Fired New York Times Editor James Bennet: The Times 'Lost Its Way'

December 16th, 2023 4:00 PM

In the day, it was a news-grabbing story. NewsBusters’ own Curtis Houck headlined the story when it happened in 2020. 

They Have Their Scalp: NYT Editor Bows to Mob, Resigns Over Tom Cotton Column

Curtis opened with this: 

In the latest blow to free speech, outside criticism, and exposure to opposing views, the woke, snowflake-laden New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer newsrooms forced the resignations Sunday afternoon of opinion editor James Bennet and executive editor Stan Wischnowski, respectively.

For Bennet, he was shoved out after his section published a June 3 op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) that dared to praise peaceful protesters and support the use of the military to support police in cities where riots had broken out.

In a staff memo, publisher A.G. Sulzberger claimed that ‘we saw a significant breakdown in our editing processes, not the first we’ve expressed in recent years.’

And now?

Here we are three years later and the fired opinion editor, James Bennet by name, is having his literary revenge. 

Now featured in The Economist, Bennet titles his punch back: 

When the New York Times lost its way 

America’s media should do more to equip readers to think for themselves

Among other things - make that many things - Bennet says the following of his old home at the Gray Lady. 

“Are we truly so precious?” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, asked me one Wednesday evening in June 2020. I was the editorial-page editor of the Times, and we had just published an op-ed by Tom Cotton, a senator from Arkansas, that was outraging many members of the Times staff. America’s conscience had been shocked days before by images of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man, George Floyd, until he died. It was a frenzied time in America, assaulted by covid-19, scalded by police barbarism. Throughout the country protesters were on the march. Substantive reform of the police, so long delayed, suddenly seemed like a real possibility, but so did violence and political backlash. In some cities rioting and looting had broken out. 

It was the kind of crisis in which journalism could fulfil its highest ambitions of helping readers understand the world, in order to fix it, and in the Times’s Opinion section, which I oversaw, we were pursuing our role of presenting debate from all sides. We had published pieces arguing against the idea of relying on troops to stop the violence, and one urging abolition of the police altogether. But Cotton, an army veteran, was calling for the use of troops to protect lives and businesses from rioters. Some Times reporters and other staff were taking to what was then called Twitter, now called X, to attack the decision to publish his argument, for fear he would persuade Times readers to support his proposal and it would be enacted. The next day the Times’s union—its unit of the NewsGuild-cwa—would issue a statement calling the op-ed ‘a clear threat to the health and safety of the journalists we represent’. 

The Times had endured many cycles of Twitter outrage for one story or opinion piece or another. It was never fun; it felt like sticking your head in a metal bucket while people were banging it with hammers. The publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, who was about two years into the job, understood why we’d published the op-ed. He had some criticisms about packaging; he said the editors should add links to other op-eds we’d published with a different view. But he’d emailed me that afternoon, saying: “I get and support the reason for including the piece,” because, he thought, Cotton’s view had the support of the White House as well as a majority of the Senate. As the clamour grew, he asked me to call Baquet, the paper’s most senior editor. 

Like me, Baquet seemed taken aback by the criticism that Times readers shouldn’t hear what Cotton had to say. Cotton had a lot of influence with the White House, Baquet noted, and he could well be making his argument directly to the president, Donald Trump. Readers should know about it. Cotton was also a possible future contender for the White House himself, Baquet added. And, besides, Cotton was far from alone: lots of Americans agreed with him—most of them, according to some polls. “Are we truly so precious?” Baquet asked again, with a note of wonder and frustration.

The answer, it turned out, was yes. Less than three days later, on Saturday morning, Sulzberger called me at home and, with an icy anger that still puzzles and saddens me, demanded my resignation. I got mad, too, and said he’d have to fire me. I thought better of that later. I called him back and agreed to resign, flattering myself that I was being noble.

Bennet’s tale goes on from there. Printed out it comes to over 60 pages. Suffice to say he has a lot to get off his chest.

He accuses the Times of having “metastasized from liberal bias to illiberal bias, from an inclination to favor one side of the national debate to an impulse to shut down debate altogether.” The paper’s staff was now about “bullying and group-think.” 

His internal critics saw themselves as “always right about everything” and therefore “justified in shouting disagreement down.”

He says that for now, “to assert that the Times plays by the same rules it always has is to commit a hypocrisy that is transparent to conservatives, dangerous to liberals and bad for the country as a whole….The reality is that the Times is becoming the publication through which America’s progressive elite talks to itself about an America that does not really exist.”

There is more here. Oh so much more. 

But what interests in one sense is that this assessment of the Times by Bennet coincidentally appears exactly at the moment those Ivy League presidents were grilled on Capitol Hill about their universities being run as essentially woke, intolerant-of-dissent campuses.

In other words, they saw themselves just as Bennet’s internal Times critics saw the role of the Times

All of which is to say the infection that is “wokeness” has spread in American society.

If not starting with the New York Times, most certainly including it.

Conservatives have long targeted the Times for criticism of its liberal, pro-big government bent. 

But now?

Sadly it wouldn’t surprise that there could be lots of conservatives who mourn the old Gray Lady as much as they despise the new woke business that is decidedly intolerant of dissent altogether and is infecting not just the Times but one American institution after another.

The Times is  a-changing. And as James Bennet illustrates in chapter and verse, it has indeed lost its way.