News

'New York Times' Staffers Grill Leadership Over Tom Cotton Op-Ed During All-Hands

"In publishing the Tom Cotton piece, haven't we effectively validated depictions of Black Americans as terrorists in exercising their First Amendment rights to protest police brutality?"
June 5, 2020, 6:28pm
"Tom Cotton: Send In the Troops"

The internal fallout from the New York Times' decision to run an op-ed by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, which called for the U.S. military to be deployed to American cities to crack down on protests against police killings of Black people, continued apace on Friday during a company all-hands meeting.

Publisher A.G. Sulzberger, Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Chief Operating Officer Meredith Levien all offered opening statements. But as always, the most informative parts of the meeting came from the lengthy question-and-answer portion. Staffers asked for an autopsy of the piece and how it was published; if company leaders were planning to address James Bennet’s leadership of the opinion section, which has had “several misfires”; whether Opinion staff editor and writer Bari Weiss would be fired for “openly bad mouth[ing] younger news colleagues on a platform where they, because of strict company policy, could not defend themselves”; whether the opinion section had suggested the topic of the op-ed to Cotton; and what the Times would do to help retain and support Black employees.

The newsroom first revolted Wednesday, shortly after the op-ed was published. Dozens of staffers tweeted a variation of the phrase "Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger," along with a screenshot of the op-ed's headline. The paper's union put out a statement about the column as well.

Yesterday, Slate reported on the NYT internal Slack debates over the column, which included questions about why comments had been turned off on the piece. Slate also reported that one employee wrote in Slack that the column resulted in the highest number of NYT subscription cancellations in a single hour. Meanwhile, Bennet tweeted in support of publishing the column, and, in addition, wrote a newsletter about its newsworthiness, though ended the latter by saying "I know that my own view may be wrong."

But after those statements were made, the Times offered what a reporter at the company called a “mea culpa” for the op-ed:

On Thursday morning, Sulzberger sent an email to his staff promising that leadership was ready to “listen” and would be holding an all hands meeting. This morning, more than 300 non-editorial New York Times staffers announced they were staging a virtual walkout.

The meeting began at 11:30 a.m. ET, and concluded at 1:10 p.m. VICE obtained access to it; here are some representative highlights from the meeting.

The first question from the all-hands asked about the Times’ various initial responses to the op-ed: “How does our leadership reconcile the Times’ official statement that the op-ed did not meet our standards with James’ defense of its publication on Wednesday with A.G.’s implicit defense in his note to staff on Thursday?”

Sulzberger said that his memo functioned as a placeholder communication while they dug into “what had happened.” He turned the question over to Bennet, who offered an abject apology.

“First, I just want to say thank you for the chance to answer, address, try to address some of these questions. And before I address this specific one, I just want to begin by just saying I'm very sorry. I'm sorry for the pain that this particular piece has caused. The pain that I acknowledge my leadership of Opinion, I'm responsible for this, has caused. And I'm sorry for that.

"I do think this is a moment for me and for us to interrogate everything about what we do in Opinion, including even the principles, A.G., that you enunciated at the beginning of the conversation. I think if we truly believe in debate and we do, we need to be unafraid about asking ourselves if these principles do fit this era, and what we mean by a wide-ranging debate, if it can result in pieces that our colleagues find so profoundly hurtful.

"This is something that my and my colleagues have done with conversation, and it’s one that I take very seriously. Ineptly, I tried to telegraph that in the newsletter I wrote yesterday morning when I said at the end that I realized I may be wrong. [Inaudible] And so it's a practical matter, though he is just completely right we were scrambling, as many of us have had this experience, we had to figure out exactly what went wrong and why. And before we could address it as we did in the statement at the end of the day yesterday.”

The next question asked: “Op-Ed has made several missteps under James Bennett. Are there plans to address his overall leadership? If nothing else, more oversight seems warranted.”

Sulzberger said Bennet has “as tough a job as anyone I can imagine” and said he and his team have worked really hard to build an operation that’s “more diverse and more modern.”

He also said:

“So look, I think it's clear—and we just heard from James that there have been mistakes—and I hope you hear that we are trying to learn from them. And I think you're also hearing that, that we're coming to a recognition—and fault me for you know, for this recognition coming too slowly—that some of the changes may need to be bigger, and, and more structural in what opinion journalism looks like.”

The next question asked the New York Times’ mission, and how publishing the op-ed fit with that mission.

“We would presumably not submit to publishing op-eds advancing theories of Holocaust denial or advocating a resumption of slavery, on the grounds that these are not reasonable positions for the debate, but rather hateful notions that we can safely condemn without worrying about being accused of partisanship or closed mindedness. But in publishing the Tom Cotton piece, haven't we effectively validated depictions of Black Americans as terrorists in exercising their First Amendment rights to protest police brutality? Haven't we applied the imprimatur of the Times to rule that unleashing the military on this movement is a reasonable position for the debate? Doesn't that undermine that our mission is to be a force for good in American democracy? And do we really believe that we are airing out genuinely important views, as opposed to seeking to expand our business by catering to alternate political persuasions?”

Sulzberger reiterated what he said in his opening statement—that the NYT stands in opposition to racism and injustice and human rights violations, and those values aren’t in opposition to independence and objectivity—and said a big issue is a structural problem with the form of opinion journalism:

"I think part of the issue here is the weight that we put internally, but isn’t always seen externally, on the editorial page, which we view as really representing our institutional view. And the editorial page had spent days crusading for the rights of protesters and against police violence and very specifically against, you know, the blustery threats to put troops in the streets. And I, you know, suspect what happened was sort of a—and again, I've already said I'm not defending the piece—But I [inaudible] a good faith attempt, you know, where we see that there's this view that one of the most powerful people in America, someone with the ear of the President is advocating that we should send federal troops into the streets to break up the protests and, the op-ed editor said, people need to know about this, people need to interrogate this. And I suspect that that is the spirit in which it was published. And I've been very clear, the execution of it didn't even come close to meeting our expectations, to meeting our standards. But I think even setting aside the execution of the piece, I think it highlights, and your question highlights back to the brokenness of form, the ambiguity of like what were we trying to say there? Were we trying to say, here's this view; you should be alarmed by it. Were we trying to say here's this view; you should agree with it? Was it a wizard endorsement? Was it, you know, was it supposed to speak just in opposition to the editorials we've run? So I think that that's part of the reason why I think there's a structural problem with the form itself.”

Another person asked for “leadership to give us the full autopsy of what happened here.” The question continued: “We deserve to know exactly what happens step by step and frankly so do our readers. Take us through every single part of the process.”

Bennet said:

"I am not going to, in this forum today, name the people involved. I am responsible for this. Some of them already identified themselves. I was concerned to see our news story singled out one news assistant by name, who's involved in this process, [when] far more senior editors than him, including a masthead editor, were involved. And I want to make that very clear.

"The piece came in. We had put a process in place in Opinion months ago for pieces that were likely to be particularly sensitive, pieces that [inaudible], which is to surround them with process, to have them read by a very diverse group of editors across the department.

"And that did not happen in this case. It was read by and edited by senior people. Changes were made, asked for, demanded, and made. We do kill pieces all the time in Opinion, by the way.

"It went through [inaudible] that didn't honor the new process that we've put in place, it wasn’t by enough editors who would have rung more alarm bells. We did not [inaudible] those senior and experienced editors in charge of it, which we should have done, with a piece like this, because to challenge whether a fact is accurate, or whether it's being characterized correctly or oddly hedged or, or somehow otherwise qualified, and we didn’t workshop the headline, which is also something that we've put in place as a standard part of our practice here. And the reasons for this are many. Like everybody, we are overwhelmed on the news cycle right now, I am. It sounds like I'm making excuses, I'm trying to explain the context a little bit here.

"As A.G. said, this is some muscle memory from the habits of opinion and publishing that date back to the print era. We were publishing two pieces attacking the idea that day, including an editorial [inaudible] militarization, and I think our people, in our desire to present debate, felt like we needed to get another view up there. It felt like, so we allowed ourselves to be stampeded by the news cycle, and did not take the care with it that we should have.”

The next question challenged the conventional ethical standards about journalists' civic participation. "As journalists we have been asked not to express ourselves as private citizens and public discussion, or demonstration, or fear of endangering the credibility of the institution we serve. In the past, this has been a difficult, though seemingly worthwhile exchange. Given the extraordinary nature of this moment, has there been any discussion about changing or amending policies around employee expression, particularly participation in protest?"

Baquet, who views on objectivity are well-established, repeated the established position.

“I still believe strongly that strong views on events of the day, undermine our independence and that if we are seen as a partisan news organization, people will look at the video we created of the death of a man at the hands of a policeman, and see it as some sort of partisan effort that was trying to make a point.

"That is why I strongly believe we have to be seen as independent, people will need [inaudible] political persuasion just say, that was a powerful piece of journalism by people who went out into the field with empty notebooks, and in this case empty cameras, and produce something powerful that was the truth. And that's the difference between a video we produce and Project Veritas for instance, so I still believe that strongly, but I did not think of the events of the last couple of days for anything more than a newsroom shouting to be heard and making sure we heard them.”

"Another person asked: "Can you explain the justification of the policy limiting newsroom and business employees' use of social media to report on internal matters to the Times, but which does not extend to opinion? I asked because I am appalled at the comments shared by Bari Weiss yesterday, which openly bad mouths her younger newsroom colleagues on a platform where they, because of strict company policy, could not defend themselves. Is it appropriate for a New York Times columnist to directly and publicly insult Times staff? Is it appropriate for the Times to profit from the engagement and followers that Bari Weiss’s insults generate? What accountability is there for an Opinion staffer like her? Will she be fired? Additionally, she was insulting to all of our foreign correspondents who have actually reported from civil wars.

Sulzberger said he hoped everyone could get along and passed the question to Bennet:

"On behalf of my colleagues and myself, I'm offended by those tweets and feel betrayed by the bad judgment in a moment when people are already feeling upset. I feel like they contributed, they did contribute as is reflected in the question, by making people feel even more upset. And that's not the kind of culture that I think we should have. We’re looking into the question of whether these particular tweets violate the guidelines and we've been in consultation with editors who maintain the standards on those questions. We don't have a resolution to that yet.”

Another staffer said: “I do believe it's not enough to hire, and even more pressingly retain, black talent across the company. We need a robust system in place that ensures that they are heard at all levels of decision making. We know all too well that those staffers of color face unconscious bias, even as the company struggles to address that issue. What concrete work can we expect to see in the short and long term to ensure that system is built?”

Levien fielded the question, saying, “There is real and clear work to do around adding steps in the process, or performance feedback. I think there are areas of work to do in terms of adding steps in the process to deliberately mentor and sponsor more broadly and more effectively, what does that look like. And I think there is more to add around our, you know, our explicit work on what a good career progression for anyone looks like at the New York Times, and then particularly how we think about retaining people of color.”

Follow Laura Wagner on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Advertisement