This hasn’t been a great week for The New York Times. With just months to go until the presidential election and amid what can only be described as an utterly chaotic year so far, there’s reason to believe the Times is not up to the task of covering this particular moment in history -- and that should worry us.
On Tuesday morning, following the Trump administration’s decision to have peaceful protesters outside the White House gassed and beaten so the president could take a photograph outside a nearby church, the paper ran the front page headline “As Chaos Spreads, Trump Vows to ‘End It Now.’” Not only did the headline fail to capture the importance of the moment, but in doing so, it normalized Donald Trump’s brutality. Then, on Wednesday, just days after Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) tweeted that protesters should be given “no quarter,” a military term for murdering without offering an opportunity to surrender, the Times ran his op-ed, making a slightly more sanitized version of that same case.
Leadership at the Times initially defended Cotton’s op-ed, but it shouldn’t have ever been published.
Editorial page editor James Bennet defended the paper’s decision by noting that the Times had published a number of pieces in support of the protests, and adding that “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.”
“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,” he concluded.
Bennet expanded on his views in an op-ed of his own, echoing some of the points made on Twitter:
We published Cotton’s argument in part because we’ve committed to Times readers to provide a debate on important questions like this. It would undermine the integrity and independence of The New York Times if we only published views that editors like me agreed with, and it would betray what I think of as our fundamental purpose — not to tell you what to think, but to help you think for yourself.
But not all opinions are given column space in the Times; Bennet’s job, in part, is to define what the acceptable range of debate is on any given topic. If somebody submitted an op-ed that called for the murder of police officers, would Bennet print it? I certainly doubt it, and he’d be absolutely right for rejecting it. There are certain ideas we can and should reject outright, and those that put the safety of others at risk -- whether it’s calling for the military to be turned on its own citizens or the deprivation of rights on the basis of an immutable characteristic -- do not need to be lifted up in the pages of the Times. As Bernice King tweeted last month, “Racism is not a difference of opinion.”
It was the fear that publishing a call for military action would put people’s physical safety at risk that led a number of Times staff to speak out. A sampling:
This is certainly something that Times management understands. Last year, after the paper published an anti-Semitic editorial cartoon, the Times Opinion Twitter account shared an apology that noted, “Such imagery is always dangerous, and at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide, it’s all the more unacceptable.” Surely, this same argument about danger can be applied to an op-ed about sending troops into American cities.
Even perfectly reasonable opinions don’t all get included at the Times. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) tweeted that he’d previously submitted op-eds about climate, Medicaid, and education to no avail. Those are all important topics in need of discussion, yet it was Cotton’s deliberately provocative piece that the paper deemed worth running.
Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger defended the Cotton op-ed in a letter to employees. At one point in the note, he said, “We don’t publish just any argument -- they need to be accurate, good faith explorations of the issues of the day -- and there are many reasons why Op-Eds are denied publication.” Setting aside the appropriateness of Cotton’s argument, his op-ed doesn’t meet Sulzberger’s own standards.
In his op-ed, Cotton wrote that the “federal government has a constitutional duty to the states to ‘protect each of them from domestic violence,’” seemingly quoting the U.S. Constitution. This, however, is a misquote. What the Constitution actually says is that states shall be protected from invasion, “and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.” This section of the constitution largely has to do with the types of governments states can form.
In another portion of Cotton’s piece, he wrote that “nihilist criminals are simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction, with cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.” This claim was found to be false by the Times’ own reporting. So by Sulzberger’s own standards, between the misquote and the false claim, Cotton’s piece should not have been published.
As the longstanding newspaper of record, the Times is seen as a bulwark against authoritarianism. This week shows how misguided those hopes may be.
The Trump era has been littered with irresponsible headlines from the Times. Two representative examples: The paper infamously ran the headline “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM” following a mass shooting event carried out by a man who had parroted Trump’s own rhetoric in the manifesto he left behind.
And rather than saying Trump was wrong when he suggested that Democrats were inflating the Hurricane Maria death toll to make him look bad, the Times accepted his framing in its headline.
After a day of vigorously defending Cotton’s op-ed, the Times walked it back. This was the best outcome the right could hope for.
On Thursday evening, Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy issued a statement on the Cotton op-ed:
We’ve examined the piece and the process leading up to its publication. This review made clear that a rushed editorial process led to the publication of an Op-Ed that did not meet our standards. As a result, we’re planning to examine both short-term and long-term changes, to include expanding our fact-checking operation and reducing the number of Op-Eds we publish.
According to the Times, Adam Rubenstein, a former opinion editor at The Weekly Standard, was the one who handled Cotton’s op-ed. Rubenstein reportedly acknowledged to a Times photo editor that there were “a few” false equivalencies in Cotton’s piece, but ran it anyway. According to Politico, Cotton’s office said that it had originally reached out to the Times about a different topic, but that the Times responded with the idea for a piece about the Insurrection Act.
In addition to giving Cotton a platform, the entire saga helped feed the right's persecution complex. An absolutely giddy Cotton appeared on Fox News Thursday night to discuss the backlash to his piece. Breitbart, The Daily Caller, the Washington Examiner, and The Daily Wire all published pieces on the drama. This is the same exact thing that has happened when the Times has corrected other mistakes. When the late edition of Tuesday’s Times front page swapped “AS CHAOS SPREADS, TRUMP VOWS TO ‘END IT NOW’” with “TRUMP THREATENS TO SEND TROOPS INTO STATES,” conservative media outlets slammed the move as an example of the paper caving to pressure. This is a perfect example of why it’s so important for media outlets to get things right the first time around, as once a mistake like this is made, any action taken on it will be treated as leftist appeasement.
By Friday morning, Sulzberger had done a complete about-face, reportedly calling the piece “contemptuous” and saying it should never have been published.
The Times has a poor track record when it comes to documenting the rise of authoritarianism.
In 1922, the Times published an article about a rising political star named Adolf Hitler, noting, “The keynote of his propaganda in speaking and writing is violent anti-Semitism.” Not to be worried, however, the Times assured readers:
Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch messes of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.
Even after Hitler began carrying out atrocities, the Times’ coverage remained gullible and polite. In 1939, less than two weeks before he invaded Poland, the paper wrote a friendly profile about Hitler’s mountain retreat, where he’d find time for politics, solitude, and parties.
In June 1941, the Times published an excerpt from Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf.
None of this is to say that Cotton or Trump are directly comparable to Hitler, only that if there are people hanging their hopes on the Times’ ability to ward off authoritarianism, history says otherwise.
There were lessons to be learned from past coverage, but the Times doesn’t seem eager to take them to heart.
“I don’t believe our role is to be the leaders of the opposition party,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told the Columbia Journalism Review last year. This seems to be a misunderstanding of what critics of the Times are actually asking for, however. There are probably some people who think that the Times should be a vehicle for undermining the president, but many critics of the Times, myself included, simply want the paper to understand that it’s not merely an outlet of information, but a necessary cog in democracy itself.
The past week’s coverage, which undermines so much of the truly great and important work the Times does on a daily basis, should worry those of us concerned about the strength of the press as an institution that can ward off authoritarianism.