New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet certainly isn’t afraid of controversy. His first marquee hire, Bret Stephens, debuted with a stunning display of climate denialism in which he was forced to correct the only line containing any actual science. Bennet has published the ravings of established conspiracy theorist Louise Mensch and allowed Blackwater founder Erik Prince to run what was essentially an advertisement for private war. However, Bennet’s latest misadventure seems to have finally pushed his frustrated colleagues to the breaking point. What else he could have expected when he decided to showcase Sen. Tom Cotton writing a column demanding a military crackdown on protesters, though, is unclear.
In the column, Cotton wrote: “One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers. But local law enforcement in some cities desperately needs backup, while delusional politicians in other cities refuse to do what’s necessary to uphold the rule of law.” With protesters (lawbreaking and otherwise) already getting beaten senselessly by police daily, it’s hard to read Cotton’s reference to doing “what’s necessary” as anything other than an incitement to mass murder or, at the very least, incitement to government violence against its own people, especially considering his tweet from several days ago essentially calling for just that:
Within hours after the column was first published, Times employees were already expressing disapproval in the paper’s #standards room in Slack, a group chat platform widely used by media companies. In response, a standards editor assured onlookers that things were being handled: “James Bennet is talking with [senior vice president for corporate communications] Eileen Murphy now. [Standards editor] Phil [Corbett] also asked him to write a short statement for him or Jim to tweet.” Bennet did indeed make a statement defending his choice to publish the column later that evening, writing in a tweet that “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.”
This did not, however, assuage employees’ concerns. “Neither Bennet, [deputy editorial page editor James] Dao or [deputy editorial page editor Kathleen] Kingsbury are in this channel,” wrote one employee. “Yes,” another added, “please let us know where to direct our complaints! This is really affecting the work we have put in over the past few weeks and years.”
In one Slack room, two employees who work in the Times’ customer service center were stunned by the rate of cancellations.
Employee A: they have to first get aligned on what the company is going to say
which is always tougher
Employee B: 172 cancels so far for this … every time I refresh it just grows faster and faster
Employee A: 203 editorial cancellations between 4 - 5 = the highest hourly total ever in the data we have
buckle up everyone!
Elsewhere, in the newspaper’s #standards Slack room, one concerned employee voiced his own complaint:
Employee C: I just want to emphasize, as the paper’s leadership processes all of this, that the serious concerns in the newsroom about pieces like this are not simply coming from some activist wing of young employees who don’t grasp our standards and mission, or who think that the Op-Ed page as constructed should never publish anything that challenges readers. We care deeply about holding The Times’s reputation. But to that point, as others have put it better than me, this does harm to our newsgathering right now, erodes trust with readers and will reflect poorly on us in the historical record.
Twenty-eight employees voiced their approval of the comment by responding with the plus emoji. Fifty minutes later, Phil Corbett, the Times’ standards editor, offered a semi-acknowledgment of the employee’s concerns:
Phil Corbett: Thanks to all for the comments. I know you all understand that we try to maintain separation between the newsroom and opinion. But our colleagues in Opinion are definitely aware of the concerns being raised, both internally and externally, and I think they are planning to say more about the thinking behind the Cotton piece.
Still, in yet another Slack room, some employees asked why comments hadn’t been turned on for Cotton’s article. I’d been wondering about this too, and a former employee on the opinion side of the paper told me the section’s pieces almost always had open comments sections. After consulting with unnamed others, an employee with the Times’ reader center returned to the Slack room with little in the way of concrete answers. Apparently, the comments had been turned off and could not be turned on because of “staffing issues”—which is to say, there weren’t enough people working to properly moderate what would have inevitably been an overwhelming influx of words from angry readers. At some point prior to 9 p.m., after repeated complaints from employees, the Times finally managed to locate “some moderation help,” according to a Slack message posted in #standards. At the time of publication, Cotton’s piece has received nearly 600 reader comments.
Despite management’s repeated requests that reporters not criticize the work of their opinion colleagues, news-side employees began to make their unhappiness known publicly. At first, they mostly tweeted in vague terms.
As more and more Times employees joined their colleagues in voicing their disapproval, the tweets started becoming bolder, calling out the column directly. Soon, seemingly countless Times employees on both the news and opinion sides were tweeting some variation of the following, directly criticizing their own paper.
This sort of mass, public pushback from the Times’ own employees is wholly unprecedented. Previously, Times executive editor Dean Baquet had chastised reporters for so much as clicking “like” on a tweet that criticized a colleague. But after countless stories of unrest at the New York Times and complaints from younger reporters falling on deaf ears, it seemed Times reporters had reached a breaking point.
Some current opinion employees, who are typically given a little more freedom in how much of their own viewpoints they’re allowed to express, were similarly scathing in their critiques.
A former opinion editor, current Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Sewell Chan, felt compelled to speak out against Bennet’s choice to publish the column.
Around 10 p.m., Times employees put out a public statement through their union excoriating management for its “irresponsible choice” in publishing the column and for “promoting hate.”
Meanwhile, the Times was scrambling internally to try to contain any further damage. About an hour after the guild’s statement went out, a social media editor popped into the #opinion Slack room to make sure no one was planning any further promotion.
Employee D: Hey all, I wanted to check in about who is running Opinion’s Twitter tonight? just want to make sure we are careful about what is being tweeted so that we don’t get another total media crisis
Employee E: Hi [redacted] I’m here. We’ve had instructions not to social the Cotton piece any further so that shouldn’t come up
Finally, at 11:23 a.m. this morning, New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger addressed the column in an email to the company with the subject line “This moment”:
Everyone at The Times should feel pride in the brave, rigorous and empathetic work we’ve published, day after day, through this historic moment of upheaval. This week alone, we reconstructed the killing of George Floyd, investigated the President’s use of tear gas on peaceful protesters, exposed disproportionate police force against black people, and reported on-the-ground from Minneapolis about the city’s history of racism.
I’m writing today because, for many, pride in this work has been overshadowed by the disappointment and hurt felt over an Op-Ed we published online yesterday afternoon.
I’ve already heard from many of you and will do more listening in the days ahead, starting with smaller groups of our black colleagues, who are covering this story and living it at the same time. I know James, Dean and other members of the journalistic leadership will do the same. And we have an employee town hall tomorrow, where leaders from news, Opinion and business will be available for questions, including about the Op-Ed.
In the meantime, I want to say two things. The first is to acknowledge the broader concerns I’ve heard, particularly from black colleagues for whom this moment feels both unprecedented and painfully familiar. The second is to make absolutely clear where The Times stands on the issue at the heart of this moment.
I’ve heard from journalists on the front lines of this story about the trauma of watching brutality replayed on endless loops on television and social media. About conversations with your children that have brought you to tears. About being afraid to walk down the street, get in your car, or—particularly—put your safety on the line reporting from inside the protests. You’ve told me about boiling frustrations over entrenched inequalities that, as our colleagues have reported, are a matter of life and death.
Throughout this crisis and over the last several days, the Editorial Board has used our institutional voice to tackle many of these issues. In powerful, unapologetic language, we’ve defended the protests, the urgency of the issues underlying them, and the First Amendment protections that should guarantee the protestors the right to share “rage born of despair,” as we put it, without the fear of retaliation.
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. We see that as a source of strength, allowing us to provide readers a diversity of perspectives that is all too rare in modern media. We don’t publish just any argument—they need to be accurate, good faith explorations of the issues of the day—and there are many reasons why Op-Eds are denied publication. It is clear many believe this piece fell outside of the realm of acceptability, representing dangerous commentary in an explosive moment that should not have found a home in The Times, even as a counterpoint to our own institutional view. I believe in the principle of openness to a range of opinions, even those we may disagree with, and this piece was published in that spirit. But it’s essential that we listen to and reflect on the concerns we’re hearing, as we would with any piece that is the subject of significant criticism. I will do so with an open mind.
Our journalistic mission—to seek the truth and help people understand the world—could not be more important than it is in this moment of upheaval. But so is the work we must do among ourselves, to listen to each other, and support each other. One of my most important responsibilities as we do so is to protect your safety so that you can do your vital work. There is nothing this institution takes more seriously, and I believe our long track record shows that in moments of crisis—whether on the front lines or in an ICU—The Times will do whatever it takes to protect our journalists. That commitment is unwavering.
I want to end by quoting from an editorial we wrote this week calling for sweeping police reforms. These are the words we stand behind as an institution. “Justice is still being postponed,” we wrote. “Racial inequality remains rampant in wealth, housing, employment, education—and enforcement of the law. This is not news, but it is the responsibility of all those in power to recognize and fix it.”
I look forward to speaking with as many of you as possible in the days ahead.
While Sulzberger acknowledged that many of his employees believed the column fell “outside of the realm of acceptability,” he largely ignored any factual complaints. Those are due to be brought to him later today, in the following letter, which as of midday had been signed by nearly 500 New York Times employees:
Dear James, Katie, Jim, Dean, A.G., Mark and Meredith,
As employees, we write to express our deep concern about the publication of an Op-Ed piece from Senator Tom Cotton, titled “Send In the Troops.”
The Op-Ed from Cotton calls for the military to be brought in as Americans are protesting racism and police brutality in the United States. 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.
Although his piece specifically refers to looters as the targets of military action, his proposal would no doubt encourage further violence. Invariably, violence, official and unofficial, disproportionately hurts black and brown people. It also jeopardizes our journalists’ ability to work safely and effectively on the streets.
As Dean and Joe wrote in a recent note to the newsroom staff, “We are reporting on a story that does not have a direct precedent in our lifetimes.”
Our ability to rise to this occasion depends on values the paper has long espoused: a commitment to a balanced and factual report and a promise to readers that we will be there, on the ground, to bring them the unbiased news.
We understand the Opinion department’s commitment to publish a diversity of views, but editorial management’s inadequate vetting of this view gravely undermines the work we do every day. If Cotton’s call to arms is to be conveyed to our readers at all, it should be subject to rigorous questioning and rebuttal of its shaky facts and gross assumptions. For instance, Cotton writes that Antifa has “infiltrated protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.” In fact, we have reported that this is misinformation. Though Cotton claims protesters have been primarily responsible for violence, our own reporting shows that in many cities police have escalated violence. Other claims, like that the “riots were carnivals for the thrill-seeking rich,” are not backed up by fact. At one point, Cotton misquotes the U.S. Constitution. This is a particularly vulnerable moment in American history. Cotton’s Op-Ed pours gasoline on the fire.
In publishing an Op-Ed that appears to call for violence, promotes hate, and rests its arguments on several factual inaccuracies while glossing over other matters that require—and were not met with—expert legal interpretation, we fail our readers. Choosing to present this point of view without added context leaves members of the American public—whom our newspaper aims to serve and inform—vulnerable to harm. Heeding a call to “send in the troops” has historically resulted in harm to black and brown people, like the ones who are vital members of The New York Times family.
We fail our sources and freelancers—many of whom expressed their unwillingness to further work with us because of this piece—by unfairly applying scrutiny to subjects we cover without applying the same rigorous interrogation of our own institution. And we jeopardize our reporters’ ability to work safely and effectively.
A newsroom has a responsibility to hold power to account, not amplify powerful voices without context and caution.
We ask that The Times take the following actions:
A commitment to the thorough vetting, fact-checking, and real-time rebuttal of Opinion pieces, including seeking perspective and debate from across the desk’s diverse staff.
An editor’s note—or ideally, a fully reported follow-up—examining the facts of Cotton’s Op-Ed.
A commitment that Cotton’s Op-Ed not appear in any future print edition.
Staff shortages on the Community team should be addressed immediately, as readers need an opportunity to express themselves.
Not everyone agrees with what is published by The Times, and we expect that. We are not here to please but to inform, even of uncomfortable truths. Our standards cannot be bent to suit what is already published; we ask instead that everything The Times publishes, in News and Opinion, be held to evenly applied and rigorous standards across the paper.
The mission of The New York Times is to “seek the truth and help people understand the world.” Cotton’s Op-Ed falls far short.
Still, even as the conflict raged, there were a few current Times opinion employees who remained proud of their paper’s call for the military to suppress domestic protests.
And at least one other former opinion employee found a different sort of affirmation in Cotton’s words. “I’m fucking glad I quit,” the former employee told me. “And I’m glad I’m not remotely complicit in what amounts to inciting murder.”