The fracas about Tom Cotton’s op-ed in The New York Times: should it have been published?

June 7, 2020 • 10:45 am
You probably read about Republican Senator Tom Cotton’s June 3 op-ed in the New York Times, urging the President to send the military into cities with protests and riots inspired by police brutality against blacks. It caused a huge fracas at the paper, with the editor first defending it and then, after social-media pressure and a “virtual walkout” by Times staffers, saying that it shouldn’t have been published, among other things, because it put “Black@nytimes staffers in danger”.

You can read Cotton’s piece by clicking on the screenshot below (for some reason, the paper has made it impossible to put up a screenshot by simply inserting the URL of this op-ed).

The op-ed is preceded by a longish disclaimer by the paper, which I hear has decided not to run Cotton’s op-ed in the paper edition. Here’s the disclaimer:

Editors’ Note, June 5, 2020:

After publication, this essay met strong criticism from many readers (and many Times colleagues), prompting editors to review the piece and the editing process. Based on that review, we have concluded that the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.

The basic arguments advanced by Senator Cotton — however objectionable people may find them — represent a newsworthy part of the current debate. But given the life-and-death importance of the topic, the senator’s influential position and the gravity of the steps he advocates, 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. While Senator Cotton and his staff cooperated fully in our editing process, the Op-Ed should have been subject to further substantial revisions — as is frequently the case with such essays — or rejected.

For example, the published piece presents as facts assertions about the role of “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa”; in fact, those allegations have not been substantiated and have been widely questioned. Editors should have sought further corroboration of those assertions, or removed them from the piece. The assertion that police officers “bore the brunt” of the violence is an overstatement that should have been challenged. The essay also includes a reference to a “constitutional duty” that was intended as a paraphrase; it should not have been rendered as a quotation.

Beyond those factual questions, the tone of the essay in places is needlessly harsh and falls short of the thoughtful approach that advances useful debate. Editors should have offered suggestions to address those problems. The headline — which was written by The Times, not Senator Cotton — was incendiary and should not have been used.

Finally, we failed to offer appropriate additional context — either in the text or the presentation — that could have helped readers place Senator Cotton’s views within a larger framework of debate.

Well, I could note a few Left-wing op-eds that could have used factual vetting as well, but they didn’t get it, and you know why. At any rate, the main objection by Times staffers were not these quibbles about wording, but about their claim that this editorial calls for the incursion of the military to put down riots, which supposedly demonizes all black Americans and puts them (and the Times staffers) in danger.

But if you read Cotton’s piece, which I disagree with in toto, what you find is no mention of black people, but of the need to get the military into cities to put down violence. In fact, it even draws a distinction between peaceful and violent protest:

Some elites have excused this orgy of violence in the spirit of radical chic, calling it an understandable response to the wrongful death of George Floyd. Those excuses are built on a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters. A majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.

Agreed. But sending in the military is a no-go. The National Guard, to which Cotton alludes repeatedly, was sent to states that had earlier protests, like Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties. But the National Guard is not the regular military, for the NG also has a civilian function—keeping the peace in society—which the regular military does not. The regular military has objected to being used in this way, and it shouldn’t, especially in this case where it is not only unneeded, but would throw oil on the fires.

Cotton’s views reflect the Republican law-and-order stance, and although it doesn’t mention blacks, one (or at least I) can sense that there’s a frisson of fascism here: wanting to sic the big guns on black people to keep them in their place.

There’s no doubt that Cotton is bawling up a drainpipe here, for there’s zero chance that the military will be called into U.S. cities to quell riots. In that sense, the fear of black Times staffers is completely unwarranted: they are not rendered unsafe by a few unwise words from a Senator writing in the paper. What they really object to, I think, is that Cotton expressed an opinion they don’t agree with. And if you can say that such opinions put you in danger, you gain some moral high ground. (Not to mention that if this was literally true, Cotton’s editorial would violate the First Amendment.) Given that the Times caved not only to its staffers but to some big pushback from social media, we can expect to see fewer conservative op-eds in the paper in the future. Here’s a statement about the virtual walk-out:

Columnist Bari Weiss has also been demonized in this fracas, as she put out a series of tweets noting an ideological and journalistic divide between the older and younger staffers. (As I predicted, the wokeness on college campuses will invade journalism as college students move into media jobs.) Here are a few of her tweets, which got the regular news staff riled up—even though she thought Cotton’s piece might not be worth publishing—to the extent that some called for her firing. (Op-ed writers are allowed to write about NYT dynamics on Twitter, while regular news staff aren’t.):

Finally, VICE published a partial transcript of a virtual “town hall” meeting between Time Publisher A. G. Sulzberger, Executive editor Dan Baquet, and Chief Operating officer Meredith Levien, in which they fielded questions from the paper’s staff. Click on screenshot to read it if you want to read a transcript and some background:

Here’s a question from a Times staffer laying out the main objections to Cotton’s editorial:

“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?”

Well, whatever Cotton thinks of blacks, I don’t think the editorial explicitly characterizes them as terrorists. After all, he does draw a distinction between peaceful and violent protest. And no, the Times did not apply its “imprimatur” to the op-ed; it just published it. In the end, I think it was valuable to hear from at least one Republican to see how they can justify using the military to put down riots. It did not show that the paper approved of the editorial (in fact, it bent over backwards, lashing its back with barbed wire, to show that it didn’t), nor did the editorial in any conceivable way endanger the black staffers on the New York Times.

Should the paper have agreed to publish the editorial in the first place? I think so, as it gives us insight into a Republican mind and also “outs” a senator for what he thinks. But that’s a judgement call. Still, once the piece was accepted, I don’t think the Times should have furiously back-pedaled about it, or appended a foreword saying it shouldn’t have been published and didn’t meet the paper’s standards. They did that, of course, because they’re woke and want us to know it. They wouldn’t do it with a Left-wing op-ed of equal weakness, and I call that hypocritical.

Op-ed sections are supposed to be full of pieces that rile you up, making you mad—and perhaps making you think. If the Times is giving more scrutiny to op-eds from the Right, and is more willing to annotate them or leave them out of the paper paper, then the Times is not fulfilling its responsibility. Maybe we’ll be left with one token conservative columnist: Ross Douthat.

First the Times does this, and earlier the New Yorker was cowardly in canceling Steve Bannon’s scheduled appearance at the New Yorker Festival. And now, perhaps, New York Magazine may be censoring Andrew Sullivan’s columns. Do I have to unsubscribe to every form of media that has “New York” in the title?

h/t: Eli

47 thoughts on “The fracas about Tom Cotton’s op-ed in The New York Times: should it have been published?

  1. My two cents. The NYT should not have solicited the piece from Cotton in the first place, and given that they did they should have sent it back when he submitted an incendiary diatribe. That said, once they decided to publish it, they should have stayed the course and not caved in to a bunch of wokes. Now they have given the Republicans a reason to complain about censorship in the liberal press.

  2. If you can throw out an op ed because it makes untrue statement then lots of them would be out. I don’t think you can hold them to the same standards of regular journalism. So the excuse just does not hold up. It would do some good to have printed this thing because it shows the mind of some of these clowns in our Senate. I have already commented on the stupidity of calling in regular military for riot control in our cities so we don’t need to repeat all of that.

  3. The NYT should publish good articles on the op-ed pages. There are plenty of other newspapers that can pick up the lesser quality articles. Freedom of speech gets you page 53 of some two-bit newspaper somewhere. Quality is what should get you into the NYT.

    To me the question is whether the Cotton article is worthy of the NYT. By all accounts I have heard the answer is no. But maybe the NYT is going down hill and can’t hold such a high bar anymore.

  4. The NYT did the right thing in publishing Cotton’s op-ed, but it should have been accompanied by rebuttals. The paper had no need to fear that any sizeable number of its readership would be converted to Cotton’s viewpoint. Rather, the op-ed has alerted the readership that there are tens of millions of people and scores of right wing websites that endorse Cotton’s recommendations. In other words, it is beneficial to “know the enemy” and not to ensconce oneself in a cocoon of like minded media.

    1. In a completely unexpected twist (not), I find myself agreeing with Historian. Publish it beneath or beside their own editorial calling out Cotton’s thinly veiled racism.

      1. Do you really think Cotton’s thinly veiled racism isn’t clear enough on its own? Are NYTimes readers so stupid that they can’t recognize it on their own?

        1. Do you really imagine NYT readers are all so intelligent and enlightened? I don’t think they would survive as a business if they limited their readership in such a way.

          1. I don’t understand your point, Paul. In what way are they (would they be) limiting their readership?

            And, yes, I do think NYTimes readers are smart enough to recognize Cotton for the authoritarian he is. I’m one. And I honestly find it somewhat of a slur to think a woke-ish antidote is required.

            1. I was half joking. My point was that not everyone who reads the NYT already has the opinion you (or we) favor. It just wouldn’t make sense at all. Why would such a readership bother to read the articles at all unless they are only interested in what they already know is true. In the case of Cotton’s paper, I suspect that people on the right who think like he does would read his NYT piece and might also read an accompanying rebuttal. I would consider that a good thing.

              1. People on the right don’t read the New York Times at all. The closest they get to reading editorials would be Breitbart or maybe the Wall Street Journal’s editorials.

                And if they did read Cotton’s piece there’s almost no chance they would read a counter-piece.

                I find it depressing that you think NYT readers are too stupid to think for themselves.

              2. I suspect you are deliberately missing my point but I’l go on for a little longer. I didn’t say they were all stupid. My point is that a general publication like the Times will go to a mix of people with different levels of education, intelligence, and various opinions. It is you who wants to treat them as all alike.

              3. And I didn’t claim you said ALL were stupid. But you pretty clearly think a significant number of them are. And THAT is what I find depressing. You assert some significant number of open minded right wing readers that you’re concerned about. I don’t think you can find much evidence that they exist.

              4. That’s true, Paul. But if invisible pigs live in trees there’s a reasonable chance there is one in front of my house right now.

  5. I agree entirely. I also think the NYT was right to solicit the article in the first place. I take it from what PCC says here that Cotton’s article fairly presented his position (I haven’t read it) and was not a bomb-throwing affair. If the intention was to draw attention to the issue of using the military to police the nation, and spark a discussion about it, it was perfect to that purpose.

    Since the NYT and other such print media are currently trying to find their rightful place within this social media world, it is a shame that they screwed up such a great opportunity.

    1. I disagree. Cotton is Trump’s parrot, and Trump already has a huge bully pulpit to disseminate his hateful views. Why solicit them second hand? If the NYT wants some thoughtful Republican viewpoint, ask Mitt Romney.

  6. I personally find the primary issue is that papers of record should NOT have oped sections. I just cannot believe that you can maintain a Chinese wall between opeds and factual reporting. I want a national paper focused purely on reporting events on as evenhanded a manner as possible. There will always be bias but opeds make the situation worse.

    1. Feel free to buy a newspaper and do it your way then. In the meantime, those who own newspapers (and the barrels of ink it takes to print them) have a First Amendment right to publish their own views or the views of anyone else they see fit. If you don’t like it, you’re free to ignore it.

    2. Who decides it’s evenhanded? You? Me? I see even simple stories blasted as partisan even if they detail nothing but facts because we can’t agree on what the facts are anymore.

  7. I was among those in favor of allowing Cotton to show his true colors on the editorial pages of the nation’s newspaper of record.

    But if there’s any doubt as to the man’s quasi-fascistic impulses, one need look no further than his tweet two days earlier in which he urged that the “10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry—whatever [show] [n]o quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.”

    Giving “no quarter” (meaning that legitimate offers of surrender will be refused and those captured on the battlefield, executed) is a war crime under both international law and the Department of Defense Law of War Manual — something Cotton, a US senator, a former army captain, and (I know, I can’t believe it either) a Harvard Law School grad certainly should be charged with knowing.

    This is what this reactionary asshole advocates be done to US citizens on US soil.

    1. FWIW, lest my “rocking chair” comment elsewhere be misunderstood, I am in complete agreement with your description of Tom Cotton.

    2. The question here is, can a Harvard graduate lawyer and army Officer and Senator also be a lunatic. He appears to be highly qualified.

    3. I agree with you completely, The fact that the woke members of the staff expressed fear for their lives makes me think that they should reread Aesop’s fable about “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

      However, as for bringing in the U.S. military, nah, Trump doesn’t need the armed forces as he now has his own Gestapo under the direction of Barr (the DOJ),who dress in black and wear nothing that identifies who they are.

      Who they are: And, to use a Trump locution, there are thousands and thousands, of them who could be tapped. I find this ominous.

      1. Yeah, when Trump brags about having the unwavering support of the rougher elements within the police, the military, and the bikers, he’s essentially laying claim to a version of the Sturmabteilung, but with red hats substituting for brown shirts.

        (And as far as I’m concerned, Trump has murdered not just irony, but Godwin’s Law as well — see former SecDef Mattis’s recent written statement where he accuses Trump of employing the same “divide and conquer” strategy as the Nazis.)

  8. “there’s zero chance that the military will be called into U.S. cities to quell riots. ”

    I hope you’re right, but 6 moths from now, I Sauron loses the election, I may remind you that you said that.

    1. I think there is a very good chance he will try and call in the millitary. He already did the bible stunt, stroding manfully between rows of the police and who knows who else, giving the predidential thumbs up.

      And that was just for for a photo op and a short promotional clip. He has an election to “win” by any means.

      Who’s going to stop him?

  9. Trump has already shown he doesn’t make any distinction between the peaceful and the violent among the protestors (Cf. Lafayette Square). I believe Cotton put that caveat in his op-ed to get it published but doesn’t really believe it. I’m with the young NYT staffers not because I’m young but because I was in my twenties in the 60’s and I remember what went on then. Would NYT have published an op-ed from Bull Connor calling for infantry? I believe these times call for people to take sides as then, and all of us, including NYT must take a side. I believe their apology means they’re going to take the right side, the side of “Black Lives Matter”. I’m not comfortable with calling this a “woke” reaction.

    Claiming that they, the young NYT staffers, are really not in danger is disingenuous. I’ve seen plenty of videos of violent interactions of protestors with the police who are participating in Cotton’s frame of mind.

    1. They’re endangered by police bullets, gas, fists, and batons. They aren’t endangered by Cotton’s stupid words.

      1. You’re claiming that the police waving their batons don’t know what Cotton and Trump are saying about the protestors. I hate to use the term disingenuous again, but it’s apt. I troll the conservative sites. Cotton is one manifestation of what is happening, a prominent one. Protestors are up against a right wing consensus that they are to be obliterated. I think you are underestimating the communication among the white supremacists (which includes a lot of the police)and other right wing elements. Cotton’s op-ed looks like victory to them.

        1. Did I say that? Where, exactly?

          Do you think people should not be aware that right wing extremists think protesters (and lots of the rest of us) should be obliterated? How does hiding their insane worldview from view of the progressive/liberal world improve anything at all?

          1. I wanted to add that I don’t give half a shit about whether right wing extremists feel like this is a victory. Their worldview is generally delusional and I don’t want my world to be governed by their delusions.

  10. I am just going to say that, in the late 1950s and 1960s, it was not unusual to read op-eds from or hear TV and radio interviews with George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party, and other assorted segregationists and white supremacists arguing against integration and for segregation. Indeed, in radio and TV broadcasts, such rebuttals to the hot button issues of the day were required by the Fairness Doctrine. I doubt the American Nazi Party and the KKK had much sway in the newspapers that published such op-eds (aside from the American Mercury, a leading news mag in the 1920s and 30s that had degenerated by 1960 into an anti-semitic rag well to the right of the John Birch Society).

    And yet the segregationists did not “win the argument” by virtue of mere exposure of their views. By the time he was assassinated in the latter half of the 60s (by a fellow ANP member), Rockwell was viewed by the vast bulk of American society as a hopelessly extremist reactionary crank, and others who had favored segregation a decade earlier (including conservative luminary William F. Buckley) had been won over to the cause of civil rights.

    Almost like people can make their mind up on their owm.

  11. I thought that letting the idiots out themselves was a good idea. And he’s not nobody, he’s a US Senator, he’s 1/100th of one of the branches of government, and a probable presidential candidate in 2024.

    The whole “POC are now endangered because people read this narrative” is so over the top and ridiculous. I’m ashamed of the NYT.

  12. What I don’t get is why management kowtows to the kid’s table. If you fired one of them, how many J-school graduates would be lining up to take that job? And that’s on a regular day. Today, unemployment is what, 13%?

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