The ossification of James Bennet’s departure from The New York Times into a simple morality tale of wokeness run amok is now complete.
In an interview with Ben Smith for the debut of Smith’s new project, Semafor, Bennet is overflowing with self-pity over the way his tenure as the Times’ editorial page editor came to an end. You may recall that Bennet was forced out in June 2020 after running an op-ed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton in which Cotton wrote that Black Lives Matter protests should be met with military force. Bennet tells Smith that his only regret was running an editor’s note after the fact.
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“My mistake there was trying to mollify people,” Bennet said. He added that publisher A.G. Sulzberger showed no regard for Bennet’s 19-year career at the Times, which included putting himself in harm’s way while reporting from the West Bank and Gaza. “None of that mattered, and none of it mattered to A.G.,” Bennet said. “When push came to shove at the end, he set me on fire and threw me in the garbage and used my reverence for the institution against me. 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.”
Then, in a post-interview text to Smith, Bennet added: “One more thing that sometimes gets misreported: I never apologized for publishing the piece and still don’t.”
This is pretty entertaining stuff, but Bennet — and Smith — leave out a lot. Let’s start with the Cotton op-ed, an ugly little screed that he defended vociferously and then later admitted he hadn’t even read it before publication. This is sheer dereliction of duty. I don’t doubt that he couldn’t read everything that was published in the Times opinion section, but this was an incendiary piece about a fraught topic. And he knew it was coming, since it was a piece he had solicited.
But let’s get right to the heart of the matter. It was only a few months ago that the Times won a libel suit brought by Sarah Palin over a 2017 editorial tying her violent rhetoric to the 2011 shooting of then-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — a crime that also claimed the lives of six people. Bennet had inserted that falsehood while editing the editorial, and Palin’s lawsuit was factually correct. The Times won not because Palin was wrong but because, as public figure, she had to prove that Bennet’s actions were deliberate rather than negligent, and Bennet had little trouble proving his negligence during a cringe-worthy turn on the witness stand. It should be noted that at the time of the Cotton affair, Palin had already filed her lawsuit — something that had to enter into Sulzberger’s thinking.
Then there’s the matter of Times columnist Bret Stephens, who, in 2019, wrote a column saying that maybe Ashkenazi Jews really are genetically more intelligent and backed up his assertion by linking to an article co-authored by a white supremacist. Stephens was let off with a fairly mild editor’s note and a re-edit that toned down his toxic views. But it remains a source of astonishment that a Jewish columnist could write something that has been used to persecute Jews throughout history and that no one — least of all Bennet — caught it beforehand.
It’s no surprise that Bennet landed on his feet; he’s currently a columnist for The Economist. Of course, it suits his agenda to make his demise at the Times sound like a simple matter of being hounded out by the woke mob. That’s not what happened, or at least that’s not all that happened. Smith, who was the Times media columnist when Bennet finally slipped on his last banana peel, knows that as well as anyone.
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I see Smith has responded to this item on Twitter by claiming he agrees with you but that the Times was still at fault for making Bennet’s ouster appear political because of its timing. Nonetheless, Smith’s article doesn’t make that point, it allows Bennet’s self-serving narrative to go largely unchallenged. It’s really curious that Smith would enable Bennet, of all people, to be the dissenting voice on his piece about the allegedly changing direction of the Times, especially without making it clear what a huge ax Bennet has to grind.
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