Former New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet has finally spoken publicly about his role in one of the most disgraceful chapters in American journalism: the Times’ cringing apology for running a 2020 column by Sen. Tom Cotton. Bennet said publisher AG Sulzberger “set me on fire and threw me in the garbage” to appease the mob. It was an early indicator of what would be a collapse of journalistic values across the industry as “advocacy journalism” swept away traditional reporters and editors. The interview comes in the same week of a new poll showing media at a near record low in trust from the public.
The treatment of the Cotton column shocked many of us. It was one of the lowest points in the history of modern American journalism. During the week of June 6, 2020, the Times forced out Bennet and apologized for publishing Cotton’s column calling for the use of the troops to restore order in Washington after days of rioting around the White House.
While Congress would “call in the troops” six months later to quell the rioting at the Capitol on January 6th, New York Times reporters and columnists denounced the column as historically inaccurate and politically inciteful. The column was in fact historically accurate, even if you disagreed with the underlying proposal (as I did).
Reporters insisted that Cotton was endangering them by suggesting the use of troops and insisted that the newspaper should not feature people who advocate political violence. Writers Taylor Lorenz, Caity Weaver, Sheera Frankel, Jacey Fortin, and others also said that such columns put black reporters in danger and condemned publishing Cotton’s viewpoint.
Critics never explained what was historically false (or outside the range of permissible interpretation) in the column.
In a breathtaking surrender, the newspaper apologized and not only promised an investigation into how such an opposing view could find itself on its pages but promised to reduce the number of editorials in the future:
“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 reduction the number of op-eds we publish.”
One of the writers who condemned the decision to publish Cotton was New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones applauded the decision of the Times to apologize for publishing such an opposing viewpoint and denounced those who engage in what she called “even-handedness, both sideism” journalism. (Notably, Hannah-Jones herself later tweeted out a bizarre anti-police conspiracy theory that injuries and destruction caused by fireworks was not the fault of protesters but actually part of a weird police conspiracy. There was no hue and cry over accuracy).
He remained silent as many of us objected to the handling of the controversy. It would only get worse. Reporters and columnists soon found the environment of raw advocacy and open intolerance to be unacceptable … or were forced out. If the New York Times would not stand on principle, journalists at other smaller papers had little hope for their own newspapers.
Now, two years late, Bennet is publicly objecting. He told the new media outlet Semafor that publisher AG Sulzberger
“blew the opportunity to make clear that the New York Times doesn’t exist just to tell progressives how progressives should view reality. That was a huge mistake and a missed opportunity for him to show real strength. He still could have fired me…I actually knew what it meant to have a target on your back when you’re reporting for the New York Times.
None of that mattered, and none of it mattered to AG. When push came to shove at the end, he set me on fire and threw me in the garbage and used my reverence for the institution against me,. This is why I was so bewildered for so long after I had what felt like all my colleagues treating me like an incompetent fascist.”
Yet, Bennet himself “blew the opportunity” to confront the abandonment of principle by the Times when it occurred. While some of us defended his decision, he remained quiet as did virtually everyone at the newspaper beyond a core of activists. He also signed off on the cowardly editor’s note accusing Cotton of fudging facts about Antifa’s role in civil unrest and using a ‘needlessly harsh’ tone.”
Bennet now says that “my regret is that editor’s note. My mistake there was trying to mollify people…[T]hey want to have the applause and the welcome of the left, and now there’s the problem on top of that, that they’ve signed up so many new subscribers in the last few years and the expectation of those subscribers is that the Times will be Mother Jones on steroids.”
He is, of course correct. Bennet (the brother of Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo) now writes for The Economist.
Cotton and conservatives are also rarely seen on the pages of the New York Times unless it is to criticize the party or Trump. The writers have condemned the “both sideism” of allowing conservative viewpoints in the newspaper and insisted that Cotton and others must be banned as favoring potential violent actions against protesters.
Yet, the newspaper has published people with anti-free speech and violent viewpoints in the last year. While the New York Times stands by its declaration that Cotton should never have been published, it had no problem in publishing “Beijing’s enforcer” in Hong Kong as Regina Ip mocked freedom protesters who were being beaten and arrested by the government.
Indeed, just before the anniversary of the Cotton controversy, the New York Times published a column by University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence. (Loomis has also been ridiculed for denouncing statistics, science, and technology as inherently racist).
The new survey shows how much damage has been done to the profession by figures like Sulzberger and Hannah-Jones. Only 34% of Americans trust in the mass media to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly” — just two points higher than the lowest that Gallup previously recorded (during 2016 during the presidential campaign).
Only 7% of Americans have “a great deal” of trust and confidence in the media, and 27% have “a fair amount.” Some 66 percent have little or no faith in the media.
Yet, none of that matters. The belated admissions and objections of Bennet are welcomed but they are likely to fall on deaf ears. There remains a cringing fear of being the next Bennet in finding yourself on the wrong side of the next flash media mob.