The controversy at The New York Times is over more than just one op-ed. The future of the Times could be at stake.

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June 8, 2020
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James Bennet is out as editor of editorials at The New York Times. He resigned Sunday. Now, the key question:

Did he deserve to lose his job? Or was he railroaded by an internal revolt and external criticism from those who simply didn’t agree with the op-ed that led to his resignation?

And what might it all mean for the future of, perhaps, America’s best newspaper?

In case you missed what happened, here’s a quick explanation: The Times ran an op-ed from Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who said the military should be deployed to deal with protests across the country. Times staffers and others said the op-ed was dangerous, threatening and not factual. More than 800 Times staffers signed a letter objecting to it, saying it put people of color in jeopardy.

At first, publisher A.G. Sulzberger and Bennet defended the op-ed, saying the Times should welcome views from all sides. But then Bennet said it was wrong to run the op-ed, that it was rushed into publication, that the editing process was flawed and, shockingly, then admitted to not even reading the op-ed before it ran online. The Times addressed the issue in a company-wide town hall on Friday and, while Times staffers remained angry and confused, it appeared Bennet would keep his job.

Then came Sunday’s sudden resignation, which reportedly surprised staffers at the Times.

On the surface, it would appear Bennet’s resignation is a result of what happened last week. But Sulzberger’s note to staff made it seem as if this was merely the final straw. He wrote, “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.”

But you have to assume that if the Cotton op-ed had never happened, Bennet would still have one of the most powerful and influential jobs in American journalism.

So that brings us back to the heart of this matter: Should the Times have run the op-ed or not?

Here’s the argument for running it: Op-eds are often unpopular with the majority and are meant to spark conversation. Just because you might disagree with an op-ed doesn’t mean the author doesn’t have the right to express his or her viewpoint.

In this case, the author is a powerful and influential political figure, perhaps even a future presidential candidate. He is hardly alone in his thinking. Others close to President Donald Trump feel the same. Shouldn’t we be made aware of this? Shouldn’t we have a debate on something that is actually being considered? And, doesn’t the Times editorial section have a duty to provide viewpoints that represent more than just the way they might think?

But the counter-argument: Cotton’s op-ed makes claims and assertions to back up his case that simply are not true. He wrote, “nihilist criminals are simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction, with cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.” Yet there is no proof antifa is involved.

Cotton also asserted police have “bore the brunt of the violence,” yet that, too, cannot be proven.

And, as New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote, “Cotton notes that President George H.W. Bush sent federal troops into Los Angeles in 1992 to quell the riots that broke out after the police who beat Rodney King were acquitted. But he doesn’t tell readers that Bush did so at the invitation of California’s governor.

“That’s very different from the federal government overriding local elected authorities and occupying their states and cities, which seems to be what Cotton is proposing. It’s an idea that appalls many military leaders.”

In other words, it would appear Cotton’s opinion — and his case for convincing readers his opinion has merit — is not based on truth or fairness.

Appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, Washington Post Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah said, “Opinion journalism is still journalism. It still has to go through fact-checking. You make your argument, but it needs to be based in fact and it needs to not mischaracterize reality in order to fit your agenda.”

And that is the issue with Cotton’s piece, which appears to have not gone through the proper editing process and has serious questions about its accuracy. Perhaps the Times would have been better off doing a news story about Cotton’s recommendation and, that way, could have asked him direct questions, checked facts and corrected any false or misleading claims that might not even be constitutional.

Still, in the end, Bennet’s resignation feels like more than just one ill-advised op-ed. CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote, “One Times staffer said the episode had prompted meaningful conversations about systemic racial biases and diversity inside the newsroom. The person said such conversations have gone deeper than simply ensuring a diverse staff and have been about larger issues regarding race and The Times’ role in society.”

Unless Sulzberger goes into details, there’s no way to know the full reason behind Bennet leaving the paper. That leads me to the next item …

The rest of this story

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

This Bennet-Cotton op-ed flap does make it feel even more like the Times is at a crossroads — with a new generation of staffers pushing back against Times leadership and the traditional view that journalism is there to chronicle the news, not make it or influence it.

That friction has been more noticeable since Trump took office. Executive editor Dean Baquet has said several times, “We are not the opposition party.”

In an interview last year with the BBC, Baquet said, “I make it very clear when I hire, I make it very clear when I talk to the staff, I’ve said it repeatedly, that we are not supposed to be the leaders of the resistance to Donald Trump. That is an untenable, non-journalistic, immoral position for The New York Times.”

I happen to think Baquet is absolutely correct. I’m not sure everyone at the Times agrees. And, I predict, that will be a major topic of debate at the Times in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Bennet appears to have been caught up in this debate between what journalism is and what it should be and it cost him his job. However, Sulzberger told New York Times media columnist Ben Smith on Sunday to not interpret Bennet’s resignation as a philosophical shift at the Times.

Still, Smith wrote, “… the shift in mainstream American media — driven by a journalism that is more personal, and reporters more willing to speak what they see as the truth without worrying about alienating conservatives — now feels irreversible. It is driven in equal parts by politics, the culture and journalism’s business model, relying increasingly on passionate readers willing to pay for content rather than skittish advertisers.”

If Smith is correct — and I do think there is evidence to suggest that he is — the Times could be headed down a slippery and potentially dangerous road that might make staffers and some readers happy, but it is the antithesis of what objective, but contextualized journalism is supposed to be.

Another punishment

James Bennet’s resignation was not the only fallout from the Cotton op-ed. James Dao, who oversees op-eds for the Times editorial section, is being booted off the masthead and will be reassigned in the newsroom. On Friday, in a tweet, he took responsibility for the Cotton op-ed:

“I oversaw the acceptance and review of the Cotton Op-Ed. None of this is on @rubensteinadam. The fault here should be directed at the @nytopinion leadership team and not at an intrepid and highly competent junior staffer.”

Meet the new boss

Katie Kingsbury will be the Times’ acting editorial page editor through the presidential election in November. She joined the Times in 2017 from the Boston Globe, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2015 for her work on low wages and mistreatment of workers in the restaurant industry. She also edited the Globe’s editorials on race and education that won a 2016 Pulitzer.

One of her most noteworthy moments at the Times so far was being in charge of the section when the editorial board infamously recommended not one, but two candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Neither was Joe Biden.

Kingsbury was in charge because Bennet had to recuse himself. His brother, Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, was running for president at the time.

One more thing about the Times

Many had considered James Bennet to be one of the leading contenders to become executive editor when Dean Baquet retires — presumably in 2022.

New York Times’ media columnist Ben Smith wrote, “The Cotton debacle had clearly endangered Mr. Bennet’s future. When the highly regarded Sunday Business editor, Nick Summers, said in a Google Hangout meeting last Thursday that he wouldn’t work for Mr. Bennet, he drew agreement from colleagues in a chat window.”

Smith’s column

Ben Smith’s Sunday column addresses much more than just the Times’ op-ed situation. So be sure to check out: “Inside the Revolts Erupting in America’s Big Newsrooms.”

Big resignation in Philly

The top editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer resigned over the weekend following an inappropriate headline that appeared in the paper last week. The controversy started when the Inquirer ran a headline that read “Buildings Matter, Too” over a column about buildings and businesses being burned and looted during civil unrest in Philadelphia.

However, after speaking with several Inquirer journalists on Sunday, I get the sense that the headline — and how it even made it to print — is just the culmination of issues that led to executive editor Stan Wischnowski resigning. According to those staffers, Wischnowski, in general, was liked, and he has journalistic chops, but there are questions about diversity at the Inquirer.

Immediately after last week’s headline, which was a tone-deaf play on “Black Lives Matter,” there was pushback inside and outside the paper. Journalists of color at the Inquirer wrote a letter objecting to the headline and how it could have appeared. Many staged a walkout Friday, calling in to work saying they were “sick and tired.” The issues included complaints about a lack of diversity, pay inequalities and other racial tensions that have fallen on deaf ears.

After co-signing a letter of apology last week for the headline, Wischnowski resigned after 20 years at the paper. He will leave June 12. Publisher Lisa Hughes wrote, “We will use this moment to evaluate the organizational structure and processes of the newsroom, assess what we need, and look both internally and externally for a seasoned leader who embodies our values, embraces our shared strategy, and understands the diversity of the communities we serve.”

For now, editor Gabe Escobar and managing editor Patrick Kerkstra will lead the newsroom.

Wischnowski is credited with helping the Inquirer and sister paper, the Daily News, build a more digital presence. He was in charge of the newsroom when it won a Public Service Pulitzer Prize for a series about violence in Philadelphia schools.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig R. McCoy wrote that even before the headline controversy, the Inquirer had a staff-wide Zoom call scheduled to discuss race and the pressures on journalists of color. McCoy wrote, “The session turned intense and emotional. Some journalists could be seen in tears in their Zoom frames. Critics, black and white, denounced the pace of change at the paper, sharply criticizing both coverage and the racial and gender mix of the staff. Several journalists pointed out that the newspaper could muster only one male African American reporter to cover the protests and police response convulsing a city that is majority minority.”

Following Wischnowski’s resignation, Inquirer journalist Diane Mastrull, who leads the NewsGuild of Greater Philadelphia, wrote to union members, “To my colleagues of color, please take heart that you have been heard. But you must not grow silent. There is much within the Inquirer that still needs to change.”

Hughes followed up with another internal memo to staff that laid out steps to create a more diverse newsroom. She wrote, “The events of this past week, including the offensive headline we ran, highlight that we have much work to do in our efforts to address diversity, equity and inclusion across the whole organization. While we strive to produce reporting that shines a spotlight on the systemic racism throughout our community, we must also be willing to critically evaluate our own internal failures. This work must go beyond panels, seminars and workshops. And it should be the responsibility of all of us, not just our journalists of color, to drive this change.”

Controversy in Pittsburgh

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

I also wrote last week about a controversy in Pittsburgh when an African American reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was yanked off protest coverage following a humorous tweet that showed trash strewn all over that wasn’t from a protest, but from tailgaters at an old Kenny Chesney concert.

Post-Gazette leadership still hasn’t responded to questions from media columnists (including me) and even staffers at the P-G, who are furious over reporter Alexis Johnson being pulled off protest coverage. Many were using the hashtag #IStandWithAlexis on their tweets. Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey tweeted, “I stand in solidarity with the Black journalists who have been barred by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from covering protests. Silencing Black voices is never okay, but especially during such a critical time for civil rights in our Nation. #IStandWithAlexis.”

The decision by Post-Gazette leadership is appalling and shameful.

In an interview with Pittsburgh City Paper’s Ryan Deto published Sunday, Johnson said she was overwhelmed and grateful for the support she has received from colleagues and others.

“For my credibility to be called into question because of the tweet was very disheartening,” Johnson said in the interview. “Black people have been covering these stories for centuries, for decades. We have felt the trauma, but we are still going to work, and we have been able to do that job accurately and fairly.”

Best interview

“Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan. (Courtesy: CBS News)

Kudos to an outstanding job by CBS “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan during her interview Sunday morning with Attorney General William Barr.

Brennan superbly laid out her questions, all based on reporting, that pushed Barr — especially about the scene last week when peaceful protestors were moved out of the way so President Trump could have a photo-op at a church near the White House. Here’s one such exchange:

Brennan: “Did you think it was appropriate for them to use smoke bombs, tear gas, pepper balls, projectiles at what appeared to be peaceful protesters?”

Barr: “They were not peaceful protesters. And that’s one of the big lies that the media seems to be perpetuating at this point.”

Brennan: “Three of my CBS colleagues were there. We talked to them.”

Barr: “Yeah.”

Barr said there were “three warnings,” but Brennan said CBS reporters heard no warnings.

There was also another moment when Brennan asked about tear gas being used — something Barr denied, saying there was no tear gas. When Brennan called it “chemical irritants,” Barr said, “Pepper spray is not a chemical irritant. It’s not a chemical.”

When Brennan asked him about that, Barr said it was “pepper balls” that were used.

It was excellent work by Brennan, not backing down from Barr, letting Barr’s own words speak for themselves and, quite frankly, making him look bad. And she did it without getting loud, disrespectful or letting Barr hijack the interview.

Hot type

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

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  • What’s missing in this and other articles about this is the fact that the Times apparently solicited the piece from Cotton — they ASKED him to write it. This takes it to a whole other level, but only one article I’ve seen points that out (on Vox).