The Media Today

James Bennet and a moment of truth

June 8, 2020

James Bennet is done at the New York Times. Last week, the paper’s opinion section, which Bennet led, published an op-ed—in which Sen. Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, argued that the Trump administration should “send in the troops” to “restore order” in US cities—that elicited a furious reaction inside and outside the newsroom. Bennet initially defended the decision to run the op-ed, but it later transpired that he hadn’t actually read it prior to publication. On Friday, he apologized to staff. Yesterday, he resigned. Thus ended the Times career of a figure who managed, simultaneously, to be a leading contender for the paper’s top editorial job and a reliable lightning rod for progressive fury (though perhaps there’s no contradiction there). Bennet’s defenders credit him with modernizing the opinion page and with ambitious reported work, particularly on the topic of data privacy. His many critics say he sullied the Times’ reputation by running a parade of clownish right-wing columns, including, but by no means limited to, work by Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens, both of whom Bennet hired. Bennet also faced a libel suit over language he inserted into an editorial about Sarah Palin. And that’s before we get started on the “bedbug” incident.

The Cotton controversy wasn’t sui generis, but rather a tipping point. On Friday, amid mounting anger among staff, Bennet; Dean Baquet, the Times’ executive editor; and A.G. Sulzberger, its publisher, convened a town hall to address employees’ concerns. Bennet, who reportedly sounded shaken, apologized profusely for the hurt caused by Cotton’s op-ed, conceding that the opinion section had been “stampeded by the news cycle” and that its processes “broke down.” (He also confirmed that the Times had approached Cotton to contribute something, not the other way around.) According to Vice, Bennet said that “this is a moment for me and for us to interrogate everything we do in opinion,” including “what we mean by a wide-ranging debate.”

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

At the town hall, Sulzberger appeared to back Bennet—asked if there were any plans to address his “overall leadership,” Sulzberger reportedly cited the singular toughness of Bennet’s job, and offered some praise—but then came the rupture. Yesterday, Sulzberger said he and Bennet had mutually concluded “that James would not be able to lead the team through the next leg of change that is required”; that job will fall instead to Katie Kingsbury, a deputy opinion editor at the Times who will now lead the editorial page through November. (Jim Dao, another deputy editor, who oversaw the Cotton op-ed, will be reassigned to a different post in the newsroom.) Kingsbury’s reform remit is still unclear; yesterday, Sulzberger warned Ben Smith, the Times’ media columnist, not to interpret Bennet’s departure as a philosophical shift, whatever that means. What is clear is that a personnel change alone won’t be change enough.

It’s not just the Times that faces a philosophical reckoning—as I wrote in Friday’s newsletter, since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests that followed, journalists across the US are urging their bosses, often publicly, to reimagine the role of journalism, particularly when it comes to coverage of race. Over the weekend, two newsrooms I mentioned on Friday saw further tumult. At the Philadelphia Inquirer—where staffers called in “sick and tired” on Thursday in protest of a headline, “Buildings Matter, Too,” that the paper acknowledged was “deeply offensive”—the top editor, Stan Wischnowski, said he would step down. At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—where management had benched Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter, from protest coverage over an innocuous tweet—Michael Santiago, a Black photographer, said that he’d been benched, too, and editors removed and rewrote two protest stories, further intensifying anger among staff. Elsewhere, the Daily Beast reported that staffers at Maven Media Brands, which publishes Sports Illustrated, demanded (seemingly successfully) that management remove Blue Lives Matter, a pro-police blog, from the company’s platform. And in his column yesterday, Smith reported on ongoing “quiet agony” over issues of race and representation at the Washington Post, which had its own “tense town hall” on Friday.

Amid converging crises, and with massive protests taking over the streets—in big cities and small towns alike—this feels like a tipping point in American history. It feels like a tipping point for journalism, too, or at least a crystallization—a moment of serious reckoning with industry structures, be they concerned with rhetoric or representation, that for too long have allowed injustice, particularly around race, to flourish. Old notions of view-from-nowhere, both-sides journalistic neutrality were never actually neutral, but rather an edifice of calcified biases. Over time, as social mores have changed, the ground underneath the edifice has shifted. Often, such changes have been imperceptible; more recently—and in the Trump era, in particular—we’ve felt the friction, as the moral blind spots in the old definition of neutrality have been exposed and weaponized against the press. In this convulsive moment, cracks are starting to show in the edifice itself.

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Bennet’s departure from the Times is one such crack, and a significant one. His section produced much of value, but often bent over backwards to preserve a hidebound conception of open debate; in the process, it legitimized lazy (and sometimes dishonest) thought as an equal—and necessary—counterpoint to much better work. That’s symptomatic of a broader philosophical failure in American journalism—one that applies to the news side, too, despite the traditional firewall between information and opinion. “Tipping points” past have not actually been tipping points; time will tell if America’s many flawed edifices survive this latest round of cracks, or if they start to tumble. In the journalism world, we have a collective power to make this moment of introspection a moment of transformation—to replace ways of thinking that keep failing us and build better ones, in which moral clarity and life experience are central, not shunned, and in which the truth is the truth, not a simulacrum contrived to placate outside critics. It is a moment, in other words, to interrogate everything we do.

Below, more on the protests and this moment for journalism:

  • Grappling with the difficult questions: Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at the Post, asks what it means to be a journalist now, between competing clichés about activism and stenography. “What if we framed coverage with this question at the forefront: What journalism best serves the real interests of American citizens?” Sullivan writes. “Make decisions with that in mind, and at least some of the knotty problems get smoothed out.”
  • Mainstreaming: For the New Republic, Osita Nwanevu argues that publications such as the Times and The Atlantic have helped mainstream illiberal ideas, including the elimination of constitutional rights. Voices at both publications, Nwanevu writes, have also worked “to promulgate the idea that the progressive movement has been overtaken by a totalitarian horde of irrational and emotionally weak, if not psychologically disturbed, crusaders.”
  • What’s changed? Lorraine Ali, TV critic at the LA Times, assesses how local TV news, so often a “punching bag,” covered the protests in the city following the killing of George Floyd. “For better or worse,” Ali writes, “local media offered what Instagram and Facebook could not in the heat of recent unrest: a continuous news feed from verifiable sources, void of…extremist meddling, agenda shaming and unsourced outrage videos.”
  • Apologies: On Friday, Fox News aired a graphic showing stock-market trends following the deaths of four Black men, including Floyd. Afterward, the network apologized; the graphic, a spokesperson said, was “insensitive” and “should have never aired on television without full context.” Elsewhere, the Boston Globe pulled distribution of its Sunday magazine because its cover image, illustrating the crushing weight of stress, “bore an unintentional but close resemblance” to the way Floyd was killed. The Globe, which commissioned the image before Floyd’s death, apologized for “any harm caused.”
  • Lies: Yesterday, William Barr, the attorney general, sat for an interview with Margaret Brennan, of Face the Nation on CBS. Barr repeatedly bashed media coverage of last week’s events and denied that tear gas was used to clear peaceful protesters so that Trump could do a photo op. (Barr said police used “pepper balls,” which are “not chemical”; pepper balls are chemical irritants, and often contain tear gas.) On CNN’s State of the Union, Jake Tapper addressed the parade of official lies about policing of the protests—authorities, he said, are “denying the violence that we saw with our own eyes.”

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.