mauled on social media. The column itself still bears a scar from that set-to, a consequential correction about how Stephens characterized the impact of climate change.
Other gaffes stemmed from management and process flubs. A year ago, the Opinion section published an anti-Semitic cartoon, prompting the newspaper to acknowledge that the responsible editor was “working without adequate oversight” in a "faulty process.” The section hired journalist Quinn Norton in 2018 to write about technology, only to then realize that she had written about neo-Nazi friendships and other troublesome material. She was fired hours after her hiring was announced. Another 2018 hire, Sarah Jeong, had written derisive remarks about white people; she lasted about a year.
In June 2017, the New York Times published an editorial suggesting that Sarah Palin’s political action committee had incited the murderous 2011 rampage of Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona. Palin sued for defamation, a step that opened the editorial process to a blast of sunlight. As it turned out, Bennet had inserted problematic language in the editorial without having taken basic, essential steps to confirm the details.
Missteps notwithstanding, Bennet has long been regarded as a possible successor to Executive Editor Dean Baquet. As recently as last fall, Sulzberger said this about Bennet to The Post: “Under his leadership, Opinion has been vital, creative and unafraid to tackle big issues, from privacy to domestic abuse to the legacy of slavery. He’s not only a great editor, but a deeply honorable one. As much as any journalist I’ve worked with, he’s constantly pushing himself to make the right journalistic decision.”
In the coming weeks, we’ll learn whether that confidence has survived l’affaire Cotton. In between lapses, Bennet and his crew have indeed pushed out a great deal of outstanding work, with a recent example being an examination of American cities during the pandemic. Two days before the Cotton op-ed was published, the paper’s editorial board wrote this:
What the protesters want is a country where bad cops are fired rather than coddled. They want a country where cops who beat demonstrators aren’t protected by their unions, but instead lose their jobs. They want a country where the police protect the right of their fellow Americans to gather in public and seek redress for their grievances, rather than one where they are rammed with SUVs. They want a country where federal troops aren’t used against a peaceful protest to facilitate a photo-op.
That passage raises one of those in-spite-of/because-of riddles: Did readers and New York Times staffers unload on Bennet in spite of these writings about police brutality and protests? Or because of them?
Whatever the answer, the backlash fed off the belief that Cotton’s suggestion to deploy military muscle on U.S. city streets was unworthy of the platform that the New York Times has built. Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at the paper, made this point on Wednesday:
How the masthead of the New York Times looks back on all this is difficult to discern. In Friday’s staff meeting, Sulzberger said that the op-ed never should have been published and didn’t meet the newspaper’s standards — this, after writing on Thursday that it embodied the paper’s spirit. In explaining that contradiction to colleagues at the meeting, Sulzberger downplayed the memo as a “placeholder” while the newspaper looked into the matter, according to sources logged into the meeting.
This particular placeholder isn’t holding anything.
The New York Times is experiencing a crisis of leadership and conviction. In just two days, it has alienated staffers, readers, liberals, conservatives, free-expression absolutists of all political persuasions and Tom Cotton. There’s a saying in Washington that if you’re angering both sides, you must be doing something right. The Times’s recent actions prove that such “wisdom” is a crock.
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