James Bennet, then editor of the New York Times editorial page, in 2017 in New York. (Larry Neumeister/AP)
10 min

Controversy over an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) consumed the New York Times in June 2020 and claimed the job of then-editorial page editor James Bennet. Two-and-a-half years later, Bennet has shared some thoughts about the episode — and, in particular, the role of Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger.

“He set me on fire and threw me in the garbage and used my reverence for the institution against me,” Bennet recently told Ben Smith of Semafor. “This is why I was so bewildered for so long after I had what felt like all my colleagues treating me like an incompetent fascist.”

That might sound like the angst of a guy who’s still disgruntled at losing his job. And it is, for a compelling reason: Bennet is right. He’s right about Sulzberger, he’s right about the Cotton op-ed, and he’s right about the lessons that linger from his tumultuous final days at the Times.

His outburst in Semafor furnishes a toehold for reassessing one of the most consequential journalism fights in decades. To date, the lesson from the set-to — that publishing a senator arguing that federal troops could be deployed against rioters is unacceptable — will forever circumscribe what issues opinion sections are allowed to address. It’s also long past time to ask why more people who claim to uphold journalism and free expression — including, um, the Erik Wemple Blog — didn’t speak out then in Bennet’s defense.

It’s because we were afraid to.

On June 1, 2020, Cotton tweeted suggesting military intervention against unrest in U.S. cities stemming from the Black Lives Matter protests. “Anarchy, rioting, and looting needs to end tonight. If local law enforcement is overwhelmed and needs backup, let’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division. We need to have zero tolerance for this destruction,” he wrote. Twitter threatened to censor Cotton’s account over the comments but ultimately took no action.

According to two sources, Cotton’s initial pitch to the Times focused on Twitter’s alleged overreach in moderating its platform. The Times opinion section, however, was less interested in the social media dimension than the policy itself. Cotton’s office, which had previously published two op-eds in the Times — on the case for buying Greenland and a defense of the U.S. killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani — got to work. It delivered a 950-word essay exploring invocation of the Insurrection Act against rioters who destroyed property, and worse, amid the otherwise peaceful protests over the murder of George Floyd.

It was published on Wednesday, June 3, under a headline written by the Times: “Tom Cotton: Send In the Troops.”

A backlash swiftly combusted, with Times staffers at the forefront of the critique. Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, tweeted that the paper should have done a news story to push back against Cotton’s ideas, as opposed to “simply giv[ing] over our platform to spew dangerous rhetoric.” Astead W. Herndon, a national politics reporter, made a similar point, tweeting that “if electeds want to make provocative arguments let them withstand the questions and context of a news story, not unvarnished and unchecked.” There were other persuasive broadsides against the decision to publish Cotton.

Many Times staffers, however, forwent the rigor of argumentation and tweeted out the following line — or something similar — to express their disgust: “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.” The formulation came from the internal group Black@NYT and received the blessing of the NewsGuild of New York as “legally protected speech because it focused on workplace safety,” Smith, then the Times’s media columnist, reported at the time.

The “danger” tweets — along with a letter from Times employees slamming the op-ed — landed with impact. Although Sulzberger initially defended publication as furthering the “principle of openness to a range of opinions,” he bailed on that posture within hours. By the afternoon after publication, the paper had determined that the piece failed to “meet our standards,” according to a statement.

As Sulzberger flip-flopped, an astonishing up-is-down moment unfolded at the paper’s upper reaches. Whereas media outlets typically develop arguments to defend work that comes under attack, the opposite scenario played out over the Cotton op-ed: Top Times officials, according to three sources, scrambled to pulverize the essay in order to vindicate objections rolling in from Twitter. A post-publication fact-check was commissioned to comb through the op-ed for errors, according to the sources, even though it had undergone fact-checking before publication. The paper’s standards desk spearheaded work on an editor’s note.

Deputy editorial page editor James Dao, who pushed for publication of the piece, spent more than an hour on the phone with a Cotton aide that Thursday night to inventory alleged problems. Dao, says the aide, was pointedly unenthusiastic about the pursuit. “It sounded like he had a gun to his head and he had to find something,” the aide — who is no longer with Cotton’s office — told this blog.

The review didn’t deliver the factual bloodbath alleged by critics. The fact-check flagged a misquotation that should have been rendered as a paraphrase. It also examined objections to Cotton’s claim that “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” were “infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.” That topic was the focus of various conflicting official statements and news stories — some of them published by the Times — in the run-up to the Cotton op-ed and extending well beyond it.

The editor’s note asserted that the claims about antifa “have not been substantiated and have been widely questioned. Editors should have sought further corroboration of those assertions, or removed them from the piece.”

Such was the spirit of the editor’s note, which went heavy on regrets about tone, process and other squishy considerations. While asserting that the op-ed failed Times standards, it also claimed that the essay’s arguments were a “newsworthy part of the current debate” — a line that Dao championed, according to two sources. Elsewhere, it said the op-ed should have undergone greater scrutiny, even though at least five opinion editors participated in editing, according to sources. (National Review’s Rich Lowry reported on the process here.) Although Bennet said he hadn’t read the piece, he was involved in some early decisions about it, including the deletion of a criticism of Hannah-Jones. Other critiques from the editor’s note included that the essay needed “further substantial revisions”; that it contained an “overstatement” about police bearing the “brunt” of the rioting; that the tone was “needlessly harsh”; that more context was necessary; and that an Oxford comma was misplaced.

Okay, that last one is a joke.

Yet a more pathetic collection of 317 words would be difficult to assemble. In his recent comments, Bennet called the Times note a misguided effort “to mollify people.” But Bennet didn’t write the bloated, italicized nostra culpa, according to informed sources — it was a committee product headed by the standards desk, with extensive involvement from Sulzberger himself, sources say.

Sulzberger seemed disappointed upon being told that the post-publication fact-check hadn’t punctured the op-ed, according to a source involved in the process. The Erik Wemple Blog asked the Times for another example of an editor’s note apologizing for nonfactual issues. The Times didn’t answer that question, among others. A spokesperson issued this statement: “James is a talented journalist with deep integrity. We have great respect for him.”

The editor’s note teed up Bennet’s firing — technically, resignation — as editorial page editor. Media coverage of his departure noted that the op-ed was one of several storms under Bennet’s management; others included a June 2017 editorial that triggered a defamation lawsuit from Sarah Palin, an antisemitic cartoon and personnel fiascoes. The Cotton thing seemed like the last straw.

Except, in hindsight, it wasn’t a straw at all. In initially sticking up for the Times’s role in publishing controversial fare, Sulzberger had it right. The paper had published an opinion by a U.S. senator (and possible presidential candidate) advocating a lawful act by the president. That’s not to say it would have been a good idea: Elizabeth Goitein, an expert on national security law at the Brennan Center for Justice, says that invoking the Insurrection Act amid the Black Lives Matter protests would have been “inappropriate” because local authorities had a handle on the instances of unrest taking place “at the margins,” but that a deployment “likely would have fallen within the capacious bounds of this poorly drafted statute.”

As Jack Shafer wrote in Politico in 2020, the Times had a history of publishing provocative opinions. This particular example foreshadowed the ferocity that would have met any effort to act on Cotton’s heavy-handed prescription. Morning Consult, a decision-intelligence firm, conducted two polls that essentially bracketed publication of the op-ed, and found that public support for military intervention dropped 13 percentage points — a decline driven mostly by Democrats. Cameron Easley, managing editor of Morning Consult’s newsroom, recently told the Erik Wemple Blog that he couldn’t rule out the possibility that the Cotton uproar accounted for some of the drop, but pointed to a decline in protest activity over the span of the two polls. “Perception of the threat had been downgraded significantly,” said Easley.

The Twitter chain claiming “danger” to Times staffers suffered from the same journalistic failings leveled at the op-ed. It was an exercise in manipulative hyperbole brilliantly calibrated for immediate impact. “I actually knew what it meant to have a target on your back when you’re reporting for the New York Times,” Bennet told Smith — an apparent reference to his days reporting for the Times in the Middle East, where he narrowly escaped being kidnapped in 2004.

The Erik Wemple Blog has asked about 30 Times staffers whether they still believe their “danger” tweets and whether there was any merit in Bennet’s retort. Not one of them replied with an on-the-record defense. Such was the depth of conviction behind a central argument in l’affaire Cotton.

Our criticism of the Twitter outburst comes 875 days too late. Although the hollowness of the internal uproar against Bennet was immediately apparent, we responded with an evenhanded critique of the Times’s flip-flop, not the unapologetic defense of journalism that the situation required. Our posture was one of cowardice and midcareer risk management. With that, we pile one more regret onto a controversy littered with them.