An op-ed controversy led to a New York Times revolt. Here’s what happened and why the Times was wrong.

Your Friday Poynter Report

June 5, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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Two major metropolitan newspapers continued to deal with controversies of their own doing Thursday.

Let’s start with The New York Times and an op-ed that has infuriated staffers and readers alike, and that could have lasting ramifications.

Earlier this week, the Times editorial board ran an op-ed piece from Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton calling for the military to be deployed to cities during protests about the death of George Floyd, racial inequality and police brutality. Cotton’s over-the-top editorial included such phrases as “feckless politicians,” “orgy of violence” and “bands of miscreants.”

But aside from being embarrassingly over-written, the op-ed appeared dangerous. Cotton wrote, “delusional politicians in other cities refuse to do what’s necessary to uphold the rule of law.”

Do what’s necessary? What does that mean?

Readers accused the Times of publishing divisive and potentially harmful rhetoric that was suggesting something akin to martial law. The pushback was just as loud inside the Times as dozens of Times employees tweeted the same thing: “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.”

In a letter to leadership, an unspecified number of Times employees wrote, “We believe his message undermines the work we do, in the newsroom and in opinion, and violates our standards for ethical and accurate reporting for the public’s interest. It also jeopardizes our journalists’ ability to work safely and effectively on the streets.”

In a series of tweets, Times editorial page editor James Bennet defended the decision to publish the piece even though the Times reported late Thursday that he told staff he hadn’t even read it before it was published. In fact, it’s still not clear who read it or signed off on it before it was published.

Nevertheless, Bennet tweeted, “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.” He also tweeted, “We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton’s argument painful, even dangerous. We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate.”

That hardly calmed the storm.

Slate’s Ashley Feinberg reported that a Times customer service center reported cancellations in the hundreds, while many staffers continued to fume. New York Times media writer Marc Tracy quoted Times opinion contributor Roxane Gay as saying Cotton’s op-ed “was inflammatory and endorsing military occupation as if the constitution doesn’t exist.”

In a memo to staff, obtained by CNN’s Oliver Darcy, publisher A.G. Sulzberger said, “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.” He added that the Times doesn’t “publish just any argument” and any op-ed needs to be “accurate, good faith explorations of the issues of the day.”

In an article on the Times website Thursday, Bennet gave his reasons for publishing the op-ed. Bennet said he strongly opposed using federal troops and that he was “personally fearful that adding the military to the mix would only lead to more violence against the innocent.”

But, Bennet wrote, “We published Cotton’s argument in part because we’ve committed to Times readers to provide a debate on important questions like this. It would undermine the integrity and independence of The New York Times if we only published views that editors like me agreed with, and it would betray what I think of as our fundamental purpose — not to tell you what to think, but to help you think for yourself.”

That’s just a portion of what Bennet wrote. And while it’s admirable to publish various viewpoints, the troubling part of Bennet’s article was when he admitted that he was “fearful” that adding the military could lead to violence. That’s the fear of most people. And because the stakes are so high — literally life and death — allowing such thoughts to be expressed in the Times feels dangerous and irresponsible.

And it’s not as if Cotton’s op-ed was introducing a new idea that hadn’t been previously considered and thus was starting a worthwhile debate.

At this moment in time, when the country is so unsettled, Cotton’s op-ed is more harmful than good. If Cotton wanted to write such a thing, he could’ve used Twitter and not had help getting his word out from one of the biggest media companies in the world.

The Times is expected to hold a town hall with employees today where leadership will clearly have some explaining to do. Interestingly, just a few hours after Bennet’s article was published and after Bennet admitted to staff he hadn’t read the op-ed before it ran, the Times, through a spokesperson, put out this statement: “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 that we produce.”

Unfortunately, the town hall and review of practices were too late in this case. The damage has already been done.

One more Times thought

In moments like these, newspapers like to remind people that the editorial department is separate from the newsroom. That’s true. The two departments don’t consult with one another. They are completely independent from one another.

But papers can shout it as loud as they want and repeat it as often as they want. Most readers still don’t understand that. All they know, to use this case as an example, is something ran in “The New York Times.” They don’t distinguish between the newsroom and editorial.

And you know what? It’s not the fault of the readers. It’s something newspapers will never be able to get through to their readers and they need to know that every time something is published, especially by the editorial board.

The other controversy

The other newspaper still dealing with internal strife is The Philadelphia Inquirer, which I mentioned in Thursday’s newsletter. The headline on a column by Inga Saffron talking about the devastating and lasting impact destruction can have on a city and community was “Buildings matter, too.”

By playing off the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” the headline was offensive and tone deaf. And staff at the Inquirer were, naturally, upset. Many refused to work on Thursday, calling in to say they were “sick and tired.”

Journalists of color at the Inquirer sent a letter to leadership that said, in part, “We are tired of hasty apologies and silent corrections when someone screws up. We’re tired of workshops and worksheets and diversity panels. We’re tired of working for months and years to gain the trust of communities — communities that have long had good reason to not trust our profession — only to see that trust eroded in an instant by careless, unempathetic decisions.”

In an article written by Inquirer editors, the paper apologized and tried to explain the headline, calling it “unacceptable.” They wrote that the process was normal, meaning the headline was written by one editor and read by another.

“This incident makes clear that changes are needed, and we are committing to start immediately,” the article said.

The editors went on to say the outlet will review their editing process and continue to have training and discussions around “cultural sensitivity.”

The letter ended with, “Finally, we apologize to Inquirer journalists, particularly those of color, who expressed sadness, anger, and embarrassment in a two-hour newsroom-wide meeting Wednesday. An enormous amount of pressure sits on the shoulders of black and brown Inquirer journalists, and mistakes like this, made by the publication they work for, are profoundly demoralizing. We hear you and will continue to listen as we work to improve.”

Double standard

Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

Stick to sports or express yourself? Fox News’ Laura Ingraham took plenty of heat Thursday — justifiably so — over her very different reactions to athletes talking about political and social issues. In a perfect example of videotape never dying and past words living forever, Ingraham’s hypocrisy hinted at a bias. And was just another example of why she has little credibility for many.

In 2018, on her primetime show, Ingraham told NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant (both African American) to “shut up and dribble” after they spoke out against President Donald Trump. But this week when talking about the comments of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (who is White) saying he disagrees with athletes kneeling during the national anthem, Ingraham said, “Well, he’s allowed to have his view about what kneeling and the flag means to him. I mean, he’s a person. He has some worth, I imagine. I mean, this is beyond football, though.”

Here’s a tweet with clips from both shows.

In an interview with Yahoo Finance, Brees said he would never agree with people kneeling during the national anthem because he respects the anthem and military too much. Brees was heavily criticized, including by teammates, for comments that certainly seemed dismissive of African Americans and the reason why many athletes kneel for anthems. Brees has since apologized.

James responded to Ingraham on Twitter: “If you still haven’t figured out why the protesting is going on. Why we’re acting as we are is because we are simply F-N tired of this treatment right here! Can we break it down for you any simpler than this right here???? And to my people don’t worry I won’t stop until I see.”

An important piece

My Poynter colleague Doris Truong wrote a powerful column asking newsroom leaders to step up and do their part to support journalists of color at this time. She writes:

We have been in agony. We are always in agony.

Because we cannot hide our race.

Because our communities disproportionately suffer.

Less pay. Worse health care. Redlining. Food deserts. Missed educational opportunities.

But still we show up. Are you listening?

What she writes not only applies to journalism organizations, but any business. Read it. It’s important.

Pulled from protest coverage

Ryan Deto of Pittsburgh’s City Paper reported that Alexis Johnson, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has been pulled from covering protests because of a tweet she sent on May 31. Johnson tweeted out four photos of garbage piled all over the ground and wrote, “Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!! …. oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.”

Deto reported that the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh sent a letter to union members at the paper claiming the Post-Gazette felt Johnson “showed bias and as such, could no longer cover anything related to the protests of the police murder of George Floyd and the systemic racism that for too long has been a dirty segment of our national fabric.”

When asked for comment, Johnson referred questions to Post-Gazette reporter Mike Fuoco, who is the guild president. Fuoco confirmed the story and said there were no new developments. He previously told City Paper, “This is such an extraordinary case, and with Alexis’ permission, we wanted to let our members know what was going on. We are appalled. And our international (union) is appalled.”

Post-Gazette executive editor Keith Burris did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s shameful Johnson would be suspended for this. Other than being completely hilarious, her tweet was tame and not proof that she couldn’t objectively do her job.

It’s not surprising to see the Post-Gazette going off the deep end over it. This is not the first controversy the Post-Gazette has had in recent years involving race. Publisher John Robinson Block, a supporter of President Trump, once ordered up an editorial questioning racism that ran on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Block then fired a popular editorial cartoonist who was often critical of Trump.

Facebook’s new policy

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Starting next week in the United States, Facebook will label pages, posts and ads from state-controlled media outlets. That will include outlets such as Russia Today and China’s Xinhua. Eventually, those labels will appear in other countries.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, told CNN’s Hadas Gold, “The concern for us is state media combines the agenda setting power of a media entity with the strategic backing of a state. If you’re reading coverage of a protest, it’s really important you know who is writing that coverage and what motivation they have. The goal of this is to ensure the public will see and understand who is behind it.”

Check it out

Good panel set for tonight’s “Washington Week.” (8 p.m. Eastern on most PBS stations.) The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin, “PBS NewsHour’s” Amna Nawaz, CBS News’ Paula Reid and ABC News’ Pierre Thomas join host Robert Costa.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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  • Re publishing Cotton’s “argument”, it’s not a matter of publishing a broad set of views — the Times already does that. The question should be whether to confer the the prestige of the Times editorial page on an argument and thereby legitimizing it. That’s what they’ve done in the name of being being “newsworthy”.