NOT QUITE TWO weeks ago, the journalist-entrepreneur Ben Smith, in the butter-colored virtual pages of his newly launched publication Semafor, interviewed the former New York Times opinion editor James Bennet, in Bennet’s “first on-the-record interview” about the events surrounding his dismissal from the paper two years ago.
The Times forced out Bennet after he had published—by his account, without having read it—an opinion piece by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, under the headline “Send in the Troops,” in which Cotton called for the federal government to deploy the military against the people protesting the police murder of George Floyd. An editor’s note added to the piece declared that “the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published” and that “the editing process was rushed and flawed, and senior editors were not sufficiently involved.”
Bennet told Smith that he now regrets agreeing to the editor’s note. “My mistake there was trying to mollify people,” Bennet said. He also complained that Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger “blew the opportunity to make clear that the New York Times doesn’t exist just to tell progressives how progressives should view reality,” and that Sulzberger “set me on fire and threw me in the garbage.”
In a classic Ben Smith-ian piece of process reporting, Smith added that Bennet texted him after the interview to add a coda: “One more thing that sometimes gets misreported: I never apologized for publishing the piece and still don’t.”
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.
Wemple may or may not have been right about Sulzberger’s crisis-management skills and the internal bureaucratic hash at the Times. But he was wrong about the Cotton op-ed, wrong about Bennet, and dangerously wrong about the threats the whole incident posed to free expression and journalism.
I note here, because people often read media criticism as interpersonal hostility between journalists, that I consider Wemple a friend and I generally admire his work. Twenty years ago, he hired me to be his No. 2 editor at Washington City Paper, and I edited his media column there and learned a lot from him. We have had many discussions through the years about journalistic issues, and I find him to be unusually scrupulous and decent. In the Bennet piece, he linked to something I’d tweeted as an example of the “persuasive broadsides” people had written against the publication of the Cotton op-ed.
It was not persuasive enough to stop Bennet’s comeback bid, apparently. The original dishonesty of Cotton’s op-ed has now infected the story of what happened surrounding the op-ed.
Wemple characterized the article as “an opinion by a U.S. senator (and possible presidential candidate) advocating a lawful act by the president.” This was a poor description of the piece, especially in its original context.
It’s true that the text of Cotton’s piece made a distinction between “rioters and looters” and “peaceful, law-abiding protesters,” arguing that military force was called for because “nihilist criminals are simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction.” But before any of that, to open the third paragraph of the piece, Cotton made sure to establish his underlying premise: “Outnumbered police officers, encumbered by feckless politicians, bore the brunt of the violence.”
That piece of stage-setting was simply false. During the George Floyd protests, it was frequently the police officers themselves who were doing the rioting: attacking protesters, driving through crowds, launching tear gas and rubber bullets maliciously or indiscriminately. Then and afterwards, eyewitnesses and reporters—including journalists at the Times—extensively documented incidents in which the police were violent and out of control.
Wemple treated the question of who’d borne the brunt of the protest violence as a factual quibble, joking that it was akin to complaining “that an Oxford comma was misplaced.” But the entire weight of Cotton’s argument depended on it. The claim that military action on U.S. soil would be lawful and reasonable—even over the objections of local elected civilian leaders—rested on the idea that the police were acting lawfully and reasonably to begin with.
Instead, the police were repeatedly being the aggressors. And Cotton’s invocation of “peaceful, law-abiding protesters” dodged the essential issue of what should happen to peaceful protesters who weren’t abiding by the law—especially as cities imposed unconstitutional curfews, giving police license to crack down on gatherings that should have been legal.
But Cotton wasn’t sincerely interested in the finer points of civil liberties, and the Times was well aware of that when it published the piece. Two days before his op-ed went up, Cotton had issued a call on Twitter for the use of the armed forces. Wemple quoted one of those tweets, in which Cotton wrote “let’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division.” He did not, however, address Cotton’s other tweet on the subject, in which the senator called on the military to give “no quarter“—that is, to kill people.
What Cotton put in the Times was a sanitized version of that argument, with his most lawless rhetoric taken out. By then, though, everyone knew what he meant. If Ye, the performer formerly known as Kanye West, were to offer a newspaper an op-ed tomorrow arguing that power brokers have too much control over the music industry, any sensible editor would read his claims in the light of his tweet about going “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE” and his other recent anti-Semitic rantings. Cotton was using the Times to call for the protests to be put down with lethal force.
And Bennet let him do it. He and his defenders offered two main justifications for publishing the piece: that the opinion section should expose its readers to a wide range of arguments—as in Bennet’s formulation to Smith about the paper’s duty to do more than “tell progressives how progressives should view reality”—and that the fact that a senator was calling for military intervention was inherently newsworthy.
These two explanations basically contradict each other: is the opinion section supposed to engage and challenge its readers, or is it a forum for one-sided announcements? But by allowing Cotton to dodge the truth about what he was arguing for, and by letting him bend the facts about the unrest itself, the Times failed at both. Cotton’s article gave its readers neither an honest policy announcement nor a fair intellectual engagement with the issue.
Should this have been cause for Bennet to lose his job? Wemple made much of the supposed procedural shortcomings of the Times’ response to the piece, describing it as a retroactive and unconvincing bureaucratic effort to establish that the op-ed had violated the paper’s standards:
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.
But any veteran media reporter ought to know better than to treat New York Times rules and standards as preexisting objective criteria. Just compare the paper’s written Twitter policy to the things its name-brand political reporters tweet out, and the real situation will become clear. The news organization has a long and visible history of invoking its standards retroactively, in the midst of its scandals, to cover whatever happens to have embarrassed the paper at the moment. How badly you screwed up depends on who you are, what else you’ve done, and who is mad at you.
Bennet benefited from these shifting standards, until he didn’t. Before the Cotton op-ed blew up on him, he was reportedly a leading candidate to be the paper’s next executive editor after the retirement of then-editor Dean Baquet—despite Bennet’s having previously exposed the paper (and a bedrock First Amendment precedent protecting everyone else in journalism) to the risk and expense of a defamation trial, through his sloppy and inaccurate editing when he inserted a passage about Sarah Palin in an editorial.
Now, after two years of brooding over it, Bennet is trying to rehabilitate himself. In Wemple’s hands, the story of the early summer of 2020 became a story about a different kind of injustice: a cynical backlash ginned up by fractious Black members of the Times newsroom and their allies—who, he wrote, “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.'”
That claim of danger, Wemple wrote, “was an exercise in manipulative hyperbole brilliantly calibrated for immediate impact.” He added:
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.
Given that Smith’s story about the state of the Times described a systemic tamping down of the in-house dissent of 2020—with “changes to policy for Slack and social media aimed at ending freewheeling internal debates,” and conspicuous roles for white writers Smith described as “skeptics” about “race and health and identity”—there might have been other reasons for those staffers to decline to go on the record in 2022. Certainly, it seemed odd for Wemple to accuse them of being disingenuous in 2020, while insisting on taking Tom Cotton at face value.
And the question of whether reporters were in danger back then hardly depends on whether Times staffers are willing to participate in a media-criticism story today. When Bennet published Cotton’s op-ed, the streets were unquestionably a dangerous place for reporters to be. One had already had her eye blinded by a police projectile. Others had been shot with rubber bullets live on camera.
In the light of what the public knew then, let alone what everyone would witness later, the idea that Cotton was calling for a “lawful act by the president” is absurd. He was calling for an escalation of official violence that was already out of control. By summer’s end, federal marshals would carry out what reportedly amounted to the summary execution of a left-wing fugitive, and the president would gloat about their having done it, as part of his campaign rallies.
The story of June 2020 was, and remains, the story of police assaulting people in the streets around the country who in the vast majority of cases were simply exercising their First Amendment rights of free assembly and free speech. Officers were deliberately targeting journalists as they tried to exercise their freedom of the press. In the midst of all this, James Bennet gave a public official a forum to call the victims of the violence “insurrectionists,” and to demand an even more forceful response against them. Bennet wasn’t a martyr for free expression. He was a tool of its enemies.