Bringing Receipts: Ex-NYT Editor Ripped by Colleagues for Cotton Op-Ed Speaks Out

February 26th, 2024 5:31 PM

After nearly four years of relative silence, former New York Times op-ed editor Adam Rubenstein sounded off Monday morning in a lengthy essay at The Atlantic about the embarrassing, pathetic, and disturbing episode from June 2020 in which Rubenstein was pushed out over the paper's publication of Senator Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) infamous op-ed calling for using the military to quell the costly and deadly Black Lives Matter riots.

Rubenstein wasn’t the only casualty as his boss and editorial page editor James Bennet was forced to resign by a far-left mob of their own colleagues showing a petulant but standard inability to accept diverse viewpoints.

Rubenstein caught the reader’s attention from the get-go in his piece “I Was a Heretic at The New York Times; I did what I was hired to do, and I paid for it” with this open (click “expand”):

On one of my first days at The New York Times, I went to an orientation with more than a dozen other new hires. We had to do an icebreaker: Pick a Starburst out of a jar and then answer a question. My Starburst was pink, I believe, and so I had to answer the pink prompt, which had me respond with my favorite sandwich. Russ & Daughters’ Super Heebster came to mind, but I figured mentioning a $19 sandwich wasn’t a great way to win new friends. So I blurted out, “The spicy chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A,” and considered the ice broken.

The HR representative leading the orientation chided me: “We don’t do that here. They hate gay people.” People started snapping their fingers in acclamation. I hadn’t been thinking about the fact that Chick-fil-A was transgressive in liberal circles for its chairman’s opposition to gay marriage. “Not the politics, the chicken,” I quickly said, but it was too late. I sat down, ashamed.

But he remained committed to The Times, saying both Bennet “and James Dao, the op-ed editor, were committed to publishing heterodox views” and brought him in from The Weekly Standard given his “contacts on the political right and a good sense of its ideological terrain”.

As an editor, Rubenstein said op-ed editors “provide research for columnists and to solicit and edit newsy, against-the-grain” items to fulfill the mandate from Times founder Adolph Ochs to publish content sparking “intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion”.

“This, I learned in my two years at the Times, was not a goal that everyone shared,” he added

After explaining how it was unsurprisingly “a strange experience” on issues like voting and Israel (with one telling him that Israel’s existence “makes me very uncomfortable”), he stated the obvious that he “realized...right-of-center submissions were treated differently” with “a higher bar for entry, more layers of editing, and greater involvement of higher-ups.”

This led to the Cotton episode, which began with “Cotton’s office pitch[ing] me an op-ed about Twitter threatening to lock his [Twitter] account” over tweets calling for President Trump to ‘invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy’ the military ‘to restore order.’” 

Rubenstein added that Dao replied it should instead be outlining “the actual substance of his argument” versus just decrying potential censorship.

Cotton’s office agreed and quickly submitted a draft that would be published alongside “arguments against Cotton’s view.”

The editorial process, aside from a bizarre aside with a photo editor about Cotton wanting to draw “a false equivalence,” seemed routine. Rubenstein described it all as an “all pretty standard” chain of events.

Upon publication, all hell broke loose. An internal Slack channel was set up to foment a mob against Rubenstein and Co. Worse yet, it was backed up by the NewsGuild union that’s also supposed to represent him. Instead, it joined in the mobs claiming Cotton’s piece placed the lives of Times journalists “in danger.”

Best of all, Rubenstein named names (click “expand”):

Immediately, the op-ed caused an outcry within the Times. Dozens of the paper’s employees retweeted an identical, or near-identical, statement, workshopped on Slack and rubber-stamped by the NewsGuild of New York, which represents the newspaper’s union (I was a member), claiming that “running this put Black @nytimes staff in danger.”


Leadership at the paper seemed to think so; the claim had the trappings of a workplace-safety and racial-justice issue. The Times Guild immediately started organizing against the op-ed and those responsible for it. “Is there something else we can do? I am behind whatever action we might take,” wrote Susan Hopkins, a newsroom editor who now helps run the front page, in the Guild Slack channel. By the end of the week, the Guild had a letter with more than 1,000 signatures demanding changes to the Opinion section. (When I pointed out to a Guild representative that its activism was in effect calling for one of its own members to face repercussions, he seemed surprised, and apologized, though the Guild did not meaningfully change its public tack.)

A diplomatic correspondent, Edward Wong, wrote in an email to colleagues that he typically chose not to quote Cotton in his own stories because his comments “often represent neither a widely held majority opinion nor a well-thought-out minority opinion.” This message was revealing. A Times reporter saying that he avoids quoting a U.S. senator? What if the senator is saying something important? What sorts of minority opinions met this correspondent’s standards for being well thought-out? In any event, the opinion Cotton was expressing in his op-ed, whatever one thinks of it, had, according to polling cited in the essay, the support of more than half of American voters. It was not a minority opinion.

Soon a new channel was created on Slack to discuss the op-ed. In a matter of hours, more than 1,500 employees had joined it, and there were thousands of messages plotting next steps and calling for a retraction, an editors’ note, firings.


On Thursday, June 4, a reporter on the business desk named Edmund Lee contacted me. “So, we’re reporting out the Cotton Op-Ed,” he wrote. “We know from sources you were the principal writer.” I reached out to Dao for advice on how to handle this ludicrous claim, and did as he suggested. “I’ll have to send you to corp comms,” I wrote to Lee. “Off the record: I can categorically tell you that I did not write the Op-Ed.”

Later that day, the Times published a story by Lee and two other reporters. “The Op-Ed was edited by Adam Rubenstein,” the article said. It devoted five paragraphs to my interaction with the photo editor, who had, against company policy, shared with the reporters some of our Slack messages.


As Bennet noted in his essay for 1843, the article claimed that Cotton advocated suppressing “protests against police violence.” The op-ed didn’t argue that. If it had, we would not have published it. In fact, Cotton’s essay was explicit in distinguishing between protests and the undeniable violence and looting: “A majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.”

Later, after poring over the Slack channels, I realized something more surprising: Rachel Abrams, one of Lee’s co-authors on the article, had been a vocal internal critic of Cotton’s op-ed. “How can they be sending us emails telling us they’re keeping us safe and care about our physical and mental well-being and then publish this,” she had posted on Slack, later adding, “I think it’s good that a lot of us will put our names on a strong condemnation.”

Despite having initially defended the publication of the Cotton op-ed, publisher A.G. Sulzberger “caved and was claiming that a review...found that ‘a rushed editorial process’” meant the piece “did not meet our standards.” This was even though, as per Rubenstein, no one spoke to him as part of said “review.”

Rubenstein went on to cite more names, including TV critic Margaret Lyons arguing Cotton’s piece was akin to publishing something “where serial killers tell us murdering is actually fun and great” and reporter Liam Stack whining that any call for staff to calm down was “just making people more angry.”

A so-called “editor’s note” was soon affixed to the piece, which Rubenstein said, “contain[ed] many errors, among them that the editorial process had been ‘rushed,’ that ‘senior editors were not sufficiently involved,’ and that facts in the article weren’t quite right.”

The infantile-minded but nonetheless ruthless young tyrants won the day as the threats piled up, changes were made after Bennet’s resignation, and Rubenstein eventually left the paper. 

All the while, the same intolerant hive of young ideologues who dominate the paper haven’t batted an eye at op-eds from authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, defenses of Chinese Community Party crackdowns on dissidents, and the head of the Taliban (click “expand”):

Every now and then, the group that handles security for the Times would check in on me to make sure I was safe. Ever since the paper had named me as the person responsible for publishing Cotton’s op-ed, I had been receiving alarming threats.


Once Bennet resigned, a new regime came into Opinion. Dao was reassigned to the national desk. Clay Risen moved to Politics, then to Obituaries. New policies were enacted. A “See something, say something” rule was affirmed, and a Slack channel called “op-sensitivity” was created, in which editors were encouraged to raise concerns about one another’s stories. By December, I had decided to leave the paper. It had been made clear to me, in a variety of ways, that I had no future there.

In the years preceding the Cotton op-ed, the Times had published op-eds by authoritarians including Muammar Qaddafi, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Vladimir Putin. The year of the Cotton op-ed, it also published the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Regina Ip’s defense of China’s murderous crackdown on prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong, Moustafa Bayoumi’s seeming apologia of cultural and ethnic resentments of Jews, and an article by a leader of the Taliban, Sirajuddin Haqqani. None of those caused an uproar. Last year, the page published an essay by the Hamas-appointed mayor of Gaza City, and few seemed to mind.

Rubenstein concluded by noting that “the fight over Cotton’s op-ed was never about safety, or the facts, or the editing, or even the argument, but control of the paper” and that current Times employees have no desire “to cover America as it is and not simply how they want it to be” or “hire more editors and reporters with conservative backgrounds, and then support them in their work.”