New York Times editorial page editor resigns after op-ed controversy, raising questions of Free Speech and diversity of opinions in mainstream U.S. media

First posted June 30, 2020 12:29am EDT
Last updated October 23, 2023 2:45pm EDT

All Associated Themes:

  • Identity
  • Press
  • Professional Consequences
  • Protest Politics

External References

Opinion | Tom Cotton: Send In the Troops, The New York Times

Opinion | Why We Published the Tom Cotton Ep-Ed, The New York Times

James Bennet Resigns as New York Times Opinion Editor, The New York Times

Head Of New York Times Editorial Page Steps Down Amid Controversy, NPR

Opinion | James Bennet’s Resignation Over the Tom Cotton Op-Ed Outcry, The New York Times

Senator’s “Send In the Troops” Op-Ed in The Times Draws Online Ire, The New York Times

Opinion | James Bennet resigns as editorial page editor of the New York Times, The Washington Post

Opinion | Michelle Goldberg: Tom Cotton’s Fascist Op-Ed, The New York Times

Sen. Tom Cotton: U.S. has ‘under-incarceration problem,’ POLITICO

Tom Cotton: Race Relations Would Improve “If We Stopped Emphasizing Race in Our Public Life,” Slate

People are furiously canceling their New York Times subscriptions after an op-ed disputing climate change was published, Business Insider

A12 Page of The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 2, 2020

‘Buildings matter’: Philadelphia newspaper editor resigns after headline sparks uproar, The Guardian

Stan Wischnowski resigns as The Philadelphia Inquirer’s top editor, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Inquirer staffers who called out ‘sick and tired’ voiced what a lot of us have been thinking | Jenice Armstrong, The Philadelphia Inquirer

An apology to our readers and Inquirer employees, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Damaging buildings disproportionately hurts the people protests are trying to uplift | Inga Saffron, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Mike Pence’s op-ed in The Wall Street Journal takes aim at two enemies: coronavirus and ‘the media,’ Poynter

There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave,’ The Wall Street Journal (posted in full on Misleadingly Blames Coronavirus Spikes on Rise in Testing, The New York Times

James Bennet resigned as editorial page editor of The New York Times on June 7, 2020, after the newspaper published an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, who argued that military force should be used against those protesting the killing of George Floyd. Critics argue Cotton’s piece endangered Black people and reflected dangerous ideas of domestic deployment of the military, while others believe the role of journalism is to support a free marketplace of ideas, where all opinions can be heard. 

Key Players

James Bennet was appointed as The New York Times’ editorial page editor in May 2016. Bennet had seen other controversies flare prior to the one that led to his resignation, especially as he sought to diversify the range of views represented by Times columnists. In 2016, for example, he published an op-ed by columnist Bret Stephens, who cast doubt on the legitimacy of climate change. That column provoked anger, especially from those in the scientific community, according to Business Insider

Tom Cotton, a Republican, has represented Arkansas in the U.S. Senate since 2015. He has previously written op-eds about issues of race in the United States; as a student at Harvard University, he wrote a column for The Harvard Crimson arguing that race relations could be improved if the American people stop “emphasizing race in our public life.” In a 2016 interview with Politico, Cotton commented on the Black Lives Matter movement, saying he agreed with the sentiment behind it but condemned a demonization of law enforcement when it uses force. 

George Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, on May 25, 2020, who pinned his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Police were arresting Floyd for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. Chauvin’s actions sparked outrage and protests nationwide, with activists calling for an end to police brutality and advocating for local governments to defund their police departments. Amid these mostly peaceful protests, cities have seen incidents of rioting and looting that brought criticism from politicians, including Cotton, who argued that greater force should be used. In many cities, police officers have caused injury to protesters by using tear gas and rubber bullets when they believed gatherings were evolving into riots. 

Further Details

The New York Times ran Cotton’s editorial, titled “Send in the Troops,” on June 3. In it, Cotton outlined why the U.S. military should be deployed to quash protests that erupted in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. Within hours of being published, Cotton’s op-ed received heavy criticism from Times readers and staff members alike, who worrieded that the piece would put the lives of Black Americans in danger, according to The Washington Post. On June 4, Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote her own column on the controversy, in which she called Cotton’s essay “fascist” and “authoritarian.” Furthermore, Times employees launched a Twitter campaign in which they tweeted a screenshot of Cotton’s op-ed with the caption “running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.”

On the same day, Bennet took to Twitter to defend his decision, tweeting, “The Times editorial board has forcefully defended the protests as patriotic and criticized the use of force,” and that “Times opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.” The following day, Bennet published a piece of his own, further defending his decision to publish Cotton’s essay, writing that “we published Cotton’s argument in part because we’ve committed to Times readers to provide a debate on important questions like this.” Bennet went on to address critics’ argument that The Times was legitimizing Cotton’s views, stating that he believed not publishing the piece would have actually misled readers.

But The Times also added an editors’ note at the beginning of Cotton’s piece online, to acknowledge critics’ concerns and particularly to state that some of Cotton’s assertions in the op-ed were exaggerated or unfactual. The editors also revealed a breakdown of their own editorial process, saying that due to the deep importance of the topic and the senator’s influential status, “the essay should have undergone the highest level of scrutiny. Instead, the editing process was rushed and flawed, and senior editors were not sufficiently involved.” Bennet, in fact, admitted he had not read Cotton’s piece before it was published, according to The Washington Post.

Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, said during a June 5 staff meeting that the Cotton piece should have never been published. On June 7, Sulzberger wrote a note to staff discussing the piece and officially announced Bennet’s resignation. He wrote that, despite the clear mistakes The Times had made in its editorial process, journalism requires “engagement with ideas across the political spectrum, particularly those we disagree with.” 

On June 8, 2020, The Times published a series of letters to the editor from readers worldwide. In one, Cleveland State University professor Richard M. Perloff, expressed disappointment that Bennet had resigned. Perloff wrote that “the dialogue [that Cotton’s piece] produced and the vigorous outcry against his positions it spurred … are a testament to the journalism that Mr. Bennet championed.” A man from Massachusetts claimed the controversy surrounding Cotton’s op-ed was “not a First Amendment case” and expressed approval of Bennet’s resignation. 

Since the 2014 protests against police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, and especially in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, U.S. newsrooms have been “trying to find common ground between a tradition that aims to persuade the widest possible audience that its reporting is neutral and journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls,” according to The Times

Other parallel controversies in the American newspaper world

This struggle was also reflected in the uproar over a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 2, 2020. The Inquirer’s senior vice president and executive editor, Stan Wischnowski, approved the headline “Buildings Matter, Too” for an opinion piece discussing the physical damage done to buildings after bouts of violence triggered by Floyd’s death. A day after the headline appeared, the Inquirer published an apology, acknowledging the pain its headline caused to some people and assuring readers the editorial process would be improved. The Inquirer soon came out with an opinion piece by columnist Jenice Armstrong, who argued the headline was “tone deaf” and “essentially equated the loss of a human’s life with the loss of commercial and residential property.” 

Inquirer features editor Brandon T. Harden tweeted that he was calling into work “sick and tired” the next day in protest of the headline, as did about 40 other staffers, according to Armstrong’s piece. Staff also circulated an open letter of protest discussing how “African American journalists were tired of careless mistakes that made it harder to do their jobs,” The Guardian reports.  Wischnowski resigned.

The Wall Street Journal also received backlash for a column it ran by Vice President Mike Pence (R) on June 16, 2020. The piece was heavily criticized for its dismissive tone toward the COVID-19 pandemic, and for arguing that media outlets have been intentionally fomenting fear among the American public over its severity. Pence also criticized the media for discussing a possible second wave of COVID-19. In his final paragraph, the vice president wrote, “The media has tried to scare the American people every step of the way, and these grim predictions of a second wave are no different. The truth is, whatever the media says, our whole-of-America approach has been a success.” 

Tom Jones, senior media writer for Poynter, penned a response to Pence’s piece, claiming, “Pence should realize ‘the media’ was simply reporting facts, while trying to warn the American people of the very real danger the coronavirus has been and continues to be.” Jones likened Pence’s piece to Cotton’s op-ed, asserting that both articles required much closer editing. Jones also criticized Pence for blaming the media without referring to a particular outlet or offering a specific example of irresponsible news coverage, writing that “the Journal should not have let him get away with such accusations.” 


The New York Times transitions editorial page leadership

Kathleen Kingsbury, formerly the deputy editorial page editor, was appointed to be acting editorial page editor through the November presidential election. Jim Dao, another deputy editorial page editor who worked closely with Bennet, was reassigned to a newsroom position completely separate from the opinion section, in the process losing his coveted place on the Times masthead.  Other accusations and recriminations continued within the staff of America’s most powerful mainstream newspaper.