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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No, The New York Times shouldn’t have published Tom Cotton’s ugly little screed

Sen. Tom Cotton. Photo (cc) 2013 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The New York Times may be rethinking its decision to publish Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s terrible, offensive op-ed piece endorsing the use of military force to crush the violent protests that have broken out around the country following the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Though Cotton’s essay was posted online Wednesday, it doesn’t appear in today’s print edition. And, at least at the moment, you have to scroll to the bottom of the digital opinion section in order to find it.

Should it have run? On the face of it, an op-ed by an influential Republican senator deserves consideration no matter how awful it might be. By tradition, newspaper opinion pages in the United States are ideologically diverse. Though the Times’ editorial pages are liberal, they also feature conservative columnists and, on occasion, provocative right-wing outside contributors like Cotton. Not every piece can or should cater to the views of the Times’ mostly liberal readership.

Editorial-page editor James Bennet defended his decision to run the piece. “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy,” he tweeted. “We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton’s argument painful, even dangerous. We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate.”

But not every opinion deserves to be aired. Presumably the Times would not run an op-ed by a white supremacist calling for a return to Jim Crow laws, or a communist who wants to send billionaires to forced-labor camps.

Cotton’s piece isn’t quite that bad. But here are three reasons that it shouldn’t have run.

First, by calling for government-sanctioned violence against protesters, Cotton may be endangering lives. A number of Times employees took to Twitter to blast the piece. The Washington Post reports: “Several tweeted the same message — ‘Running this puts Black @nytimes staffers in danger’ — with a screen shot of the editorial’s headline, ‘Tom Cotton: Send In The Troops.'”

Second, just two days earlier Cotton took to Twitter and demanded, “No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” As The Bulwark notes, “The phrase ‘no quarter’ means killing enemy combatants rather than taking any prisoners.” Cotton, a retired Army captain, presumably knows that’s a war crime. Bennet should have told Cotton he had disqualified himself when the senator came peddling his op-ed.

Third, Cotton makes a dangerous, unsubstantiated claim in his op-ed — that “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa [are] infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.” That echoes rhetoric from President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr, but there is no evidence of it, according to The Associated Press. Again, where were Bennet and the other editors? As the oft-cited Daniel Patrick Moynihan rule would have it, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

I thought Bina Venkataraman, The Boston Globe’s editorial-page editor and herself a Times alum, put it well in a thread Wednesday night, writing that “there is a distinction btw a ‘provocative’ opinion that ought to be aired & a dangerous point of view like Cotton’s that already had the largest megaphone in the country: the bully pulpit occupied by the president of the United States.”

She added: “The Cotton oped neither enriches understanding nor offers new ideas — nor does it even break news; everyone paying attention already knew the senator fell in line with the president.”

 

So no, Cotton’s piece shouldn’t have been published — not because Times readers shouldn’t be exposed to views with which they disagree, but because it was an ugly little screed that failed to meet basic ethical and journalistic standards.

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My half-hearted argument in favor of The New York Times’ double endorsement

I’m not going to try to defend The New York Times’ decision to punt and endorse two Democratic candidates for president.

In watching the endorsement process play out Sunday night on “The Weekly,” it seemed to me that the editorial board members’ main goal was to stop the frontrunner, Joe Biden, whom they see as too old and too vague. By endorsing both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the Times diluted the boost it might have given to Warren, who is — along with Bernie Sanders — the strongest challenger to Biden.

But if you read the entire 3,400-word editorial, you’ll find a semi-respectable argument for the double endorsement at the very end:

There will be those dissatisfied that this page is not throwing its weight behind a single candidate, favoring centrists or progressives. But it’s a fight the party itself has been itching to have since Mrs. Clinton’s defeat in 2016, and one that should be played out in the public arena and in the privacy of the voting booth. That’s the very purpose of primaries, to test-market strategies and ideas that can galvanize and inspire the country.

Essentially the Times sees itself as endorsing candidates in two separate Democratic primaries — the progressive primary and the moderate primary. Seen in this light, the Times is hoping ahead of the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses to give a boost to Warren against Sanders and to Klobuchar against Biden and Pete Buttigieg. That makes some sense, though I still think a single endorsement would have been better. Still, if the two-primaries argument had been stated more explicitly, in the lead, the Times could have spared itself some of the head-scratching and mockery it’s being subjected to today.

As for “The Weekly,” I found the hour fascinating, with the participants — led by deputy editorial-page editor Katie Kingsbury, subbing for James Bennet, whose brother Michael is (believe it or not) a presidential candidate — coming across as thoughtful and serious. I saw some Twitter chatter suggesting that the participants seemed elitist and out of touch, but that strikes me as an inevitable consequence of the the setting and the process. How could it be otherwise?

And let’s give the Times credit for dragging the traditionally secretive endorsement process out into the open, including transcripts of the interviews with each of the candidates.

Let’s just hope the Times restricts itself to one endorsement this fall.

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Yes, Bret Stephens really did write that there might be something to eugenics

Over the weekend, media Twitter was aflame over a column by Bret Stephens of The New York Times in which he appeared to endorse the notion that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically more intelligent than other people. You can read the original here.

Stephens, who should have already been on probation for past offenses, appears to have gotten away with it again. After the column appeared in print, it was appended with an Editor’s Note saying that Stephens intended to say no such thing. The column was edited after the fact to remove the offending reference as well as a link to a study he was citing. You can see the new version with the Editor’s Note here.

I had intended to write a full post. But this piece by Jack Shafer in Politico is so comprehensive and spot-on that I’m going to suggest that you read it in full. I’ll just offer a few points that I think deserve emphasis, especially among those who’ve been inclined to give Stephens the benefit of the doubt.

  • Stephens’ original column links to a 2005 study whose executive summary claims, over and over, that the Ashkenazi may well have certain genetic advantages with regard to intelligence. For instance: “In particular we propose that the well-known clusters of Ashkenazi genetic diseases, the sphingolipid cluster and the DNA repair cluster in particular, increase intelligence in heterozygotes. Other Ashkenazi disorders are known to increase intelligence.”
  • One of the co-authors of that paper, Henry Harpending, has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “white nationalist” and a longtime advocate of eugenics — that is, discredited science that argues for the genetic superiority (and inferiority) of certain races and ethnic groups.
  • Stephens did not dismiss the study. Rather, he glossed over it, writing that whether it’s true or not, it’s less important in explaining Ashkenazi intelligence and achievements than their environment. Thus Stephens piously claims that the genetic theory matters less than other factors, but that there might nevertheless be something to it. Here is the key quote from Stephens: “Aside from the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher I.Q.s, there is the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose.”
  • The Times’ re-editing of Stephens’ column goes far beyond correcting errors or clarifying ambiguities and raises ethical concerns of its own. Moreover, it signals that publisher A.G. Sulzberger and editorial-page editor James Bennet are once again prepared to walk away rather than deal with the mess they created when they hired Stephens away from The Wall Street Journal in 2017. Stephens is not just a Pulitzer Prize-winning #NeverTrump conservative; he is also someone who regularly engages in trollish behavior seemed mainly designed to call attention to himself at the expense of the Times’ reputation.

At a moment when Jews are under attack both in New York and nationally, it was unconscionable for Stephens, who is himself Jewish, to add fuel to pernicious, discredited theories about race and intelligence. I hope we learn in the days ahead that Stephens didn’t walk away quite as unscathed as it would appear.

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