James Bennet: The NY Times Has Gone from Liberal Bias to Illiberal Bias (Update)

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File

You may remember James Bennet as the NY Times editor who managed the opinion section of the paper. Bennet was pushed to resign back in 2020 after agreeing to publish a piece by Sen. Tom Cotton. Cotton had argued the country should call out the National Guard to put an end to Black Lives Matter riots which had broken out around the country.


Bennet and his superiors had agreed in advance of publication that Cotton had a legitimate, albeit right-wing, view. But it wasn’t his alone. Other members of congress and possibly the president held it too, not to mention lots of regular people.

But the backlash inside the newsroom, led by black staffers and “1619 Project” author Nikole Hannah-Jones, eventually frightened the publisher into submission. Shawn McCreesh, a former Times’ staffer who was present at the time, has described the mood behind the scenes as being “like a Maoist struggle session.”

There was like this giant communal Slack chat for the whole company that became sort of the digital gallows,” he told me. “And all these angry backbiting staffers were gathering there and demanding that heads roll and the most bloodthirsty of the employees were these sort of weird tech and audio staffers and then a handful of people who wrote for like the Arts and Leisure section, and the Style section, and the magazine, which, in other words, you know, it was no one who was actually out covering any of the protests or the riots or the politics. It was just sort of like a bunch of Twitter-brained crazies kind of running wild on Slack. And the leadership was so horrified by what was happening. They just completely lost their nerve.

Today, the Economist has published Bennet’s own take on what led to his firing. He frames it as the moment the NY Times lost its way. It opens with the agreement between Bennet, executive editor Dean Baquet and publisher A.G. Sulzberger that publishing Cotton’s op-ed was the right thing to do.

The publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, who was about two years into the job, understood why we’d published the op-ed. He had some criticisms about packaging; he said the editors should add links to other op-eds we’d published with a different view. But he’d emailed me that afternoon, saying: “I get and support the reason for including the piece,” because, he thought, Cotton’s view had the support of the White House as well as a majority of the Senate. As the clamour grew, he asked me to call Baquet, the paper’s most senior editor.

Like me, Baquet seemed taken aback by the criticism that Times readers shouldn’t hear what Cotton had to say. Cotton had a lot of influence with the White House, Baquet noted, and he could well be making his argument directly to the president, Donald Trump. Readers should know about it. Cotton was also a possible future contender for the White House himself, Baquet added. And, besides, Cotton was far from alone: lots of Americans agreed with him—most of them, according to some polls. “Are we truly so precious?” Baquet asked again, with a note of wonder and frustration.


Three days later, Sulzberger called Bennet and asked him to resign. How could things turn around so quickly? Bennet’s conclusion is that, Sulzberger had the right instincts but lacked the courage of his convictions.

Sulzberger seems to underestimate the struggle he is in, that all journalism and indeed America itself is in. In describing the essential qualities of independent journalism in his essay, he unspooled a list of admirable traits – empathy, humility, curiosity and so forth. These qualities have for generations been helpful in contending with the Times’s familiar problem, which is liberal bias. I have no doubt Sulzberger believes in them. Years ago he demonstrated them himself as a reporter, covering the American Midwest as a real place full of three-dimensional people, and it would be nice if they were enough to deal with the challenge of this era, too. But, on their own, these qualities have no chance against the Times’s new, more dangerous problem, which is in crucial respects the opposite of the old one.

The Times’s problem has metastasised from liberal bias to illiberal bias, from an inclination to favour one side of the national debate to an impulse to shut debate down altogether. All the empathy and humility in the world will not mean much against the pressures of intolerance and tribalism without an invaluable quality that Sulzberger did not emphasise: courage.

The middle section of the piece is a detailed description of Bennet’s job history. He started at the Times young and nearly lost his chance at a long-term job because his boss wasn’t impressed with his work. So he asked for more responsibility and wound up learning the ropes covering a series of different beats over the years. He eventually wound up running the paper’s coverage of Israel where he had opportunities to interview Hamas figures. After 15 years he was offered a top job at the Atlantic, which he accepted. He made changes there which made the magazine more successful and was eventually asked to return to the NY Times to head up their opinion pages.


While reading all of this personal history I was wondering what the point of it all was. Was Bennet just bragging about his work history to give his criticisms more credibility? I don’t think that was his point. The gist of what this section is trying to convey is that Bennet had come to a specific point of view about how good opinion journalism should work. He doesn’t put it this way exactly but I think you could summarize it as opening the Overton window. He’d come to believe that instead of limiting debate to a narrow spectrum of the left and center-right, the discussion was more interesting (more real?) when you opened it up to people on the progressive left and people on the right.

But when he tried to bring that big idea to the Times opinion pages he quickly discovered that the ground had shifted while he’d been away. For instance, one year after Trump’s 2016 victory he invited letters from Trump supporters explaining why they liked the president. He wound up in what might be called Struggle Session Mark 1.

As the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration approached, the editors who compile letters to the Times, part of my department, had put out a request to readers who supported the president to say what they thought of him now. The results had some nuance. “Yes, he is embarrassing,” wrote one reader. “Yes, he picks unnecessary fights. But he also pushed tax reform through, has largely defeated isis in Iraq,” and so forth. After a year spent publishing editorials attacking Trump and his policies, I thought it would be a demonstration of Timesian open-mindedness to give his supporters their say. Also, I thought the letters were interesting, so I turned over the entire editorial page to the Trump letters.

I wasn’t surprised that we got some criticism on Twitter. But I was astonished by the fury of my Times colleagues. I found myself facing an angry internal town hall, trying to justify what to me was an obvious journalistic decision. During the session, one of the newsroom’s journalists demanded to know when I would publish a page of letters from Barack Obama’s supporters. I stammered out some kind of answer. The question just didn’t make sense to me. Pretty much every day we published letters from people who supported Obama and criticised Trump. Didn’t he know that Obama wasn’t president any more? Didn’t he think other Times readers should understand the sources of Trump’s support? Didn’t he also see it was a wonderful thing that some Trump supporters did not just dismiss the Times as fake news, but still believed in it enough to respond thoughtfully to an invitation to share their views?


This wasn’t a one-off, it was part of a pattern. And, significantly, it was a pattern with a clear partisan element.

Conservative arguments in the Opinion pages reliably started uproars within the Times. Sometimes I would hear directly from colleagues who had the grace to confront me with their concerns; more often they would take to the company’s Slack channels or Twitter to advertise their distress in front of each other. By contrast, in my four years as Opinion editor, I received just two complaints from newsroom staff about pieces we published from the left…

The bias had become so pervasive, even in the senior editing ranks of the newsroom, as to be unconscious. Trying to be helpful, one of the top newsroom editors urged me to start attaching trigger warnings to pieces by conservatives. It had not occurred to him how this would stigmatise certain colleagues, or what it would say to the world about the Times’s own bias. By their nature, information bubbles are powerfully self-reinforcing, and I think many Times staff have little idea how closed their world has become, or how far they are from fulfilling their compact with readers to show the world “without fear or favour”. And sometimes the bias was explicit: one newsroom editor told me that, because I was publishing more conservatives, he felt he needed to push his own department further to the left.

The Times’s failure to honour its own stated principles of openness to a range of views was particularly hard on the handful of conservative writers, some of whom would complain about being flyspecked and abused by colleagues. One day when I relayed a conservative’s concern about double standards to Sulzberger, he lost his patience. He told me to inform the complaining conservative that that’s just how it was: there was a double standard and he should get used to it. A publication that promises its readers to stand apart from politics should not have different standards for different writers based on their politics. But I delivered the message. There are many things I regret about my tenure as editorial-page editor. That is the only act of which I am ashamed.


The point is that the internal explosion over the Sen. Cotton op-ed didn’t come out of nowhere. It was just a more public incident of the same type that had been happening for a while already at the paper.

Bennet says this trend became worse as the Times began hiring “digital natives,” i.e. reporters for outlets like HuffPost and Buzzfeed who were fleeing other outlets that were on the decline. These folks in particular had a very partisan vision of what the paper they’d been hired to work for should be. He writes, “To me, publishing conservatives helped fulfil the paper’s mission; to them, I think, it betrayed that mission.” As Bennet saw it, the paper’s increasingly narrow bent had an impact on a lot of stories it covered:

The Times was slow to break it to its readers that there was less to Trump’s ties to Russia than they were hoping, and more to Hunter Biden’s laptop, that Trump might be right that covid came from a Chinese lab, that masks were not always effective against the virus, that shutting down schools for many months was a bad idea.

Finally, Bennet gets to the prickly bit of this, identifying the strain of politics that was driving it. Can you guess?

Illiberal journalists have a different philosophy, and they have their reasons for it. They are more concerned with group rights than individual rights, which they regard as a bulwark for the privileges of white men. They have seen the principle of free speech used to protect right-wing outfits like Project Veritas and Breitbart News and are uneasy with it. They had their suspicions of their fellow citizens’ judgment confirmed by Trump’s election, and do not believe readers can be trusted with potentially dangerous ideas or facts. They are not out to achieve social justice as the knock-on effect of pursuing truth; they want to pursue it head-on. The term “objectivity” to them is code for ignoring the poor and weak and cosying up to power, as journalists often have done.

And they do not just want to be part of the cool crowd. They need to be. To be more valued by their peers and their contacts – and hold sway over their bosses – they need a lot of followers in social media. That means they must be seen to applaud the right sentiments of the right people in social media. The journalist from central casting used to be a loner, contrarian or a misfit. Now journalism is becoming another job for joiners, or, to borrow Twitter’s own parlance, “followers”, a term that mocks the essence of a journalist’s role.


There it is, an admission from a former NY Times editor that the woke were increasingly running things at the paper even prior to his resignation in 2020. Bennet says the newsroom began hiring opinion writers who acted as if they were columnists even though the technically didn’t work on the opinion side of the paper. I could swear he’s talking about Taylor Lorenz at one point. She worked there from 2019 to 2022 so it’s possible that’s one of the people he’s talking about.

When it became clear that this move toward newsroom opinion wasn’t going to change, Bennet recommended that editor Dean Baquet hire a conservative for this space to help balance things out. He says Baquet liked the idea but he never did anything about it.

The end of the piece is a detailed rehash of what led up to Bennet’s firing. It’s interesting but the point is not really the details, it’s more that it was inevitable. The Times had courted woke employees and now those employees were doing what woke employees do. They intimidated the paper’s leadership and got what they asked for (Bennet’s scalp). And the Times arguably got what it asked for too, a newsroom controlled by the illiberal left.

Update: Speaking of the illiberal left. Hard to think of a more shallow, thought-free response than this.

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