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.
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.
“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.
The day after The Boston Globe was named a Pulitzer finalist in editorial writing, the paper has announced that it’s hired a new editorial page editor — James Dao, a senior editor at The New York Times. The announcement, reported in the Globe this afternoon, was made by chief executive Linda Henry.
Dao replaces Bina Venkataraman, who stepped down several months ago and is now a Globe editor at large. Venkataraman was involved in the launch of The Emancipator, the racial-justice website the Globe publishes jointly with Boston University.
I don’t know much about Dao except that, according to the Globe, he had a role in the Times’ decision to publish an op-ed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton in 2020 arguing that military force should be used against violent Black Lives Matter protesters. The episode led to the departure of editorial page editor James Bennet after it was revealed he had not read the Cotton op-ed before it was published. Dao stepped down as deputy opinion editor and took a high-ranking editing job in the newsroom.
Also of significance is that Dao is 64. I’m not saying that’s old (hey, he’s younger than I am), but he’s at an age where he probably wouldn’t be seeking to settle in for a lengthy stint. Perhaps Henry is hoping that he’ll identify and mentor a possible replacement. Henry’s full statement, forwarded to me by a trusted source, follows.
I am thrilled to announce that James Dao will be the Globe’s next editorial page editor, effective on July 5.
Jim brings great perspective to the Globe from his vast leadership experience across three decades and multiple news desks at The New York Times. Most recently, as the Metro editor, he oversaw coverage of one of the most consequential mayoral races in New York City’s history while leading a team of over 60 journalists in covering the ongoing challenges of the pandemic on the nation’s largest city. Previously, he oversaw the paper’s Op-Ed section and has served roles in leadership and in the trenches as an editor on the National desk, as the Times’s Albany bureau chief, a Washington correspondent, national correspondent and military affairs writer.
He is an award-winning journalist and has a passion for pushing the envelope on multimedia storytelling, an area in which we too, are deeply investing in as we aim to reach new audiences and amplify our powerful journalism in new media. Jim’s 2011 multimedia series, “A Year at War,” about the yearlong deployment of an Army battalion in Afghanistan, won numerous awards — including an Emmy — and he also was executive producer on the Netflix documentary, “Father Solider [sic] Son,” which was based on the life of an Amy sergeant first profiled in his series.
I’ve had the great honor of diving deep into conversation with Jim, and in that time, he has shared that his priorities in this role are bringing new approaches — from newsletters to podcasts — to an already outstanding opinion report. He plans for our editorial page to be at the forefront of sharing the groundbreaking ideas and innovation unfolding in our region, while continuing to hold our leaders accountable to the high standards that we expect.
As a proud Editorial Board member, I see first-hand the thoughtful dedication and passion our board has for the work that it does each day and the impact it has all across our region. In the last two years alone, Globe Opinion writers Alan Wirzbicki & Shelly Cohen and Abdallah Fayyad have been recognized as Pulitzer Prize finalists in Editorial Writing – truly remarkable accomplishments, and a testament to the talent and incredible contributions at all levels on this team.
I am grateful to Bina Venkataraman for her bold approach and leadership in this role over the last two years. Globe Opinion has grown and strengthened the editorial board, launched The Emancipator with BU, and has drawn national attention to further the impact of our content and voices. Thank you to the entire team for their commitment and patience while we conducted this thoughtful process to find the next leader who will steer Globe Opinion forward in new and exciting ways. Everyone stepped up, but I would like to particularly thank Marjorie Pritchard and Alan Wirzbicki for their leadership and extra effort to keep Opinion sharp and relevant.
Jim will now lead the charge in this exciting new chapter for the board, and we are so excited to have him get started in early July. He is copied on this note, so please join me in welcoming him to the Globe; he would welcome local bike route suggestions.
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.
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.
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.
@dankennedy_nu That is not what I said. I said the choice of two candidates confused people, not that we should have endorsed one. Which is pretty obvious — given that we traditionally endorse one.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
As a @nytimes alumna and an editorial page editor (as of 6 mos ago) flooded with text messages tonight asking for my view on the Cotton oped, I will venture to comment/THREAD
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.