The New York Times staff revolt over Tom Cotton’s op-ed, explained

This week, the New York Times staff revolted against its editors.

The inciting incident was the decision to publish an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) titled “Send In the Troops.” Claiming that “rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy,” Cotton argued that soldiers be sent as “backup” for the police to end the violence.

“One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” the senator wrote.

Shortly after the column’s publication on Wednesday evening, a number of Times staffers began tweeting a screenshot of the piece’s headline captioned with the same phrase: “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.” Dozens of Times staff members sent out variants over the course of the evening, with black staffers taking the lead; many non-Times journalists tweeted the same message in solidarity.

James Bennet, the editor of the opinion section, wrote a Twitter thread explaining the decision to run the op-ed, but it wasn’t enough for many Times staffers (Bennet later admitted he hadn’t read the piece pre-publication). The complaints from Times staffers continued to roll in on Thursday; several used a sick day to take the day off in protest, and many staged a virtual walkout.

Late on Thursday, the Times issued a statement apologizing for the decision — blaming a “rushed editorial process” for an op-ed that “did not meet our standards.” The paper vowed to reduce the number of op-eds going forward and step up its fact-checking process. And at a Friday meeting, Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger unequivocally denounced the piece, saying it “should not have been published.”

One narrative of these events, circulated most prominently by staff editor Bari Weiss in a Thursday tweet thread, cast the conflict in ideological terms: an internal war between free speech advocates and young social justice warriors. But Weiss’s characterization was widely rejected by her colleagues; several Times reporters I spoke to, all of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, cited professional concerns as the reason for the public disagreement. (Times representatives did not respond to my request for comment.)

They argued that elements of Bennet’s op-ed page — including Weiss, deputy editor James Dao (who oversaw the Cotton piece), and columnist Bret Stephens — have elevated trolling the Times’ liberal readership into a kind of raison d’être, one that has led to the publication of poor-quality material and damaged the ability of other staffers to do their jobs.

“Does op-ed care at all about how its actions affect the newsroom whose legitimacy and sweat it trades on in order to sling hot takes? It’s not clear that they do,” one Times staffer told me.

This internal staff conflict, insular as it may seem to outsiders, speaks to a fundamental question not only about the Times but all of mainstream journalism.

It’s not a debate about whether the Times should have conservative voices at all. The op-ed page employs Ross Douthat and David Brooks as staff columnists and regularly publishes outside contributions by Republicans and conservative thinkers, mostly without serious controversy.

Rather, it’s a question of how journalists should think about their roles as guardians of mainstream discourse. Does every idea that’s popular in power, no matter how poorly considered, deserve some kind of respectful airing in mainstream publications? Or are there boundaries, both of quality of argument and moral decency, where editors need to draw the line — especially in the Trump era?

Why the Cotton op-ed was such a flashpoint

Broadly speaking, traditional newspapers like the Times draw pretty strict distinctions between their news and opinion sections: separate editors, separate contributors, separate missions. These lines are fuzzy intellectually — sometimes news writers analyze news in a way that reads like opinion, sometimes columnists break previously unreported news — but taken very seriously institutionally. The idea is for reporters to appear unbiased and unattached to the provocative opinions expressed by their opinion colleagues, the editorial board (which writes unsigned opinion articles), and the outside contributors they publish.

After James Bennet was hired to lead the Times opinion section, he made it clear that part of his mission would be challenging the Times’s mostly liberal readership with views they don’t agree with. This is a point he’s been explicit on throughout his tenure.

“We owe our readers an honest struggle over the right paths ahead, not a pretense that we’re in possession of God’s own map,” he wrote in a 2018 memo. “That means being willing to challenge our own assumptions; it means being open to counter-arguments even as we advance our own convictions; it means listening to voices that we may object to and even sometimes find obnoxious, provided they meet the same tests of intellectual honesty, respect for others and openness.”

In practice, however, Bennet’s approach to this goal has frustrated not only Times readers but some Times reporters and editors, who believe he’s pushed out low-quality articles on hot-button issues in the name of listening to “obnoxious” views.

The Cotton op-ed provoked such a strong backlash not only because of the incredibly high stakes of the argument for staffers — especially black ones — but also because it crystallized this internal critique of Bennet’s tenure.

The core thesis of Cotton’s argument is that American streets were beset by an “orgy of violence” that “has nothing to do with George Floyd.” Rather, “nihilist criminals are simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction” — and must be put down by an overwhelming show of force by the US military, as local police are simply not up to the task.

Cotton provides no hard evidence that the rioting has overwhelmed local police; the best reporting suggests the looting is significantly less devastating than the 1992 LA riots (the last time the military was called in to restore order). Cotton asserts that deploying the military would calm the situation, but he does not make any clear argument as to why this would be the case.

In fact, we have good reason to believe that more militarized displays of force from police tend to turn peaceful protests violent. It’s entirely possible the military would make things worse.

This is the meaning of the protest that “running this op-ed puts black New York Times reporters in danger”: If Trump were to send in the troops, it could lead to harm to Times reporters who are covering protests or merely walking near them while black.

Only one line in the piece acknowledges that the protests are primarily peaceful — “a majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants” — and there is no acknowledgment that governors and mayors don’t actually want the military deployed. It’s not clear, reading Cotton’s argument, how the military could distinguish between “peaceful protesters” and “looters.” It comes across as a call to put down the largely peaceful racial justice demonstrations by force, over the objections of local authorities.

It also contained a significant factual distortion. Cotton argued that “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” were “infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.” There’s vanishingly little public evidence to support the idea that this a large-scale problem. A May 31 FBI report from the Washington field office found “no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence” in looting. The Times itself reported that claims of widescale antifa involvement in the violence are, by one metric, “the biggest piece of protest misinformation” currently spreading in reports on the protests.

The problem with the piece wasn’t just its call for potentially deadly use of force, though that was part of it — it’s that it was bad journalism.

“We are well served by robust and ideologically diverse public discourse that includes radical, liberal, and conservative voices,” tweeted Roxane Gay, a Times writer and public intellectual who writes about social issues. “[Cotton’s piece] is not that. His piece was inflammatory and endorsing military occupation as if the constitution doesn’t exist.”

The bigger context for the Times revolt

Since Donald Trump’s election, there have been running discussions in every mainstream media organization about how to cover a man who openly treats them as the enemy. At the same time, subscribing to a paper like the Times has become a kind of performance of resistance for liberal Americans (who can then threaten to unsubscribe from the paper when it publishes a provocative op-ed in Bennet’s section).

There’s a subtle interplay at work between the need to cover the president fairly despite his anti-media tirades, the generally left-leaning tilt of journalists themselves, and the need to hold onto subscriptions in an era where advertising is an increasingly unstable source of revenue.

All of these factors play into the way the Times in general has approached covering Trump and the Republican party he dominates. In this case, many Times staff members believe that Bennet’s attempt to serve as a counterweight to the anti-Trump and anti-Republican incentives have become too heavy-handed. In their view, the Times op-ed section had elevated the provocation of its liberal readers into a value — that the newspaper has been willing to publish even badly argued pieces so long as they’re sufficiently abrasive to a liberal audience, in ways that actively damage the rest of the paper.

Bennet’s 2017 decision to hire Stephens, then a Wall Street Journal scribe who had once written about “the disease of the Arab mind,” is a paradigmatic case. From Stephens’s very first Times column, widely criticized for distorting climate science, to his March 2020 piece about how Woody Allen was a misunderstood victim of cancel culture, he embodied an ethos of “owning the libs” at any cost that much of the newsroom found galling.

Weiss is a similar recent hire. She has a penchant for writing right-leaning culture war pieces, including popularizing the term “intellectual dark web” to describe a group of online writers who challenge liberal nostrums around race and gender. But her writing has also contained analytic sloppiness and factual errors. For example, in a 2018 column on antifa and the left’s purported hostility to free speech, she cited a fake Twitter account purporting to represent the movement. In another column, she misinterpreted the colloquial meaning of the word “owns” in a tweet by a socialist podcast host to accuse him of anti-Semitism.

If the op-ed section were really as siloed from news in practice as it is in theory, this might be a more containable problem. However, the Times’s reputation is a holistic thing — opinion pieces do affect the way people see the paper, and that affects the ability of reporters and editors to do their jobs. (There is also a fair amount of staff movement between the two sides.)

The fallout from the Cotton piece makes the issue clear. Marc Tracy, a media reporter at the Times, spoke with three reporters who say that sources would not talk to them after the opinion’s publication. Freelance journalist Kara Brown turned down an assignment out of frustration with the Cotton piece:

The fact that a certain element of the opinion section was not only publishing bad work but bad work that had this kind of adverse consequences for other staffers, crystallized the long-running frustrations with Bennet’s tenure as opinion leader — prompting the public revolt.

“Internal NYT Slack [a workplace messaging app] was burning up overnight with pretty close to universal outrage at the op-ed and a lot of clearly pent-up frustration with the op-ed side more generally,” a Times staffer told me. “But obviously a lot of people on the op-ed site, especially editors who are people of color, [are] also publicly rebuking the decision to publish it.”

This isn’t a purely ideological issue. It’s a question of professional respect and thoughtfulness about how two sections can work together while still following through on their core missions.

What is the Times revolt really about?

If you don’t have all of this context, it’s easy to see this fight as being some kind of ideological proxy war. You could imagine this as a story of overly woke social justice warriors on the Times staff fighting to suppress the publication of views that they find dangerous, opposed by older staff who understand the importance of free expression and hearing competing views.

Indeed, that’s how Weiss cast it in a tweetstorm sent during a meeting of the site’s op-ed staff:

It’s easy to understand where Weiss is coming from here ideologically, especially given the prominence of somewhat oblique complaints about putting black staffers in danger in the public discourse surrounding the op-ed. The interpretation, as she says in the thread, pretty neatly confirms her prior beliefs about the dynamics of public life in the era of “woke” politics.

But that doesn’t make it right.

“I am in the same meeting that Bari appears to be livetweeting. This [is] inaccurate in both characterizations,” Max Strasser, an opinion editor, tweeted. “It’s not a civil war, it’s an editorial conversation; and it’s not breaking down along generational lines.”

After Weiss’s tweetstorm, Twitter exploded with Times reporters and opinion writers accusing her of inaccurately describing the internal conversation surrounding these issues.

My own conversations with Times staffers gave the same perception: Weiss seemed to be ginning up this “controversy” largely out of thin air. In Times discussions on Slack, its main work communication tool, the staff appeared largely unified around opposition to publishing the op-ed.

“I’ve seen way over a hundred people posting comments, into the hundreds if you count people posting supportive Slack response emojis, and not one person pushing back,” said one Times staffer. “The idea of a big divide or internal argument just has no basis that I’m at all aware of.”

The brass seem to have sided with the non-Weiss newsroom. Sulzberger apologized for the piece in Friday’s company meeting, as did Bennet. “I’m very sorry for the pain this piece has caused. … I’m responsible for this,” Bennet said. “We need to interrogate everything [about the op-ed section].”

That’s certainly a productive first step, from the perspective of the Times’s aggrieved workforce. So too were Bennet’s comments rebuking Weiss’s tweet thread, saying that he “felt betrayed” by the bad judgment.

But while Weiss may have the narrative wrong, that doesn’t mean there aren’t profound ideological questions surrounding the decision to publish the Cotton op-ed.

The best description of the issue I’ve seen is from Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg. In her Friday piece, Goldberg argues that there might have been some value in publishing the piece — not enough to justify its publication, but still some. Cotton’s argument is so abhorrent, so poorly reasoned, that it sheds real light on who currently wields power in the United States:

When I first saw the Cotton Op-Ed I wasn’t as horrified as perhaps I should have been; I figured he’d helpfully revealed himself as a dangerous authoritarian. But as I’ve seen my colleagues’ anguished reaction, I’ve started to doubt my debating-club approach to the question of when to air proto-fascist opinions…

It’s important to understand what the people around the president are thinking. But if they’re honest about what they’re thinking, it’s usually too disgusting to engage with. This creates a crisis for traditional understandings of how the so-called marketplace of ideas functions. It’s a subsidiary of the crisis that has the country on fire.

It’s not wrong to write about Cotton’s view or engage with it in some way. It’s actually vital that liberal audiences understand the nature of the modern conservative movement, the degree to which reactionary and authoritarian racial politics occupy its center rather than its margins.

But commissioning an op-ed from the loudest proponent of this view — the Times reached out to Cotton, not vice-versa — does not put the views in proper context. It seems to serve more as a way of shocking readers, of trolling them, rather than informing them. It’s the characteristic problem of the Bennet era, emerging at one of the worst possible times.

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