Erik Wemple — belatedly, he says — comes to James Bennet’s defense

Erik Wemple of The Washington Post comes to the defense (free link) of former New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet, and says he should have done so two years ago. In a remarkable mea culpa, Wemple writes:

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.

Wemple is someone I hold in extremely high regard. That said, I don’t think he gives sufficient weight to Bennet’s full record, including putting the Times at risk because of his sloppiness in handling an editorial about Sarah Palin and helping columnist Bret Stephens evade accountability for a column in which he more or less endorsed eugenics. I wrote all about that recently.

Absent those factors, I think Bennet would have survived the uproar over an op-ed by U.S. Sen Tom Cotton urging the use of military force against violent Black Lives Matter protesters. For that matter, Bennet might have kept his job despite everything had he not offered a full-throated defense of the Cotton piece and then admitted he hadn’t read it before publication.

Still, Wemple makes some strong arguments on Bennet’s behalf.

No, James Bennet was not a victim of the woke mob

Black Lives Matter rally in Washington, June 2020. Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston.

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.

Fred Hiatt’s death ends a remarkable period of stability at The Washington Post

Fred Hiatt. Photo (cc) 2014 by CSIS.

The death of Fred Hiatt ends a period of remarkable stability at the top of The Washington Post’s masthead. Hiatt, the editorial-page editor, had served in that position since 1999. Marty Baron, who was hired as executive editor in 2012, retired earlier this year. Hiatt and Baron predated Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Post in 2013, and their continuation in those roles was a signal that Amazon’s founder was determined not to interfere with either the newsroom or the opinion operation.

Baron was replaced by Sally Buzbee, previously the top editor at The Associated Press. It will be interesting to see who replaces Hiatt — though I suspect it could be a while given that his sudden death at 66 was unanticipated. When Buzbee was interviewed recently by Kara Swisher on her New York Times podcast, she gave the impression that publisher Fred Ryan was more involved in her hiring than Bezos was. We’ll see if Bezos follows the same pattern in hiring a new opinion editor. Not that he has to — the ethical standard good news organizations follow is that the owner should stay out of the newsroom but is free to meddle with the editorial pages.

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I didn’t realize that Hiatt had Boston-area roots until I read the tributes this morning. He grew up in Brookline and graduated from Harvard, where his father was dean of the School of Public Health.

In my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote this about Hiatt’s editorial pages:

Hiatt’s retention was noteworthy, as new owners often want to exert their influence on the opinion pages. But even though Bezos’ politics were thought to be generally libertarian, the Post’s editorial stance — which could be described as moderately liberal with a taste for foreign intervention — did not change under Bezos’ ownership.

Looking back over the course of Hiatt’s career, I’d say that observation has held up. The Post is, indeed, moderately liberal. But his unsigned editorials called for war following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and — more controversially — against Iraq, which then-President George W. Bush wrongly claimed had weapons of mass destruction. The Post, of course, was hardly the only newspaper to endorse what proved to be a horrendous foreign-policy blunder. But it’s the job of a great newspaper to take unpopular stands when warranted. In fact, the Times came out against going to war in Iraq, if rather grudgingly.

The Post’s opinion section diverged from the Times’ during the Donald Trump era as well. Though Hiatt was staunchly anti-Trump and published many anti-Trump columnists — including conservatives like Max Boot, Michael Gerson and George Will — he also employed pro-Trump pundits like Marc Thiessen (“Three cheers for ‘Let’s Go Brandon'”) and Gary Abernathy (“A Trump candidacy in 2024 would threaten his own legacy”).

I’m not sure what Hiatt thought such drivel added to his section. Maybe he just wanted his readers to see what the pro-Trump argument was without having to seek it out on Fox News. In any case, the Times took a different approach, restricting its in-house conservatives to Never Trumpers like Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens. (I’d mention David Brooks, too, except that he really isn’t much a conservative these days.)

Hiatt was a strong supporter of human rights around the world and spoke out forthrightly against the Saudi regime following the murder of one of his columnists, Jamal Khashoggi. By all accounts, he was also a very nice guy, which counts for a lot. A Post editorial put it this way: “Mr. Hiatt made it possible for The Post’s opinion writers and the content they produce to encompass a wide range of views on virtually every subject of public debate, without the rancor, personal enmity and bad faith that have become so prevalent elsewhere in Washington and the nation. Our respect for and loyalty to Mr. Hiatt, and his for us, held this staff together.”

Hiatt served long enough in his position to watch the Post shrink under Graham family ownership from a viable competitor with the Times to a regional paper forced to cut its staff year after year; and then to preside over its rebirth and growth under Bezos. He was an honorable servant of the Washington establishment, which I mean in both a positive and a negative sense. Given the fractures that are now tearing the country apart, we may not see the likes of him again.

Linking reconsidered

Photo (cc) 2013 by liebeslakritze

Although I started blogging in 2002, the first regular column that I ever wrote for a digital publication was for The Guardian. From 2007 until 2011, I produced a weekly commentary about media, politics and culture that was not much different from what I write now for GBH News. What was new was that, for the first time, I could embed links in my column, just as if I was blogging. I did — liberally. (Only later did my editor tell me that the software he used stripped out all the links I had put in, which meant that he had to restore them all by hand. And this was at one of the most digitally focused newspapers on the planet.)

Links have become a standard part of digital journalism. So I was surprised recently when Ed Lyons, a local political commentator who’s an old-fashioned moderate Republican, posted a Twitter thread denouncing links. It began: “I hereby declare I am *done* with hyperlinks in political writing. Pull up a chair and let me rant about how we got to this ridiculous place. What started off as citation has unintentionally turned into some sort of pundit performance art.”

The whole thread is worth reading. And it got me thinking about the value of linking. Back when everything was in print, you couldn’t link, of course, so opinion columns — constrained by space limitations — tended to include a lot of unattributed facts. The idea was that you didn’t need to credit commonly known background material, such as “North Dakota is north of South Dakota.” Sometimes, though, it was hard to know what was background and what wasn’t, and you didn’t want to do anything that might be perceived as unethical. When linking came along, you could attribute everything just by linking to it. And many of us did.

In his thread, Lyons also wrote that “it is my opinion that nobody visits any of these links. I think readers see the link and say oh well that must be true.” I agree. In fact, I tell my students that no one clicks on links, which means that they should always write clearly and include all the information they want the reader to know. The link should be used as a supplement, not as a substitute. To the extent possible, they should also give full credit to the publication and the writer when they’re quoting something as well as providing a link.

I agree with Lyons that links ought to add value and not just be put in gratuitously. And they certainly shouldn’t be snuck in as a way of whispering something that you wouldn’t want to say out loud. The classic example of that would be a notorious column a couple of years ago by Bret Stephens of The New York Times, who wrote that the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews might be genetically superior — and backed it up with a link to a study co-authored by a so-called scientist who had been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist and a eugenicist. Stephens’ assertion was bad enough; his citation was worse, even if few people read it.

One of the most successful self-published writers currently is the historian Heather Cox Richardson. I’ve noticed that she leaves links out of her Substack essays entirely, posting them at the bottom instead. Here’s an example. I’m not going to do that, but it seems to be a decent compromise — showing her work while not letting a bunch of links clutter up her text.

In any event, I don’t expect you to follow the links I include in my writing. They’re there if you want to know more, or if you want to see if I’m fairly characterizing what I’m describing. At the very least, Lyons has reminded me of the value of including links only when they really matter.

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Bret Stephens speaks out against cancellation of Nikole Hannah-Jones

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens has spoken out against the cancellation of a speaking appearance by his Times colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones at the Middlesex School in Concord. Stephens is an alumnus and a member of the board of trustees. Stephens told Christopher Galvin of Boston.com:

I had no knowledge that an invitation had been extended to Nikole. I had nothing to do with the decision not to bring her to the school. The first I heard about it was when someone sent me her tweet… I don’t believe in canceling speakers.

Stephens is a conservative who has written critically about the 1619 Project, a reimagining of the role of slavery in American history that Hannah-Jones oversaw and for which she won a Pulitzer Prize.

Good for him for standing on principle.

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The latest Nikole Hannah-Jones snub is not going to end well for the Middlesex School

Eliot Hall at the Middlesex School. Public domain photo by Daderot.

I think it’s pretty obvious that we’re only in the beginning stages of learning the story behind the Middlesex School’s decision to invite, and then uninvite, New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to speak during Black History Month. Middlesex is an exclusive prep school in Concord. Hannah-Jones is best known for the 1619 Project, a reimagining of the role of slavery in American history that won her a Pulitzer Prize.

What always amazes me when something like this happens is the failure of the imagination we see on the part of those in charge. Does David Beare, the head of school who issued a limp statement about concerns over “individuals from outside our community” making a ruckus, really think this is going to end well either for the school or for him? This is not North Carolina.

A few other points worth noting. Among the school’s trustees is New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, a conservative and frequent critic of so-called cancel culture. Will he speak up on behalf of his Times colleague? Another prominent trustee is Cass Sunstein, a well-known Harvard Law School professor and a good bet to criticize this abomination.

Of possibly more significance is that Robert and Anne Bass are both vice presidents of the board. As Gabriel Snyder observes, the Basses are “part of a billionaire family that has bankrolled a lot of campus conservative outrage over the years.”

Stay tuned. There is going to be much more to come, I’m sure.

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Bari Weiss, James Bennet and the selective omission of relevant facts

I had a chance on Monday to listen to Brian Stelter’s CNN podcast with Bari Weiss, the semi-conservative journalist who left The New York Times over what she perceived as an overabundance of left-wing groupthink.

It was an interesting conversation. I agreed with some of what Weiss had to say and disagreed with some of it. But I was put off by the revisionist history she espoused about the resignation of James Bennet as editorial-page editor of The New York Times. Stelter didn’t push back. I will.

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Weiss offered up as fact the notion that Bennet was forced out of the Times in 2020 solely because he published an op-ed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, calling for military force to be used against Black Lives Matter protesters. She described a letter signed by Times staffers saying that Cotton’s op-ed put their lives in danger as “craziness.”

And yes, Bennet’s departure came shortly thereafter. But here are a few facts that neither Weiss nor Stelter brought up:

  • After Bennet defended Cotton’s op-ed, it was learned that he hadn’t even bothered to read it before it was published — an inexcusable dereliction of duty.
  • Shortly before the Times published Cotton’s op-ed, Cotton called for the government to give “no quarter” to looters. As The Bulwark, a conservative website pointed out, giving no quarter in military terms means to kill indiscriminately — a war crime. Cotton, a veteran, knows that. Unfortunately, neither Bennet nor any other Times editor asked Cotton to address that in his op-ed.
  • In late 2019, Times columnist Bret Stephens suggested that Ashkenazi Jews might be genetically more intelligent than other people. Bennet allowed him to clean it up unscathed, although Stephens did have to suffer the indignity of an Editor’s Note being appended to his column. As Politico media critic Jack Shafer wrote at the time, “The Times disavowal and re-edit (tellingly neither co-signed nor acknowledged by Stephens) was too little and too late — if you’re going to edit a piece, the smart move is to edit before it publishes.” That, ahem, would be Bennet’s job. Wonder if he read that one before it was published?
  • Sarah Palin has sued the Times for libel over a 2017 editorial in which Bennet personally added language suggesting that a map published by Palin’s PAC, festooned with crosshairs, incited the shooting that severely wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others. There is no evidence — none — that the mentally ill shooter ever even saw the map. The lawsuit is still pending.

In other words, the mishandled Tom Cotton op-ed was merely the last in a series of banana peels that Bennet stepped on. It’s a wonder he lasted as long as he did.

After leaving the Times, Weiss moved to Substack and started the newsletter Common Sense. She is currently in the process of hiring a team of opinion writers to create what she told Stelter will be “the op-ed page that I want to read.”

Well, if the selective omission of relevant facts is what she wants to read — and wants to publish — then  you can count me out.

Kathleen Kingsbury: Endorsing two candidates confused Times readers

Kathleen Kingsbury. Photo via The New York Times.

The Nieman Journalism Lab’s Sarah Scire last week spoke with The New York Times’ recently named opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury. It’s an interesting conversation that defies easy summary, but I was struck that Kingsbury now says she and the Times “ended up confusing people” when they endorsed two presidential candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, in last year’s Democratic primaries.

More than anything, I think Kingsbury represents steady leadership after the tumultuous James Bennet era, often caricatured as coming to an abrupt end over the infamous op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton but that was in fact — as Scire points out — punctuated by numerous lapses in judgment. Kingsbury demonstrated that steadiness last week when she killed a piece by columnist Bret Stephens. If the commentary, an n-word-filled defense of Don McNeil, had run, critics would be wondering if Kingsbury were up to the position. (Stephens’ point, such as it was, is that it ought to be considered acceptable to quote others using the n-word as long as there was no racist intent.)

I was also interested to see that Kingsbury and publisher A.G. Sulzberger “tend to talk daily.” The rule of thumb for good publishers is that they should stay out of the newsroom but that involvement in the opinion section is appropriate. John and Linda Henry are certainly involved in The Boston Globe’s opinion operation. On the other hand, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is known to be as hands-off with opinion as he is with news coverage. Sulzberger is entitled to have his say, but maybe he ought to back off and let Kingsbury do her job.

I had a long interview with Kingsbury several years ago, when she was the Globe’s managing editor for digital. She struck me then as capable and creative. The Times’ gain was definitely the Globe’s loss.

Correction: Kingsbury objected to my original characterization that she had said the Times made a mistake by not endorsing just one of the Democratic candidates. “I still believe choosing the two candidates was the right thing to do,” she says. I’ve updated this post to reflect that.

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Bret Stephens takes on the 1619 Project — and comes out on the losing end

Let me wade ever so gently into New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’ latest, in which he joins legions on the right in trashing his own newspaper’s Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project. Since I’m a firm believer in the adage that if there’s something rotten floating around the top of the barrel you need not go fishing underneath to see if there’s something better, I’ll just point to this one passage. Stephens writes:

Here is an excerpt from the introductory essay to the project by The New York Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, as it appeared in print in August 2019 (italics added):

“1619. It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?”

Now compare it to the version of the same text as it now appears online:

“1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619?”

In an email, Silverstein told me that the changes to the text were immaterial, in part because it still cited 1776 as our nation’s official birth date, and because the project’s stated aim remained to put 1619 and its consequences as the true starting point of the American story.

Readers can judge for themselves whether these unacknowledged changes violate the standard obligations of transparency for New York Times journalism. The question of journalistic practices, however, raises deeper doubts about the 1619 Project’s core premises.

Pardon the long excerpt, but I wanted you to get the full context. Now, was anyone who read the original text somehow fooled into thinking that the United States was actually founded in 1619? Did anyone go running to Wikipedia to double-check on that 1776 thing? Of course not. It is ludicrous to think that the idea of 1619 as our country’s founding year is anything other than “a metaphoric argument,” as Nikole Hannah-Jones, who conceived of and produced the project, argues.

Echoing President Trump, Stephens complains that this supposedly adulterated history is being taught to school children. Well, the obvious response to that is that maybe the editors decided to tweak the language a bit because they knew kids who haven’t been exposed to this history might, in fact, take the 1619 date literally. So what?

All of this is pretty rich coming from Stephens, who less than a year ago offered a cryptic quasi-endorsement of the idea that Ashkanazi Jews are genetically more intelligent than others, and then got off with an Editor’s Note that didn’t quite acknowledge what he had done, as Jack Shafer of Politico pointed out at the time.

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Bennet’s out as newsrooms come to terms (or not) with Black Lives Matter

Photo (cc) 2010 by samchills.

At least at the moment, I have little to add to the story of James Bennet’s departure as editorial-page editor of The New York Times beyond what Ben Smith of the Times, Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute and Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review have written, and what I wrote last week.

As Smith, Jones and Allsop point out, Bennet’s misguided decision to run Sen. Tom Cotton’s ugly commentary advocating violence against protesters should be seen as part of a larger story that encompasses Wesley Lowery’s unfortunate experience at The Washington Post, the resignation of Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Stan Wischnowski over his paper’s horrendous “Buildings Matter, Too” headline, and the right-wing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s meltdown over Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter whom they claimed couldn’t be trusted to cover Black Lives Matter protests because of an innocuous tweet she had posted.

Because of the Times’ central place in our media culture, Bennet’s departure is the big story. As the coverage makes clear, Bennet lurched from one misstep to another during his time as editorial-page editor, so it would be a mistake to attribute his departure solely to the Cotton op-ed. I don’t think he ever fully recovered from his mishandling of a Bret Stephens column in which Stephens came very close to endorsing a genetic basis for intelligence.

Bennet will be replaced through the election on an interim basis by deputy editorial-page editor Katie Kingsbury, who won a Pulitzer when she was at The Boston Globe. Kingsbury is terrific, and I hope she’s given a chance to earn the job.

Finally, a semi-related incident involving the Globe. You may have seen this on the front of Sunday’s print edition:

There’s no question that the cover, which you can see here, would have been considered entirely inoffensive before a police officer killed George Floyd. Even now I’m not sure how many readers would have been outraged. Still, I think the Globe made the right call. An abundance of caution and sensitivity is what’s needed at the moment.

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