Not only was this predictable, it was predicted. “The editor of the op-ed page, James Bennet, defended the decision to publish it — although given the way these things normally go, both he and Dean Baquet will probably be delivering groveling apologies to the newsroom before the day is out,” I wrote yesterday morning of the controversy over Cotton’s op-ed.
It took a day longer than I thought.
But we had a fun adventure en route to our destination. Last night Bennet published an op-ed of his own explaining why he ran the piece. Cotton is a figure with influence over policy, therefore it’s in the public interest to know what he thinks about deploying troops against rioters, he said. Having him write an op-ed exposes his argument to more criticism than he’d get by expressing his view in a glib tweet, he added. This is textbook classical liberal marketplace-of-ideas reasoning: “Cotton and others in power are advocating the use of the military, and I believe the public would be better equipped to push back if it heard the argument and had the chance to respond to the reasoning. Readers who might be inclined to oppose Cotton’s position need to be fully aware of it, and reckon with it, if they hope to defeat it. To me, debating influential ideas openly, rather than letting them go unchallenged, is far more likely to help society reach the right answers.”
Then, last night, a curious exculpatory news story about the controversy appeared in the Times. Apparently Bennet told staffers in a meeting that he hadn’t read the piece before it ran. A Times spokeswoman claimed that “a rushed editorial process led to the publication of an Op-Ed that did not meet our standards.” Blame fell to junior editor Adam Rubenstein, formerly of the conservative Weekly Standard, who had handled the editing. Suddenly it seemed as if poor James Bennet had been blindsided by poor judgment exhibited by a rare right-wing deputy in the ranks. If anything, his public defense of the piece was just him covering for his staff’s misguided decision to run it.
Today, under continued fire from Times writers about the “danger” Cotton’s op-ed posed, he tried a third explanation. We screwed up, he told the staff in a meeting. You were right, I was wrong. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
One by one during Friday’s staff meeting, the paper’s top leaders apologized for the opinion piece. At one point, the paper admitted that it did “invite” Cotton to write the column.
The paper’s controversial top opinion editor James Bennet issued a mea culpa, claiming he let his section be “stampeded by the news cycle,” and confessed that the backlash had inspired him to rethink the op-ed section entirely.
“I just want to begin by saying I’m very sorry, I’m sorry for the pain that this particular piece has caused,” he said, adding: “I do think this is a moment for me and for us to interrogate everything we do in opinion.”
During the Q&A portion of the meeting, Bennet took several confrontational questions from irate staff. When asked why he did not personally read Cotton’s column before publishing it, Bennet said it was “another part of the process that broke down.” He further added: “I should have been involved in signing off on the piece…I should have read it and signed off.”
The idea of a “rushed” process in which Cotton’s op-ed somehow mysteriously found itself being published by the paper without top editors knowing was contradicted by Cotton’s own account of how the op-ed came to be. He and his staff offered it to the Times a few days ago, Rich Lowry reported this morning, and found the paper receptive: “The original pitch to the paper on Monday was to package together the argument on the Insurrection Act with another proposal, but the editors were interested in a piece focused solely on the Insurrection Act.” Cotton agreed and went through no fewer than three rounds of editing for the piece, the last of which involved fact-checking. There’s no reason to think the process was “rushed” or that it “broke down.” To all appearances, that’s a straight-up lie concocted by Times leadership to disguise a truth they’re ashamed to admit to their staff, namely that they weren’t woke enough to realize that Cotton’s op-ed was “problematic” until woker junior staffers pointed it out.
Better to admit that the paper’s editing process is defective than to cop to a wokeness deficiency.
Arthur Sulzberger, the Times’s publisher, actually stooped to this logic in order to find a fig leaf for the true reason they were now denouncing Cotton’s op-ed:
A.G. Sulzberger, NYT publisher, tells the staff the Cotton Op-Ed was 'contemptuous' in tone and should not have been published. In future, fact-checkers will be added to Op-Ed staff & fewer will be published.
— Trip Gabriel (@tripgabriel) June 5, 2020
I doubt the Times has ever published an editorial that wasn’t openly contemptuous of the subject of its criticism. If you edited Paul Krugman to remove the contemptuous passages in his columns, they’d be six words long.
Apparently Bennet also appeased the crowd at today’s meeting by throwing columnist Bari Weiss to the wolves, per this now-deleted tweet by a Times staffer who attended:
John included Weiss’s tweets in his post about this last night. She simply noted the tension between traditional marketplace-of-ideas liberals like Bennet and (typically younger) leftists who are more willing to deny platforms to speakers who threaten their “safety.” Weiss saw it as a flashpoint in a cultural civil war on the left not unlike the battle on college campuses over whether certain types of mainstream right-wing speech should be invited and debated or simply excluded. The Cotton piece was a test of strength between the two sides in-house at the Times. Guess who won.
I like the way John framed the irony of this debate last night: “[T]he Times has now decided it would have been better not to facilitate a public conversation about the content of Sen. Cotton’s op-ed even though that’s exactly the conversation Times staffers are having in private.” Remember, the argument against Cotton’s piece that circulated among Times staffers on social media wasn’t primarily that it offended the paper’s institutional values, which is always a fair reason not to publish an op-ed, but that the mere fact of its publication placed black journalists in danger. Times staffers could themselves be trusted to read it, digest it, and responsibly engage with it, of course — for more than two days now, with much media fanfare — but not the great unwashed. I’m curious: Would Times staffers support publishing a piece like this one that recently ran at Slate, defending the burning of a police precinct as a reasonable response to George Floyd’s murder? What about a more generic defense of rioting as “the language of the unheard,” the only way to communicate to the rest of the population how frustrated African-Americans are by how cheaply the police seem to value their lives?
Because rioting also places people in danger, quite literally. Could the great unwashed be trusted with a little pro-riot advocacy across from the latest tedious Maureen Dowd column?
One other thought. What if Cotton had said “to hell with it” and decided to read the op-ed he’d drafted for the Times on the Senate floor instead of having them publish it? Should the Times news section cover that speech? If the logic for not running Cotton’s op-ed is that it offends the paper’s institutional values then I’d say sure, there’s no contradiction. The Times isn’t obliged to lend its platform to amplify views it finds abhorrent, but it is obliged to note for the record the fact that those abhorrent views are being advanced by influential public officials. If the logic for not running Cotton’s op-ed is that his views place people in danger, though, then it’s a harder question. Why should the Times’s news section be coopted by authoritarians to endanger black journalists just because the op-ed section refuses to be? If the paper has a duty to ensure “safety” then it’s weird that that duty would be confined to opinion. This is what Weiss is ultimately worried about, I think: The more “safety” is the guiding ethos for a publication ostensibly devoted to truth, the more it has to censor for the sake of that safety. And not just on the op-ed page.