NYT opinion editor resigns after outrage over Tom Cotton op-ed

Rishika Dugyala

The New York Times announced on Sunday that its editorial page editor had resigned after backlash from the public and the company’s own employees over a Republican senator’s op-ed that called for using military force against recent rioters.

In a statement, The Times said that James Bennet had resigned and that Katie Kingsbury would serve as the acting editorial page editor through the November election. The deputy editorial page editor, Jim Dao, is being reassigned to the newsroom and is stepping off the masthead.

“James is a journalist of enormous talent and integrity who believes deeply in the mission of The Times,” said paper’s publisher, A.G. Sulzberger. “He oversaw a significant transformation of the Opinion department, which broadened the range of voices we publish and pushed us into new formats like video, graphics and audio. I’m grateful for his many contributions.”

Bennet added in the Sunday statement: “The journalism of Times Opinion has never mattered more than in this time of crisis at home and around the world, and I’ve been honored to be part of it. I’m so proud of the work my colleagues and I have done to focus attention on injustice and threats to freedom and to enrich debate about the right path forward by bringing new voices and ideas to Times readers.”

His resignation comes as hundreds of thousands of people have protested police brutality across the country, angered by the death of George Floyd — and black Americans before him — at the hands of white police officers. Much of these protests have been peaceful, though there have been some riots and looting. Increased military and police presence at demonstrations have also heightened tensions, leading to some clashes and videos of law enforcement using excessive force.

The Wednesday opinion piece by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), titled “Send the Troops In,” advocated for deploying the military for riots. The senator described looting in New York City as “carnivals for the thrill-seeking rich as well as other criminal elements,” and wrote that leftist antifa movement had infiltrated protest marches — which an earlier Times article had called misinformation.

The column immediately drew backlash, with dozens of Times journalists voicing their opposition, tweeting the headline, caption and a form of the phrase “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones, who recently won a Pulitzer prize for the 1619 Project, which examines the legacy of slavery in America, tweeted: “I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but to not say something would be immoral. As a black woman, as a journalist, I am deeply ashamed that we ran this.”

Both Sulzberger and Bennet first defended the decision to run the column. Bennet wrote in an essay that “debating influential ideas openly, rather than letting them go unchallenged, is far more likely to help society reach the right answers.”

But on Thursday evening, the Times reversed itself and said the column had not met editorial standards. The Times reported that Bennet said in a meeting with staff members that he had not read the essay before it was published. And the paper added an editor’s note to the top of the original column.

“We’ve examined the piece and the process leading up to its publication,” said Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman. “This review made clear that a rushed editorial process led to the publication of an op-ed that did not meet our standards. As a result, we’re planning to examine both short-term and long-term changes, to include expanding our fact-checking operation and reducing the number of op-eds we publish.”

The Daily Beast reported that top editors apologized to Times staff in a long, tense internal meeting, acknowledging that Cotton had been invited to write the column. Bennet said he was sorry for “the pain that this particular piece has caused.”

President Donald Trump quickly weighed in on Bennet’s resignation.

“Opinion Editor at @nytimes just walked out,” he wrote on Twitter. “That’s right, he quit over the excellent Op-Ed penned by our great Senator @TomCottonAR. TRANSPARENCY! The State of Arkansas is very proud of Tom. The New York Times is Fake News!!!”

A short while later, Cotton retweeted the president and took offense at media headlines asserting that he had called for military force against protesters.

“This is false and offensive,” he tweeted. “I called for using military force as a backup — only if police are overwhelmed — to stop riots, not to be used against protesters. If @nytimes has any decency left, they should retract this smear.“

Cotton indeed drew a clear delineation in his op-ed, condemning what he called "a revolting moral equivalence" among liberals "of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters." But elsewhere in his essay, Cotton pointed to public polling that showed a majority of registered voters "would support cities’ calling in the military to 'address protests and demonstrations' that are in 'response to the death of George Floyd.'”

Bennet, who previously served as editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, was rumored to be a candidate to run The Times after Executive Editor Dean Baquet stepped down.

The Sunday announcement from the Times came a day after Stan Wischnowski, the top editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, said he would resign following criticism for publishing the headline “Buildings Matter, Too” as civil unrest grew over George Floyd’s death. The controversy led to a public apology, and dozens of the paper’s journalists of color called in “sick and tired of not being heard.”

More media companies are reckoning with former and current employees voicing their disapproval of leadership and internal structures they say have harmed journalists of color. On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had been accused of barring two journalists from covering anti-racism protests because they were seen as biased for being black.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify the distinction Sen. Tom Cotton outlined in his op-ed between protesters and rioters.