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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Tough words for James Bennet

Jennifer Barnett, a former managing editor of The Atlantic, absolutely eviscerates James Bennet (whom she does not name) in this smoking essay on Medium.

Bennet is the former Atlantic editor who became editorial-page editor of The New York Times — only to be forced out last summer after a series of screw-ups, culminating in his running a terrible op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton that he later admitted he hadn’t read before publication.

Bennet was replaced at the Times by his deputy, Kathleen Kingsbury, at first on an interim basis and, last week, officially.

I’m guessing that we’re going to hear more about this.

Wall St. Journal’s newsroom calls out opinion section over Pence’s COVID falsehoods

The Wall Street Journal’s excellent newsroom is calling out its often-nutty opinion section. The Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus reports that an op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence earlier this week in which he praised the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 had some, uh, problems:

Mr. Pence wrote that as of June 12, Project Airbridge had delivered more than 143 million N95 masks, 598 million surgical and procedural masks, 20 million eye and face shields, 265 million gowns and coveralls and 14 billion gloves.

According to FEMA data, through June 18 the program had delivered 1.5 million N95 masks, 113.4 million surgical masks, 2.5 million face shields, 50.9 million gowns, 1.4 million coveralls and 937 million gloves. The total number of those supplies is about 7% — or one-thirteenth — of the numbers cited in Mr. Pence’s article.

We talked about the Journal’s decision to publish Pence’s dubious propaganda Friday on “Beat the Press” (above). At the time, I thought the problem was more a matter of absurdly optimistic spin in the face of rising infection rates in many states rather than factual inaccuracies. I may be been giving Pence too much credit.

I still think Sen. Tom Cotton’s recently op-ed in The New York Times was worse, since he falsely claimed antifa involvement in Black Lives Matter protests in order to justify military attacks on Americans.

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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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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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