Public Editor

New York Times public editor: Sen. Cotton’s op-ed was dishonest, not only reprehensible

June 4, 2020
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday, the New York Times Opinion section ran an Op-Ed column by Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas and a close ally of President Trump, under the provocative headline “Send in the Troops”. 

The condemnation came swiftly. But this outrage cycle has been notable: it has been led by the Times newsroom. Many staffers, and others associated with the paper, objected to the column with versions of the same stark tweet: “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.”

It has been one of the most public examples of the internal rancor stirred up by the Opinion desk, but it is hardly the first. And while the subjects of recent controversies have been varied — climate denialism, Brett Kavanaugh, or dabbles with the “intellectual dark web” — the common thread has been the conundrum that has bedeviled the opinion section since the election of Donald Trump: Is it the editors’ job to referee which political opinions are and are not consistent with American values? Or is the page a bulletin board for whoever holds political power at the time?

James Bennet, the editorial page editor, did not reply to my request for comment. But in a public statement about the decision to run Cotton’s piece, he seemed to lean towards the latter. After pointing to the Times editorial board’s support for the recent George Floyd protests and for racial equality in general, Bennet posted on Twitter, “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy. 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.”

The problem with this idea of the Times as an open forum for views of all stripes — no matter how abhorrent — is that by opening the door to all “operative opinion” (as a member of the Opinion section described it to me a couple of years ago), the Times becomes a platform for those who are hostile to its core values and at direct odds with the New York Times Company mission to “seek the truth and help people understand the world.” 

The core problem with Cotton’s column, it seems to me, isn’t that its arguments are painful or dangerous (though they are those things too). It’s that it’s built on lies. “This week, rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy, recalling the widespread violence of the 1960s,” it begins, before trotting out hyperbolic (and false) phrases like “the riots were a carnival for the thrill-seeking rich as well as other criminal elements,” “orgy of violence,” and “cadres of left-wing radicals like Antifa infiltrating protest marches.” 

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Recent days have been marked by looting and violence. But the violence has sometimes been prompted by the police themselves, and the incidents getting the most attention have been isolated to a few commercial districts. The areas around the protests (to say nothing of the entirety of “American cities”) have been relatively calm and peaceful. As Davey Alba, a Times reporter who covers misinformation, pointed out on Twitter, the paper’s news side has already reported how promoting claims of unbridled urban unrest is part of the “untruths, conspiracy theories, and other false information…running rampant online” and being pushed by Trump and his allies.

Indeed, shortly after the Times ran Cotton’s column, Trump appeared on a TV program hosted by his former press secretary to make the same claims to justify the use of military force to quell the protests: “It’s a disaster what’s going on in New York, and we can help them out, a lot.”

On the same day, the prospect of using US military forces against domestic political opponents has drawn the condemnation of both of Trump’s secretaries of defense. Current Defense Secretary Mark Esper said such force should be reserved for the “most urgent and dire of situations,” and added, “we are not in one of those situations now.” His predecessor, Gen. James Mattis, who resigned in 2018, released a statement that such a move would threaten our constitutional order. “We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battle space’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate,’” it read.

Trump’s earlier pronouncement “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” was found by Twitter to violate its policy against “glorifying violence.” The phrase also has a specific historical meaning within the context of civil rights protests. So, too, does the labeling of African Americans protesting for their rights as “rioters.” 

“A lot of negative language gets used against black people, describing what whites often believe is true about us: that language includes ‘lazy,’ ‘criminal,’ and ‘rioting,’” said Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat who has been an elected official in Los Angeles since 1976. “It’s all negative language used far too often in a description of black people by folks who fundamentally don’t see black people the same way they see whites and others.”

At some point, the Times and its opinion page are going to have to learn how to speak in terms of the values they believe in — and be able to distinguish them from those they oppose. As I wrote on Monday, this is not an alien concept at the Times: It is rooted in its founding spirit of its motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

The racism currently under protest by thousands in this country is rooted in lies that white people tell about black people. Standing for the truth — and against racism — requires unmasking those lies. The Times fails in its mission to seek the truth when it lends its platform to others to tell lies. 

Gabriel Snyder is a contributing editor to CJR.