Alex Berenson: New York Times editorial page editor's resignation a terrible omen for freedom of expression

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This is a terrible day for The New York Times – and freedom of expression everywhere.

On Sunday afternoon, the Times announced that James Bennet, its editorial page editor, would resign, and Jim Dao, his deputy, would be reassigned.

Their crime: publishing an opinion piece from a United States senator Times staffers and readers did not like.

DAN GAINOR: NEW YORK TIMES SURRENDERS TO STAFF REVOLT OVER COTTON OP-ED AS EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR RESIGNS

Last Wednesday the Times ran an op-ed from Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., suggesting American soldiers should be used to quell protests and violence related to the killing of George Floyd.

To be clear, I thought Cotton’s op-ed was wrong. Last week I tweeted that invoking the Insurrection Act, which would allow active-duty soldiers to patrol in the United States, “is not a good idea.”

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The Insurrection Act should be a last resort. Even at its worst, last week’s violence did not rise to a level that police and the National Guard could not control. (And the way the piece compared the potential use of soldiers against the Floyd protests or riots to their use during the civil rights era to desegregate Southern schools was unnecessarily provocative.)

But opinion pages exist to offer a diverse set of viewpoints. Knowing what people in power like Senator Cotton are thinking is especially important.

Instead, Times readers – and more crucially, staffers – said the op-ed page should not have published Senator Cotton’s opinion at all. They called it racist and specifically dangerous to African-American employees at the Times.

At a time when social media giants like Facebook and powerful technology companies like Amazon are openly censoring views they do not like, the fact that the Times – and other newspapers too – have also backed away from free speech is troubling and dangerous.

“As a black woman, as a journalist, as an American, I am deeply ashamed that we ran this,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, a prominent Times reporter, wrote on Twitter. Roxane Gay, a regular contributor to the Times op-ed page, tweeted that “running this puts black @nytimes writers, editors, and other staff in danger.”

At first Bennet and A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, defended the Times’s right to publish the piece. “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,” Sulzberger emailed Times reporters on June 4.

But as the backlash worsened, Sulzberger changed his mind. By Friday he told reporters he found the piece “contemptuous.”

Now Bennet, a sterling journalist who was once considered a front-runner to be the paper’s top editor, is out. And, according to the New York Times on Sunday evening, “Jim Dao, the deputy editorial page editor who oversees Op-Eds, is stepping down from his position…and taking a new job in the newsroom.”

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Remember: this was not a case of the paper publishing a plagiarized or fictionalized article. Seventeen years ago, The Times faced another crisis, after Jayson Blair – a young reporter and rising star – was discovered to have fabricated parts of several articles. I remember that debacle well. I was a reporter at the Times then. During a meeting, I famously asked Howell Raines, the paper’s editor, if he believed he had lost the confidence of the newsroom and would consider resigning. He did soon after.

My colleagues and I were furious with Blair, and with Raines, who had enabled him. We believed in the mission of the Times, to report the news as honestly and completely as we could. And though I had never worked on the opinion page, I believed in its core mission – to encourage discussion and debate, even when those views might be uncomfortable to some.

Bennet and Dao believed in those values too. Last year, they published an op-ed from me about the potential harms of cannabis, even though Dao knew many readers might disagree.

Sunday, the Times has stood up for a different set of values; the values of conformity and groupthink and stifling dissent.

I have a hard time imagining the Times’s next op-ed editors would run my cannabis piece. And if the opinion page will not publish unpopular views, what hope do reporters have of writing articles that break news that runs against the Times’s increasingly openly leftist attitude?

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At a time when social media giants like Facebook and powerful technology companies like Amazon are openly censoring views they do not like, the fact that the Times – and other newspapers too – have also backed away from free speech is troubling and dangerous.

For democracy to flourish, we all need to be willing to hear each other. But if the most powerful platforms in American media are afraid to run voices that might make people uncomfortable, how can we?

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