George Floyd death: an experienced opinion editor resigns after publishing controversial Op-Ed

The New York Times' opinion editor James Bennet has resigned amid outrage over a piece by a Republican senator calling for military forces to be sent to cities where anti-racism protests had turned violent. His resignation comes after The Times admitted he had not read the controversial article.
June 09, 2020 | 11:19
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A. G. Sulzberger noted “a significant breakdown in our editing processes” before the publication of an Op-Ed by a United States senator calling for a military response to civic unrest.

george floyd death new york times opinion editor resigns amid article row
James Bennet, the former editorial page editor of The New York Times, in 2017.Credit...Larry Neumeister/Associated Press

James Bennet resigned on Sunday from his job as the editorial page editor of The New York Times, days after the newspaper’s opinion section, which he oversaw, published a much-criticized Op-Ed by a United States senator calling for a military response to civic unrest in American cities.

The Times said on Sunday that its opinion page editor James Bennet had resigned from his position amid widespread condemnation over last week’s publication of Tom Cotton’s opinion piece entitled “Send in the Troops”.

Mr Bennet, who oversees opinion pieces at The New York Times, had earlier defended his decision to publish the senator’s controversial opinion piece on Wednesday.

“Last week we saw a significant breakdown in our editing processes, not the first we’ve experienced in recent years,” said A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher, in a note to the staff on Sunday announcing Mr. Bennet’s departure.

James Bennet stepped down after Senator Tom Cotton's article "Send in the Troops" caused revolt in the newsroom.

It backed Donald Trump's threat to use troops to quell unrest.

The newspaper had initially stood by the publication but then said the article "did not meet" its standards.

Sulzberger also said that Jim Dao, a deputy editorial page editor who had publicly taken responsibility as overseeing the editing of the piece, would be stepping off the masthead and reassigned to the newsroom. Katie Kingsbury, another deputy editorial page editor, will oversee the editorial page through the 2020 election.

At an all-staff virtual meeting on Friday, Mr. Bennet, 54, apologized for the Op-Ed, saying that it should not have been published and that it had not been edited carefully enough. An editors’ note posted late Friday noted factual inaccuracies and a “needlessly harsh” tone. “The essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published,” the note said, the bbc reported.

george floyd death new york times opinion editor resigns amid article row
The publication of a controversial opinion piece sparked anger inside the newsroom. (Photo: AFP)

The change in position came after an outcry from both the public and staff over the piece, published on the newspaper's website last Wednesday. Some journalists did not come into work on Thursday in protest.

According to the nytimes, Mr Bennet, who has been the opinion editor since 2016, later admitted that he had not read the piece before its publication. The Arkansas senator's article called for "an overwhelming show of force" against groups he described as "rioters".

Its publication happened as hundreds of thousands of people have been marching across the US in recent weeks against racism and police brutality. There have been violent incidents in some cities.

The demonstrations were sparked by the death of African-American George Floyd in police custody last month. Video showed him pinned to the floor, with a white police officer kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes.

Mr. Bennet’s tenure as editorial page editor, which started in 2016, was marked by several missteps. Last spring, The Times apologized for an anti-Semitic cartoon that appeared in the Opinion pages of its international edition.

Last August, a federal appellate court found that Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate, could proceed with a defamation lawsuit against The Times over an editorial edited by Mr. Bennet that inaccurately linked her statements to the 2011 shooting of a congresswoman.

Mr. Bennet worked and held key jobs in the Times newsroom from 1991 until 2006, when he left the newspaper to become the editor of The Atlantic. Since his return, he has widely been considered a possible successor to Dean Baquet, who has been in charge of the newsroom for six years.

In his four years as editorial page editor, Mr. Bennet sought to expand Opinion’s range, making it more responsive to breaking news and better positioned to cover the tech industry. While he hired several progressive columnists and contributors, he also added conservative voices to the traditionally liberal department.

He reduced the number of unsigned editorials and encouraged editorial board members to write more signed opinion pieces; one editorial board member, Brent Staples, won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing last year for a series of opinion columns on race in America.

Under Mr. Bennet, the opinion section also published investigative journalism, developed newsletters and a podcast. It also published a much-discussed Op-Ed by an anonymous Trump administration official who described a “quiet resistance” within the federal government.

The most prominent conservative columnist hired by Mr. Bennet, Bret Stephens, angered many readers with his inaugural Times column, in which he chastised the “moral superiority” of those who look down on climate-change skeptics. Late last year, Mr. Stephens published another column, headlined “The Secrets of Jewish Genius,” that led to widespread criticism. After a review, the editors appended a note to the column and re-edited it to remove a reference to a study cited in the original version after it was revealed that one of the study’s authors had promoted racist views.

Mr. Bennet is the brother of Michael Bennet, a U.S. senator from Colorado, and he recused himself from presidential campaign coverage during his brother’s unsuccessful run for this year’s Democratic nomination.

Senator Cotton’s Op-Ed prompted criticism on social media from many Times employees from different departments, an online protest that was led by African-American staff members. Much of the dissent included tweets that said the Op-Ed “puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.” Times employees objected despite a company policy instructing them not to post partisan comments on social media or take sides on issues in public forums.

In addition, more than 800 staff members had signed a letter by Thursday evening protesting the Op-Ed’s publication. The letter, addressed to high-ranking editors in the opinion and news divisions, as well as New York Times Company executives, argued that Mr. Cotton’s essay contained misinformation, such as his depiction of the role of “antifa” in the protests.

And last April, the opinion section apologized after publishing an anti-Semitic cartoon in its international edition.

The latest debacle resulted in criticism from Republicans who contended that the newspaper was exhibiting bias against them.

Cotton sharply criticized The Times for saying his op-ed didn't meet its standards, noting that Bennet had initially defended the op-ed. Cotton told Fox News the newspaper had caved to a "mob of woke kids."

"My op-ed doesn't meet the New York Times standards," Cotton said. "It far exceed their standards which are normally full of left-wing, sophomoric drivel."

President Trump on Sunday responded to the news by attacking the newspaper in a tweet.

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