Once a lumbering colossus that processed copy and internal change at its own cerebral pace, the New York Times on Sunday brandished its Internet-era agility: Editorial Page Editor James Bennet, the newspaper announced, had resigned his post following the controversial publication of an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R- Ark.) regarding the federal response to recent protests.

Over the course of four days, the paper published a controversial opinion piece; beheld a furious backlash; defended it; defended it some more; bailed on it; held a staff meeting about it; and took a high-level personnel action on a summer Sunday.

“James is a journalist of enormous talent and integrity who believes deeply in the mission of The Times,” noted Publisher A.G. Sulzberger in a statement. “He oversaw a significant transformation of the Opinion department, which broadened the range of voices we publish and pushed us into new formats like video, graphics and audio. I’m grateful for his many contributions.”

Jim Dao, the deputy editorial page editor, will be leaving the masthead and will be reassigned to a position in the newsroom, which runs under separate management from the opinions section. Katie Kingsbury will serve as acting editorial page editor through the November election, according to a fact sheet distributed by the Times.

The resignation caps off a whirlwind of turmoil at the Times, much of it visible on the churning commentary on Twitter. After Cotton advocated the deployment of U.S. troops — “The nation must restore order. The military stands ready,” reads the op-ed’s subtitle — Times staffers and others said the piece put African Americans in danger. Bennet on Wednesday wrote a Twitter defense of the op-ed, claiming that it advanced debate and that the role of the section was to host competing views. The next morning, Sulzberger wrote a staff memo that mustered pretty much the same defense. Bennet on Thursday formalized his Twitter argument into an essay.

Police are assaulting journalists covering the George Floyd protests. We used to condemn this in other countries. (The Washington Post)

By Friday morning, both men had folded. In a video staff meeting, Sulzberger said that the piece never should have been published. Bennet, too, had stopped defending it. The discussion moved to corrective measures, with Sulzberger stressing the need to revamp procedures and the role of the op-ed at the New York Times. Sources told the Erik Wemple Blog that a first step may be a cutback of one-fifth in volume.

The paper appended an editor’s note to Cotton’s op-ed indicating that it fell short of Times standards and shouldn’t have been published. Sulzberger argued in his Sunday note to colleagues:

None of these changes mark a retreat from The Times’s responsibility to help people understand a range of voices across the breadth of public debate. That role is as important as it’s ever been. We are a polarized nation whose shared understanding of the world has fractured. The Times, and journalism more broadly, plays an essential role in making sense of this moment, wrestling with the history that has brought us here and helping the public chart a path forward. That requires fearless engagement with ideas from across the political spectrum, particularly those we disagree with. Those ideas, like everything that appears in our pages, must adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and be communicated in a way that respects our readers.

Bennet’s credibility on the Cotton op-ed suffered when he admitted that he hadn’t read it before publication. It would be a tall order for any manager to read every piece of copy produced by the paper’s opinions section, but an argument as out-there as Cotton’s surely should have undergone a slow and squinting read on Bennet’s screen. In a note to his colleagues Sunday, Sulzberger cited a “significant breakdown” in editorial processes. It’s not the first one, either, as Sulzberger noted. Ill-considered personnel decisions and a screw-up with legal implications on a Sarah Palin editorial are among other low points.

“James and I agreed that it would take a new team to lead the department through a period of considerable change,” noted the Sulzberger memo. The publisher may well have winced as he wrote those words, for he has been a strong supporter of Bennet’s work at the Times, and even extended words of support — heartfelt ones, according to sources — at Friday’s meeting.

As the Erik Wemple Blog discussed in a Twitter thread on Friday, the opinions section might have a look at how it channels feedback on op-eds. Under the previous opinions regime, the section created something called Op-Discuss, which was essentially a large email group to which draft op-eds and pitches were circulated for feedback. It was a clunky and cumbersome mechanism, but it did enable a wide range of editorial voices — about 30 to 40 people, according to informed sources — to shape, promote or kill op-eds, depending on their merits. The Op-Discuss feedback loop was mothballed under Bennet.

Bennet is leaving a job that just got even more complicated and pressure-packed. As he attempted to defend his section’s work on Cotton’s op-ed, he leaned on a mainstay of opinion newspaper dogma, as articulated in his Wednesday Twitter defense. It goes like this: “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counterarguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.” The Trump era, it appears, has crippled that formulation.

Full Memo from Publisher A.G. Sulzberger:

All,

I’m writing to share with you that James Bennet has resigned as Editorial Page Editor. Jim Dao, an Opinion deputy who oversees Op-Eds, will step off the masthead to move into a new role in the newsroom.

Last week we saw a significant breakdown in our editing processes, not the first we’ve experienced in recent years. James and I agreed that it would take a new team to lead the department through a period of considerable change.

Katie Kingsbury will step in as the acting Editorial Page Editor through the election in November. These changes are effective immediately.

James and Jim are both excellent journalists with enormous integrity who poured themselves into the mission of The Times. They fostered a culture of innovation, broadened the range of voices we publish and pushed us into new formats like video, graphics and audio. I’m grateful for their many contributions.

Katie has been instrumental in reimagining Opinion since she joined The Times in 2017 from The Boston Globe, where she served as managing editor for digital and won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. She will lead a process in the coming weeks and months to implement changes in how the Opinion department works and in how decisions get made. I will work with Katie to bring more editing support to the Opinion department, as well as to take other steps to ensure all our work meets our high standards. There are also fundamental questions to address about the changing role of opinion journalism in a digital world, and we will begin work to reinvent the op-ed format so that readers understand why we choose to elevate each argument and where it fits in the national debate.

None of these changes mark a retreat from The Times’s responsibility to help people understand a range of voices across the breadth of public debate. That role is as important as it’s ever been. We are a polarized nation whose shared understanding of the world has fractured. The Times, and journalism more broadly, plays an essential role in making sense of this moment, wrestling with the history that has brought us here and helping the public chart a path forward. That requires fearless engagement with ideas from across the political spectrum, particularly those we disagree with. Those ideas, like everything that appears in our pages, must adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and be communicated in a way that respects our readers.

Because we have faced questions in recent days about our core values, I want to say this plainly: As an institution we are opposed to racism in every corner of society. We are opposed to injustice. We believe deeply in principles of fairness, equality and human rights. Those values animate both our news report and our opinion report.

While this has been a painful week across the company, it has sparked urgent and important conversations. In the tough town hall questions, in the Slack channels, in the countless searching conversations I have had with many of you, I have heard an extraordinary passion for the mission of The Times.

As a company we have made real progress in recent years in becoming more diverse and inclusive, but must increase our efforts to ensure that this is a place that welcomes, supports and reflects the contributions of all of our employees. Leadership will share a concrete set of steps the company will take within a month.

Thank you for your dedication to helping us to live up to our highest ideals.

AG

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