WATERTOWN — It must be rather discomforting for the management of the New York Times for the company to frequently make the news rather than merely report it.
But shake-ups among opinion section staff members have created headlines by pointing out some of the flaws revealed there. So the Gray Lady of American journalism has undoubtedly grown a tad grayer in light of these recent events.
James Bennet resigned last month from his position of editorial page editor at the NYT. This followed an uproar from readers and Times journalists over an essay by U.S. Sen. Thomas Cotton of Arkansas, which the newspaper published June 3.
The column called for deploying military troops in cities across the nation if local law enforcement agents and members of the National Guard failed to contain rioters and looters. They engaged in violence against individuals and vandalized businesses and public structures during protests responding to the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Cotton’s column included questionable claims that should either have been substantiated or removed, according to an NYT editor’s note. In addition, the essay’s tone “in places is needlessly harsh and falls short of the thoughtful approach that advances useful debate.” NYT editors also repented over their own choice of a headline for the column, “Send In the Troops,” which in hindsight they described as “incendiary.”
Reader outrage over the essay proved overwhelming, so Bennet attempted to explain the newspaper’s rationale for printing it.
“Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy,” he wrote in a thread on Twitter. “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.”
However, Bennet failed to pacify those who objected to the piece. Several days after the column ran, he left the newspaper. Jim Dao, the NYT’s deputy editorial page editor, was demoted as well.
Longtime critics of the NYT pointed to this incident as an example of cancel culture. They claimed the social media mob rallied to have Bennet ousted from the NYT because he often disturbed the sensibilities of the woke.
To be sure, many progressives periodically expressed their displeasure at Bennet’s choices. He tried to highlight more diverse voices in the opinion section following the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president. This drove a good many of the newspaper’s left-leaning readers bonkers.
But overlooked errors and poor judgment decisions pertaining to the editorial page plagued Bennet’s four-year tenure in this position. Saying that he didn’t read Cotton’s column before it was published (an ill-advised assertion, even if it was true) didn’t help his cause any.
This latest controversy appeared to be the final straw on this list of problems. So it’s doubtful that cancel culture warriors can actually claim Bennet as another notch on their belt.
Bari Weiss, however, cites this as her primary reason for leaving the NYT last week. A writer and editor for the newspaper’s opinion section since 2017, Weiss resigned Tuesday. She posted a scathing letter chronicling incessant bullying on the part of her colleagues at the newspaper, blaming her bosses for allowing such a hostile environment to exist.
Prior to writing for the NYT, Weiss served as an op-ed and book review editor for the Wall Street Journal. Her career at the Times seemed to be under a constant microscope.
Her hiring by the NYT resulted in endless of angst and generated a lot of publicity. Many of the columns she wrote become regular fodder for her social media critics.
Some people accused Weiss of having thin skin, particularly for someone of her profile. There is likely a lot of truth to this. She had to expect that she would come under extraordinary scrutiny given the NYT’s appeal to a largely progressive readership.
But it’s troubling that newspaper leaders ignored the relentless tirades by staffers against both Bennet and Weiss — much of them made publicly. If journalists have legitimate concerns about a published piece in the opinion section, they should address their issues with someone representing the NYT’s management team.
However, it simply isn’t possible that every column they complained about rose to the level of an existential crisis. Yet this is how they reacted, which mirrors a sad trend among Americans.
Many people claim that just about any viewpoint or comment they disagree with is offensive. And if they take offense, it obviously makes them uncomfortable. And if it makes them uncomfortable, it must be dangerous. And if it’s dangerous, they need to crush the person responsible so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.
You see? Problem solved. Debating the merits of any arguments offered is not necessary.
Now we spend much of our time lamenting the perils of opinions aired rather than engaging in constructive dialogue to determine if we can understand each other and possibly learn something. We’re quick to label ideas foreign to our own as threats to the goal of achieving equality, and these impediments cannot be allowed to stand.
Sorry, but the essay that Cotton penned and columns that Weiss wrote were not pernicious despite such accusations by the NYT’s critics. Pearl-clutching over every idea expressed that raises eyebrows has become a cottage industry in our society, and the newspaper has let this trend among its staff members get out of hand.
The job of NYT journalists and contributors is to report the news and offer thoughtful commentary on important issues, not feign outrage over every provocative item they read in their own publication. A healthy exchange of differing viewpoints is vital for a free society, and a newspaper opinion section is the proper forum to do this. However, we’ve become a nation more bent on overreacting with snarky comments than generating ideas worth considering — and social media platforms have helped us perfect this pathetic behavior.
How does the NYT expect its readers to appreciate civil dialogue when its staff members rail against this practice? They’re diminishing the value of the content they produce — how counterproductive! And when this ongoing dissent to material they loathe turns into intimidation and harassment against co-workers, it’s apparent the newspaper’s leaders have lost control.
Obviously, the NYT should define its standards for pieces run in its opinion section. But once it does, it must ensure essays meet these criteria and then vigorously defend its decision to publish them.
The NYT has found itself far too many times lately begging readers and staff members for forgiveness. This makes it look weak and undermines its credibility. If our nation’s newspaper of record cannot support free expression, it’s a sign this worthy cause is in serious trouble.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.