The New York Times: The New York Times headquarters, New York, NY, U.S.A. ( AdobeStock)

Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed “Send in the Troops” in the New York Times ignited condemnation both within and outside the organization that resulted in the resignation of the Editor James Bennet. Candy Chan writes about the frenzy at The Times.

It all started on Wednesday, June 3rd. As the nation prepared for another day of protesting in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas that would incite a frenzy, both within and outside the organization.

Cotton’s op-ed “Send In the Troops” and The Times’ decision to publish the piece elicited widespread denouncement and condemnation. Many find the op-ed’s support for deploying federal troops to quell protests highly dangerous and according to employees at The Times, its publication led to the highest hourly rate of canceled subscriptions on record. 

A day after the op-ed’s publication and a review of the piece and its editorial process, The Times released a statement that said it did not meet their “standards.” On Sunday, The Times announced the resignation of James Bennet, editorial page editor, who has held the position since May 2016, as well as the reassignment of James Dao, deputy editorial page editor.

Eileen Murphy, The Times spokeswoman, said in a statement, “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 reducing the number of Op-Eds we publish.”

However, The Times’ announcement came after attempts at defending the op-ed’s publication by both The Times’ editorial page editor and publisher. Within a day, the consensus from higher-up editors changed from support of the decision to remorse. The back-and-forth treatment of the Op-Ed by The Times grew to be a bigger story than the senator’s call for federal troops, at least in the discourse around the piece on social media. 

More than 800 staff members at The Times signed a letter protesting the op-ed’s publication, according to one union member involved, and more than 250 employees planned a virtual walkout for Friday morning. 

Journalists took to Twitter to voice their discontent, with many Times’ reporters posting “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger,” despite a company policy that prohibits employees from posting partisan comments or taking sides on issues. 

Is that true? Does Cotton’s op-ed endanger the lives of Black reporters?

Since protests erupted across the nation last week, the police repeatedly attacked reporters at these events. In one early incident, CNN’s correspondent Omar Jimenez was arrested live on air while reporting in Minneapolis, a violation of the First Amendment. In over three days of protests, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported at least 125 press freedom violations. 

The U.S. is a country where people are out protesting the unjust treatment of Black people. Black journalists faced harm when The Times published an article people believe promoted violence against peaceful protesters and journalists within the Black community and their allies. 

Since protests erupted across the nation last week, the police repeatedly attacked reporters at these events.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a correspondent for the New York Times’ Magazine who won a Pulitzer for her essay in the acclaimed ‘The 1619 Project,’ reposted the op-ed adding, “I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but to not say something would be immoral. As a black woman, as a journalist, as an American, I am deeply ashamed that we ran this.”

Three journalists from The Times said their sources told them they would cease to provide information because of Cotton’s op-ed, according to a Times news article.

Sophie Helf, a writer in New York who planned on publishing an essay for The Times, tweeted that she requested to pull her piece as she “can’t in good consciousness write for a publication that so openly advocates violence.”

Confusion at The Times over Inflammatory Op-Ed

Bennet, the editor in charge of The Times’ opinion section, revealed to staff members late Wednesday that he did not read the op-ed before it was published, according to two people present. Bennet also issued a tweet that day defending The Times’ decision to publish the op-ed, writing, “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.”

On Thursday morning, A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, sent a company-wide email in support of the op-ed’s publication, yet that evening, he seemingly retracted his support to say that the op-ed did not meet The Times’ editorial standards.

In response to the recent announcements that the op-ed did not meet standards, Cotton’s office issued the following statement: “We weren’t contacted by The New York Times in advance of this statement and our editorial process was similar to our past experiences at The New York Times and other publications. We’re curious to know what part of that process and this piece didn’t meet their standards.”

The Times announced Sunday that Bennet resigned as editorial page editor. In an interview with The Times, Sulzberger said, “Both of us concluded that [Bennet] would not be able to lead the team through the next leg of change that is required.” 

The stirrup over Cotton’s op-ed was not the first controversy Bennet has been involved in. Last spring, The Times’ opinion page published a cartoon that drew condemnation for being anti-semitic. Bennet also hired conservative columnist Bret Stephens, whose columns “Climate of Complete Certainty” and “The Secrets of Jewish Genius” were found to be irresponsible by many readers.

Katie Kingsbury will be the acting editorial page editor through the November election, according to The Times. While many journalists criticized Bennet’s decision to publish the op-ed, some took to Twitter to defend his reputation. Farah Stockman, a journalist at The Times, tweeted, “I will always remember him as the editor who gave Ta-Nehisi Coates the space to write the groundbreaking Case for Reparations . . . when few would entertain the idea. That’s the James Bennet I know.”

The Responsibility of An Op-Ed

In a bizarre fashion, The Times reported on itself over the debacle that ensued as a result of the op-ed’s publication. In these articles, the news section of The Times makes a clear distinction between the staff that runs opinions and the staff that runs news. 

This is how the editorial process works: first and foremost, many journalists and editors agree with the notion that op-eds should provide a diversity of voices and ideas, and The Times encourages submission of pieces that are “well-written with a fact-based viewpoint we believe readers will find worthwhile.” Op-eds go through multiple rounds of editing by editors and fact-checkers. They also do not necessarily reflect the views of those who work at The Times. 

In a staff meeting on Friday, Bennet revealed to employees that Cotton submitted the op-ed at the request of the opinion section. Prior to writing the op-ed, Cotton took it to Twitter to urge the deployment of federal troops. In the meeting, Bennet reportedly said, “we did ask if he could stand up that argument. I’m not sure we suggested that topic to him, but we did invite the piece.”

At a large organization like The Times, an opinion piece can be published without much of the staff members aware of its existence, as in the case of Cotton’s piece.  

In a video meeting of the opinion section on Thursday afternoon, Bennet and James Dao, deputy opinion page editor, “acknowledged there had been a breakdown in the process of preparing the essay for publication.”

Much of the pushback the op-ed received from journalists is because the op-ed promulgates misinformation, pointing to Cotton’s depiction of the role of the “Antifa” in the protests. A previous Times article reported that the theory that Antifa activists led the protests is “the biggest piece of protest misinformation tracked by Zignal Labs.”

Much of the pushback the op-ed received from journalists is because the op-ed promulgates misinformation, pointing to Cotton’s depiction of the role of the “Antifa” in the protests. A previous Times article reported that the theory that Antifa activists led the protests is “the biggest piece of protest misinformation tracked by Zignal Labs.”

The criticism also extends to the lack of context provided in the op-ed. Cotton invokes the historical usage of the Insurrection Act by highlighting the time federal forces were sent to the University of Mississippi in 1962 to quell protests against the enrollment of an African-American student. In an essay where the argument is to call in federal troops to “restore order” with an  “overwhelming show of force” where presumably Black and Brown men will face the brunt of it, the comparison to a time when the troops were called in because state authorities defied a federal court order to integrate the university falls short.

Cotton’s statement that police officers “bore the brunt of the violence” also calls into question the events of the past week and the countless videos circulating the internet of peaceful protesters hit, arrested, and tear-gassed by law enforcement. 

As of Monday, June 8th, the op-ed is still on the website. At the top of the piece, there is an apology and an explanation to readers. While The Times still finds Cotton’s arguments a “newsworthy part of the current debate,” the op-ed was let down by the rushed editing process, which lacked oversight from enough senior editors. 

In an interview with The Washington Post, Sulzberger admitted that mistakes were made and that The Times will rethink how it handles op-ed pieces. It will not, however, back away from offering a diversity of opinions. 

“Independence is our most important strength and the thing I guard most zealously,” he concluded.

Candy Chan

Candy Chan is studying History with a focus on War and Revolution at Barnard College. She is currently a staff writer at the Columbia Daily Spectator, covering issues pertaining to Columbia's...