We are getting a great insight into the culture of the New York Times.
The paper struck a blow for honest journalism--and that greatly upset many of its staffers.
At stake is whether the op-ed pages of a newspaper should be a forum for debate, or just a vehicle for reinforcing what its top editors and a majority of its readers already believe. To choose the latter course is to reduce that precious real estate to predictable propaganda, which is not just one-sided but boring.
The Times did the right thing--well, until it didn’t. The paper’s editors chose to publish a piece by Tom Cotton, a Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, titled “Send In The Military.” Cotton argues that it’s perfectly appropriate for President Trump to use the military to restore order in cities wracked by violent protests after the brutal killing of George Floyd.
Well, there was an open revolt at the paper, led by black journalists who were offended.
Nikole Hannah-Jones of the Times Magazine, who worked on the paper’s Pulitzer-winning “1619” slavery project, said: “As a black woman, as a journalist, as an American, I am deeply ashamed that we ran this.”
Jenna Wortham echoed many on the paper in tweeting: “Running this put Black @nytimes staffers in danger.”
Roxanne Gay said she was open to pieces with dissenting voices, but not this one: “His piece was inflammatory and endorsing military occupation as if the constitution doesn’t exist.”
I’m all for journalists speaking out, and I understand the sensitivity for black staffers. But to be “ashamed” of the paper?
To their credit, the editors are sticking to their guns.
Editorial Page Editor James Bennet took to Twitter to defend his decision:
“Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy. We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton's argument painful, even dangerous. We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate.”
Publisher A.G.Sulzberger added his support in a sensitively worded note to employees yesterday:
“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...
“It is clear many believe this piece fell outside 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.”
It’s stunning to me that both men had to plead with their employees (and readers) to understand the essence of op-ed debate. I grew up in newspapers. Most of them have always offered a nod in the direction of dissenting views, and whether I agreed with those views or not was irrelevant.
Every regular Times columnist, liberal and conservative, is fiercely anti-Trump. The editorial page has denounced his handling of the nationwide protests. Is one op-ed going to dramatically change U.S. policy? Cotton could have made his argument in dozens of forums, but he chose to engage readers of the Times, who otherwise might not have seen it.
The Arkansas senator praised the editors yesterday, telling Fox: “They’ve stood up to the ‘woke progressive mob’ in their own newsroom. So, I commend them for that.”
But he spoke too soon. About two hours after I checked in with the Times PR office, the paper caved.
Suddenly, the column that both the publisher and editorial page editor had spent the day defending was found wanting.
“We’ve examined the piece and the process leading up to its publication,” the new statement said, moments before my story on the subject aired on “Special Report.” “This review made clear that a rushed editorial process led to the publication of an op-ed that did not meet our standards.” The paper said it would make changes, expand its fact-checking operation and publish fewer op-ed pieces.
Fewer op-eds? No explanation of supposed factual shortcomings? The internal pressure must have been overwhelming.
Meanwhile, a similar controversy erupted at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and staffers were so angry that some of them walked out.
In fairly short order, the paper apologized.
The Inquirer ran a piece by its columnist Inga Saffron that examined the reaction to the Floyd killing:
“The anger is fully justified. Black people have been the victims of systemic oppression in America for 400 years, but video footage and social media have now made it impossible to deny how bad things really are. The grotesque killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor — and many others before them — are attacks on the fundamental promise of our democracy.”
The problem was the headline: “Buildings Matter, Too.” A play on Black Lives Matter, it was used to buttress the argument that the destruction of downtown buildings by rioters would leave a permanent scar on the city. But the headline was a bit insensitive.
Dozens of Inquirer staffers signed a protest letter, according to HuffPost, that said: “We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age. We’re tired of being told of the progress the company has made and being served platitudes about ‘diversity and inclusion’ when we raise our concerns. We’re tired of seeing our words and photos twisted to fit a narrative that does not reflect our reality. We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.”
No two sides--there’s that ideological stance again. Agree with us or your words shouldn’t be published. And this for a column that flatly declared black anger is justified--but lamented the senseless destruction of property.
Not only did the editors change the headline, but they slapped this editor’s note on the piece:
“A headline published in Tuesday’s Inquirer was offensive, inappropriate and we should not have printed it. We deeply regret that we did. We also know that an apology on its own is not sufficient. We need to do better. We’ve heard that loud and clear, including from our own staff. We will.”
We all need to do better. White journalists need to listen to black voices who explain why police brutality resonates so deeply in their daily lives.
But the notion that only one viewpoint is acceptable, and no contrary words should be published, even on an opinion page, gets at the heart of why journalism has lost so much credibility.