Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy
For those of us who care about the byzantine internal politics of The New York Times, there is a tantalizing aside in Adam Rubenstein’s essay in The Atlantic about his stint as an editor in the opinion section. Rubenstein was involved in editing the infamous June 2020 op-ed by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (free link) calling for the use of the Insurrection Act to suppress violent demonstrators at Black Lives Matter protests. The op-ed led to an internal revolt at the Times and, ultimately, the firing of editorial-page editor James Bennet.
One of the principal charges against Bennet was that he admitted he hadn’t read Cotton’s screed before publishing it. Yet Rubenstein’s Atlantic essay, which is sympathetic to Bennet, includes this:
In addition to my own edits, I incorporated edits conveyed by Bennet, Dao, and the deputy op-ed editor, Clay Risen; then a copy editor went over the essay.
(Dao, by the way, is James Dao, now editorial-page editor at The Boston Globe.)
“Edits conveyed by Bennet”? What, precisely, is that supposed to mean? Did Bennet have a hand in editing the piece or didn’t he? It sure sounds like Rubenstein is telling us that Bennet read the op-ed before it was published — but that contradicts what’s on the public record. For instance, here’s an excerpt from the story (free link) that the Times itself wrote about the controversy just before Bennet was fired:
James Bennet, the editor in charge of the opinion section, said in a meeting with staff members late in the day that he had not read the essay before it was published. Shortly afterward, The Times issued a statement saying the essay fell short of the newspaper’s standards.
Last December, in a massively long essay revisiting the entire affair, Bennet himself reiterated in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine, where he is a columnist, that he had not read the op-ed. He recounts an internal meeting at which he tried to defend himself and the decision to publish Cotton’s piece:
[A] pop-culture reporter asked if I had read the op-ed before it was published. I said I had not. He immediately put his head down and started typing, and I should have paid attention rather than moving on to the next question. He was evidently sharing the news with the company over Slack. If he had followed up, or I had, I might have explained that this was standard practice. Dao’s name was on the masthead of the New York Times because he was in charge of the op-ed section. If I insisted on reviewing every piece, I would have been doing his job for him – and been betraying a crippling lack of trust in one of the papers’ finest editors.
There is one other tidbit in Bennet’s piece that perhaps Rubenstein is referring to: “Rubenstein also told me that in one draft Cotton had linked disapprovingly to a tweet from a Times reporter that could be read as expressing support for the rioters. I told Rubenstein to make sure that this link was removed. I had prohibited criticising any work, including any social-media activity, from the newsroom, unless I ran the idea by a senior newsroom editor first.”
Is that the edit “conveyed by Bennet” that Rubenstein refers to in The Atlantic? If so, it’s a pretty thin reed. Rubenstein and his editors at The Atlantic should have realized that he was directly contradicting what Bennet had said about his involvement in Cotton’s op-ed and clarified that Bennet was merely responding to a routine question Rubenstein had asked him. And if Rubenstein is suggesting that Bennet was more involved than he has claimed, then that should have been highlighted, not buried in an aside.
Aside from the ambiguities about the degree to which Bennet was involved in editing Cotton’s op-ed, there is at least one other significant failure by Rubenstein and his editors. In attempting to prove that the Times newsroom is hermetically sealed in a left-wing bubble, he takes a shot at Times reporter Edward Wong, writing:
A diplomatic correspondent, Edward Wong, wrote in an email to colleagues that he typically chose not to quote Cotton in his own stories because his comments “often represent neither a widely held majority opinion nor a well-thought-out minority opinion.” This message was revealing. A Times reporter saying that he avoids quoting a U.S. senator? What if the senator is saying something important? What sorts of minority opinions met this correspondent’s standards for being well thought-out?
Wong responded on Twitter/X:
This passage in @TheAtlantic essay by Adam Rubenstein is wrong. The quote is from a paragraph in which I discussed only China policy. I named a GOP senator whom I think speaks with more substance on China than Cotton. Readers know I quote a wide range of knowledgeable analysis.
I respect @TheAtlantic. It should issue a correction. No one asked me for comment, or I would’ve pointed out the false context. The irony is that Rubenstein twisted a line to fit his ideological point — the very act he criticizes. And all serious journalists scrutinize opinions.
In other words, Rubenstein inflates Wong’s well-founded skepticism of Cotton’s expertise (or lack thereof) on one topic into what amounts to an ideologically based boycott of anything Cotton might tell him. This is sleazy and wrong, and The Atlantic needs to respect Wong’s request for a correction.
The Atlantic appears to be in the clear on one other controversy. Rubenstein opens with an anecdote aimed at making the Times look like a caricature of what the right might imagine to be wokeism gone wild:
On one of my first days at The New York Times, I went to an orientation with more than a dozen other new hires. We had to do an icebreaker: Pick a Starburst out of a jar and then answer a question. My Starburst was pink, I believe, and so I had to answer the pink prompt, which had me respond with my favorite sandwich. Russ & Daughters’ Super Heebster came to mind, but I figured mentioning a $19 sandwich wasn’t a great way to win new friends. So I blurted out, “The spicy chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A,” and considered the ice broken.
The HR representative leading the orientation chided me: “We don’t do that here. They hate gay people.” People started snapping their fingers in acclamation. I hadn’t been thinking about the fact that Chick-fil-A was transgressive in liberal circles for its chairman’s opposition to gay marriage. “Not the politics, the chicken,” I quickly said, but it was too late. I sat down, ashamed.
Columbia Journalism School professor Bill Grueskin, who is not one to swing from the hips, wrote on Twitter that perhaps Rubenstein’s tale is just a little too good to be true: “I will swear on a stack of AP stylebooks that it is perfectly acceptable for editors, even at @TheAtlantic, to both fact-check first-person anecdotes and tell your readers you did that.” Times Magazine writer and Howard University professor Nikole Hannah-Jones went further, asserting, “Never happened.”
But evidence has emerged that the session Rubenstein describes actually did happen. Conservative commentator Jesse Singal wrote that he obtained a statement from The Atlantic confirming its accuracy, and former Times opinion writer Bari Weiss said that Rubenstein “told me and others that story when it happened.”
One final observation. “As painful as it was in my mid-20s to think that my journalistic career would end as a result of this episode,” Rubenstein writes of his decision to leave the Times, “it’s even more painful to think that newsrooms haven’t learned the right lessons from it.”
In his mid-20s? When you’re in your mid-20s, you should be covering city council meetings or, if you’re adventurous, a war. If Rubenstein really wants to explore what’s wrong with the culture of the Times newsroom, he might begin with an examination of how someone as young and inexperienced as he found himself holding an important editing job at our most influential news organization without having any relevant journalism experience beyond working at The Weekly Standard and interning at The Wall Street Journal.
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