The New York Times staff could no longer hold their tongues. Over the years, the Times’ opinion section has run questionable — and sometimes downright harmful — columns. Since editorial page editor James Bennet took over in 2016, there have been a number of eyebrow-raising pieces run in his section, many of them from columnist Bret Stephens. And still, publicly, staffers did not publicly criticize their colleagues or employer. They couldn’t — it would be a violation of the Times’ social media policy. But when the paper ran an op-ed from Republican Sen. Tom Cotton on Wednesday that called for the use of military force against American citizens, dozens of staffers decided that they could not continue to say nothing. This moment is too big, there is too much at stake. And so an avalanche of Times staffers took to Twitter to openly criticize the decision of their employer.
Cotton, a Senator from Arkansas, wrote an op-ed titled “Send in the Troops,” advocating for the president to mobilize the military to forcefully shut down the national uprising against police brutality and racist policing. The piece was published on the eve of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Ironically, Cotton got his start in politics, in part, because he wrote an open letter calling for the imprisonment of three Times journalists when he was a lieutenant serving in Iraq.
The reaction from the public was swift, but what was surprising was that the Times staff itself openly condemned the piece. Dozens of staffers across verticals and departments tweeted a screenshot of the headline of the op-ed with the words, “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.” Jazmine Hughes, a story editor at New York Times Magazine, clarified: “To be clear, this story endangers *all* black people, NYT staffers and not. But for this, this is a labor issue. This is our livelihood. This is embarrassing.”
The editorial side of the Times has long had to answer for its opinion side; the two operate independently. “The distinction between opinion pieces and news articles is sometimes lost on readers, who may see an Op-Ed — promoted on the same home page — as just another Times article,” Times media reporter Marc Tracy wrote. Several sources have reportedly told journalists that they will no longer provide information to the paper in light of the op-ed, and at least one freelance writer turned down an assignment because of the op-ed. The irresponsible decision of Bennet will now negatively affect the journalism that reporters are able to do on the editorial side.
Tech reporter Davey Alba pointed out that their own paper had run a piece discrediting a claim Cotton makes in his op-ed, about antifa infiltrating protests. But the bottom line here is clear: The fact that the opinion section would let a blatantly false claim like that run unchecked is irresponsible. Yes, op-eds are opinions, but the point of an op-ed is to back up your opinions with facts, not to say whatever wildly inaccurate thing you want and have it be published without challenge or context to millions of people in the paper of record.
Bennet took to Twitter to defend the piece at the same time his staff were taking mass action to condemn it. “As part of our explorations of these issues, Times Opinion has published powerful arguments supporting protests, advocating fundamental change and criticizing police abuses,” he said. “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.”
But he missed the point about disseminating dangerous and ineffectual messaging. By giving Cotton a platform to spew his fascist ideas without providing any context for them, which running them as reporting on the editorial side would have done, the Times is just giving a megaphone to a bigot and allowing him to spread hate and misinformation. Cotton’s op-ed is an opinion, but it’s one based on lies and propaganda and its one that will put countless Black Americans — including the Black journalists at the Times — in danger. It is journalistic malpractice and indicates a lack of understanding of power and platform.
It’s clear that Times journalists are fed up. The union, the NewsGuild of New York, put out a statement that said, in part, that Cotton’s op-ed "undermines the journalistic work of our members, puts our Black staff members in danger, promotes hate, and is likely to encourage further violence." Some even responded publicly and directly to Bennet’s tweets instead of just issuing their own. “No and no and no — you've made one too many bad decisions and clearly should not have run this,” said Manohla Dargis, a movie critic for the Times.
“It's useful to point out that not all the Times employees who tweeted tonight have the protection of the Guild,” former Times staffer Kendra Pierre-Louis tweeted. “There are people who absolutely put their jobs on the line to tweet tonight.”
Some journalists, including Times columnist David Brooks, New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi, and writer Andrew Sullivan, have come out in favor of the op-ed having run, arguing that to not run it would have been censorship and that the point of the op-ed pages is to have a range of opinions and a “marketplace of ideas” (Sullivan went so far as to call the staff’s pushback to the piece “an attempted coup”). It is worth noting that all of those journalists are white.
During World War II, the Times chose to be on the wrong side of history. In 1941, they ran an op-ed by Adolf Hitler called “The Art of Propaganda.” Over the next several years, they ran profiles that humanized him. The first time they ever named Auschwitz in print was in 1944, when they ran a story reporting that 1,715,000 Jews had been murdered there; that story ran on page 3.
They were given a chance to learn from the past, to do better, to do differently. In running it, Bennet and the rest of the management at the paper risk having blood on their hands if and when Americans die at the hands of their military.