The op-ed piece that ended now-former Editorial Page Editor James Bennet’s career at The New York Times raised the hackles of black staff members who portrayed its central argument as a clear and imminent threat to their personal safety. They claimed the essay, in which Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) urged President Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act and call up active-duty troops in response to the urban unrest that followed George Floyd’s deadly May 25 encounter with Minneapolis police, “puts our Black staff members in danger,” because “invoking state violence disproportionately hurts Black and brown people.”
Officially, however, the problem with Cotton’s op-ed—the problem that led Bennet and the Times to part ways—was not the senator’s message but the way he communicated it. “The basic arguments advanced by Senator Cotton—however objectionable people may find them—represent a newsworthy part of the current debate,” says a five-paragraph apology that was added to the top of the piece two days after it appeared. Regrettably, however, “the essay fell short of our standards.”
Regular readers of the New York Times op-ed page could be forgiven for wondering: What standards? Every sin Cotton supposedly committed—with the exception of the “basic arguments” that the Times still says were “a newsworthy part of the current debate”—has been a frequent feature of the paper’s opinion pages for many years without generating such conspicuous internal controversy.
“The tone of the essay in places is needlessly harsh and falls short of the thoughtful approach that advances useful debate,” the Times says.
Unnecessary harshness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. When Times editorial board member Michelle Cottle danced on Joe Arpaio’s political grave in a 2018 opinion piece, I’m sure she thought she was employing exactly the right amount of harshness. Cottle called the former Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff “a disgrace to law enforcement,” “a sadist masquerading as a public servant,” “the proto-Trumpian embodiment of fearmongering ethnonationalism,” and “a true American villain” whose “24-year reign of terror” was “medieval in its brutality.”
Although I tend to agree with Cottle’s assessment, Arpaio, who sued her for libel, definitely did not, and neither did his supporters (including Trump, who used his very first pardon to clear Arapaio’s criminal contempt conviction). And while I don’t agree with Cotton’s position on using soldiers to do police work, his harshness—condemning “bands of looters,” “nihilist criminals,” and the “feckless politicians” who “prefer to wring their hands while the country burns”—seems pretty mild by comparison. Cotton also decried “a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters,” saying, “A majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.”
While Cottle zeroed in on a deserving target, Times columnist Paul Krugman’s harshness is less discriminating. “At this point,” he declared in 2018, “good people can’t be Republicans.”
A writer’s thoughtfulness, like his harshness, is contingent on the reader’s perspective. Perhaps some left-leaning Times readers consider the abolition of capitalism a plausible solution to global warming, as proposed by a 2017 Times op-ed piece. But it is harder to understand how the routinely incoherent Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who reliably demonstrates the intimate relationship between lazy writing and lazy thinking, meets the paper’s standards. Here is Gene Healy on a 2011 Friedman column headlined “Are We Going to Roll Up Our Sleeves or Limp On?”:
If you think about it, we can do both. But thinking through the images your words create is too pedestrian for the Maestro of Mixed Metaphors.
Here, Friedman argues that we need fiscal austerity and President Obama’s $447 billion “jobs program,” and closes the column by landing the rare double mixed metaphor with a triple axle and a twist of lemon.
If partisanship rules congressional budget fights, Friedman warns, “the rest of us will just sit here…hunkering down for a bad century.” OK, no more limping—but what do we do with our sleeves?
Healy again on a Friedman column from the following year:
Friedman asks why, despite some “breathtaking chainsaw-nails-pounded-into-heads violence,” post-Saddam Iraq didn’t “explode outward like Syria”? Because: “For better and for worse, the United States in Iraq performed the geopolitical equivalent of falling on a grenade—that we triggered ourselves.”
Barely leaving us time to ponder the “for better” upside of that move, what “chainsaw-nails” are and how something can “explode” any way but “outward,” Friedman’s off to the grenade races without his obstetrics textbook:
“[Nobody’s] willing to fall on the Syrian grenade and midwife a new order. So the fire rages uncontrolled…and the Shiite-Sunni venom unleashed by the Syrian conflict” strains relations regionwide. Will venom-grenades give way to chainsaw-nails? It’s a “breathtaking” performance that really makes your head pound.
More (so much more!) on Friedman from Matt Welch here.
The Times also says Cotton’s essay included “allegations” about the role of left-wing activists in violent protests that “have not been substantiated and have been widely questioned.”
What about the claim, frequently made in the Times opinion section, that arbitrarily defined “assault weapons” are uniquely suited to mass murder and have no legitimate uses? Surely those assertions qualify as allegations that “have not been substantiated and have been widely questioned.”
The merits of banning so-called assault weapons may be too timely an issue for the Times to clearly see the erroneous factual assumptions underlying such laws. What about stuff that happened more than a century ago?
Katherine Stewart claimed in a 2017 Times op-ed piece that “attacks on ‘government schools’…have their roots in American slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, anti-Catholic sentiment and a particular form of Christian fundamentalism.” To support that claim, Stewart offered an 1887 quotation from “Presbyterian theologian A.A. Hodge.”
But as Jesse Walker noted here, Hodge was not opposed to government schools, and he was not expressing anti-Catholic sentiment. Walker added that, contrary to Stewart’s thesis that the rhetoric she decried can be traced to supporters of slavery and segregation, the abolitionist Gerrit Smith “used the phrase ‘governmental schools’ sneeringly,” and “he did it in 1858, three decades before the lecture that Stewart called ‘one of the first usages of the phrase ‘government schools.'”
Then there was Kristen Ghodsee’s risible claim in a 2017 Times op-ed piece (later expanded into a book) that “women had better sex under socialism.” Cathy Young, who described Ghodsee’s original essay as “one of the most mercilessly mocked New York Times op-eds of recent memory,” spoke from experience in debunking her thesis: “As someone who lived in the Soviet Union until emigrating as a teen in 1980, I can say that Ghodsee must have a truly enormous pair of rose-colored glasses.”
Finally, the Times says Cotton’s “assertion that police officers ‘bore the brunt’ of the violence [by rioters] is an overstatement that should have been challenged.”
If the Times is keen to avoid overstatement on its opinion page, what are we to make of legal columnist Linda Greenhouse’s assertion that a unanimous Supreme Court defeat for the Obama administration in a 2014 cases involving recess appointments was actually “a major victory for the president…by any objective view”? Or columnist Nicholas Kristof’s unsubstantiated 2015 claim that “some 100,000 minors are trafficked into the sex trade each year in America,” which echoed similarly dubious guesstimates? Or the 2019 op-ed piece in which former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and anti-smoking activist Matthew Myers averred that the e-cigarette flavors overwhelmingly preferred by adults are clearly designed for children, then falsely implied that vaping-related lung injuries were caused by products like Juul?
At the risk of making an unsubstantiated allegation and speaking hyperbolically with unnecessary harshness, I am going to suggest that the Times does not really care about its alleged “standards,” except when they help rationalize a decision it has already made for other reasons. More charitably, the paper’s editors are simply blind to violations of these rules when they are committed by writers whose conclusions they like.