Erik Wemple: A.G. Sulzberger Should Be Ashamed Of Himself For Firing James Bennet
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From the Washington Post opinion section:

Opinion James Bennet was right

By Erik Wemple
Washington Post media critic

October 27, 2022 at 2:48 p.m. EDT

Controversy over an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) consumed the New York Times in June 2020 and claimed the job of then-editorial page editor James Bennet. Two-and-a-half years later, Bennet has shared some thoughts about the episode — and, in particular, the role of Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger.

“He set me on fire and threw me in the garbage and used my reverence for the institution against me,” Bennet recently told Ben Smith of Semafor.

Semafor is a new news website featuring a number of moderate white male refugees from the big media institutions, like Ben Smith, formerly of the New York Times, and Dave Weigel, formerly of the Washington Post.

“This is why I was so bewildered for so long after I had what felt like all my colleagues treating me like an incompetent fascist.”

That might sound like the angst of a guy who’s still disgruntled at losing his job. And it is, for a compelling reason: Bennet is right. He’s right about Sulzberger, he’s right about the Cotton op-ed, and he’s right about the lessons that linger from his tumultuous final days at the Times.

His outburst in Semafor furnishes a toehold for reassessing one of the most consequential journalism fights in decades. To date, the lesson from the set-to—that publishing a senator arguing that federal troops could be deployed against rioters is unacceptable—will forever circumscribe what issues opinion sections are allowed to address. It’s also long past time to ask why more people who claim to uphold journalism and free expression—including, um, the Erik Wemple Blog—didn’t speak out then in Bennet’s defense.

It’s because we were afraid to.

On June 1, 2020 [the Monday one week after the demise of George Floyd, following a weekend of rioting across the country, including attacks on the White House], Cotton tweeted suggesting military intervention against unrest in U.S. cities stemming from the Black Lives Matter protests. “Anarchy, rioting, and looting needs to end tonight. If local law enforcement is overwhelmed and needs backup, let’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division. We need to have zero tolerance for this destruction,” he wrote.

Trump had made the same suggestion, only to be shot down by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that they weren’t going to protect some elected President from any mobs, such as the Antifa mob then being recruited to attack the White House again the following weekend. Attorney General Bill Barr defused a Constitutional crisis by pointing out to Trump that the federal government employed a huge number of armed men still loyal to the rightful chief executive, such as the Border Patrol. Defensive forces were assembled and the high hopes for the Lafayette Square color revolution of 2020 sputtered out as would-be rioters underwent an agonizing reappraisal of just how brave they were.

Twitter threatened to censor Cotton’s account over the comments but ultimately took no action.

According to two sources, Cotton’s initial pitch to the Times focused on Twitter’s alleged overreach in moderating its platform. The Times opinion section, however, was less interested in the social media dimension than the policy itself. Cotton’s office,...delivered a 950-word essay exploring invocation of the Insurrection Act against rioters who destroyed property, and worse, amid the otherwise peaceful protests over the murder of George Floyd.

It was published on Wednesday, June 3, under a headline written by the Times: “Tom Cotton: Send In the Troops.”

A backlash swiftly combusted, with Times staffers at the forefront of the critique. …

Many Times staffers, however, forwent the rigor of argumentation and tweeted out the following line — or something similar — to express their disgust: “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.” The formulation came from the internal group Black@NYT and received the blessing of the NewsGuild of New York as “legally protected speech because it focused on workplace safety,” Smith, then the Times’s media columnist, reported at the time.

The “danger” tweets—along with a letter from Times employees slamming the op-ed—landed with impact. Although Sulzberger initially defended publication as furthering the “principle of openness to a range of opinions,” he bailed on that posture within hours. By the afternoon after publication, the paper had determined that the piece failed to “meet our standards,” according to a statement.

As Sulzberger flip-flopped, an astonishing up-is-down moment unfolded at the paper’s upper reaches. Whereas media outlets typically develop arguments to defend work that comes under attack, the opposite scenario played out over the Cotton op-ed: Top Times officials, according to three sources, scrambled to pulverize the essay in order to vindicate objections rolling in from Twitter. A post-publication fact-check was commissioned to comb through the op-ed for errors, according to the sources, even though it had undergone fact-checking before publication. The paper’s standards desk spearheaded work on an editor’s note.

… The review didn’t deliver the factual bloodbath alleged by critics. The fact-check flagged a misquotation that should have been rendered as a paraphrase. It also examined objections to Cotton’s claim that “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” were “infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.” That topic was the focus of various conflicting official statements and news stories—some of them published by the Times—in the run-up to the Cotton op-ed and extending well beyond it.

The editor’s note asserted that the claims about antifa “have not been substantiated and have been widely questioned. Editors should have sought further corroboration of those assertions, or removed them from the piece.”

Antifa? What’s Antifa? We don’t see no Antifa.

… Yet a more pathetic collection of 317 words would be difficult to assemble. In his recent comments, Bennet called the Times note a misguided effort “to mollify people.” But Bennet didn’t write the bloated, italicized nostra culpa, according to informed sources — it was a committee product headed by the standards desk, with extensive involvement from Sulzberger himself, sources say.

Sulzberger seemed disappointed upon being told that the post-publication fact-check hadn’t punctured the op-ed, according to a source involved in the process. …

The editor’s note teed up Bennet’s firing — technically, resignation — as editorial page editor. Media coverage of his departure noted that the op-ed was one of several storms under Bennet’s management; others included a June 2017 editorial that triggered a defamation lawsuit from Sarah Palin, an antisemitic cartoon and personnel fiascoes. The Cotton thing seemed like the last straw.

Except, in hindsight, it wasn’t a straw at all. In initially sticking up for the Times’s role in publishing controversial fare, Sulzberger had it right. The paper had published an opinion by a U.S. senator (and possible presidential candidate) advocating a lawful act by the president. That’s not to say it would have been a good idea: Elizabeth Goitein, an expert on national security law at the Brennan Center for Justice, says that invoking the Insurrection Act amid the Black Lives Matter protests would have been “inappropriate” because local authorities had a handle on the instances of unrest taking place “at the margins,” but that a deployment “likely would have fallen within the capacious bounds of this poorly drafted statute.”

… The Twitter chain claiming “danger” to Times staffers suffered from the same journalistic failings leveled at the op-ed. It was an exercise in manipulative hyperbole brilliantly calibrated for immediate impact. “I actually knew what it meant to have a target on your back when you’re reporting for the New York Times,” Bennet told Smith — an apparent reference to his days reporting for the Times in the Middle East, where he narrowly escaped being kidnapped in 2004.

The Erik Wemple Blog has asked about 30 Times staffers whether they still believe their “danger” tweets and whether there was any merit in Bennet’s retort. Not one of them replied with an on-the-record defense. Such was the depth of conviction behind a central argument in l’affaire Cotton.

Our criticism of the Twitter outburst comes 875 days too late. Although the hollowness of the internal uproar against Bennet was immediately apparent, we responded with an evenhanded critique of the Times’s flip-flop, not the unapologetic defense of journalism that the situation required. Our posture was one of cowardice and midcareer risk management. With that, we pile one more regret onto a controversy littered with them.


Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s media critic, focuses on the cable-news industry. Before joining The Post, he ran a short-lived and much publicized local online news operation, and for eight years served as editor of Washington City Paper.

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