On Thursday morning, the leadership of the New York Times was still defending its decision to publish an op-ed by U.S. senator Tom Cotton in which the Arkansas Republican called for using the military to help quell riots if necessary. By Thursday evening, amid pressure from staffers and readers angry about the piece, the Times had begun abjectly apologizing for its publication. A Times spokesperson announced that the piece “did not meet our standards,” but failed to specify how. The claim was followed by a pledge to expand “our fact-checking operation” that identified no factual errors in Cotton’s work.
Journalists often roll their eyes when government officials wait until Friday night to release bad news in hopes that as few people as possible will see it. This past Friday, the Times carried out its own Friday-night news dump when it finally got around to explaining its decision, in an “editor’s note” that now precedes the piece:
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.
Slate’s Will Saletan quickly and correctly pointed out that the editors were “concocting excuses to renounce the piece.”
Let’s take each alleged problem the Times raises one at a time.
First, the editor’s note asserts that the claim that “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” had infiltrated the protests is unsubstantiated. One definition of a “cadre” is “a small group of people specially trained for a particular purpose or profession,” and it is indisputable that at least some radicals have participated in the recent rioting. Here’s a headline from a Texas-based ABC affiliate: “3 members of anti-government group ANTIFA arrested after looting a Target in Austin, FBI says.” Here’s ABC’s New York affiliate: “Anarchists infiltrating George Floyd protests in NYC, officials say.” According to a June 1 AP report published by the Times itself, “An antifa activist group disseminated a message in a Telegram channel on Saturday that encouraged people to consider Minnesota National Guard troops ‘easy targets,’ two Defense Department officials said.”
Second, the paper says it is an “overstatement” to claim police officers “bore the brunt” of the riots’ violence. But here’s how Cotton made his case in the op-ed:
Outnumbered police officers, encumbered by feckless politicians, bore the brunt of the violence. In New York State, rioters ran over officers with cars on at least three occasions. In Las Vegas, an officer is in “grave” condition after being shot in the head by a rioter. In St. Louis, four police officers were shot as they attempted to disperse a mob throwing bricks and dumping gasoline; in a separate incident, a 77-year-old retired police captain was shot to death as he tried to stop looters from ransacking a pawnshop. This is “somebody’s granddaddy,” a bystander screamed at the scene.
The Times doesn’t take issue with a single sentence following the assertion that the police bore the brunt of violence because each sentence is true. In what sense then is the assertion an “overstatement”? Is the paper claiming some moral equivalence between being shot with real bullets or run over with a car and being tear gassed?
Third, the Times notes that 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.” This sort of tiny error would not normally send the paper of record bowing and scraping before critics. The sentence in question reads, “In fact, the federal government has a constitutional duty to the states to ‘protect each of them from domestic violence,’” when it should instead have read, “In fact, the federal government has a constitutional duty to the states to ‘protect each of them’ from ‘domestic violence.’”
If you needed any more proof that the paper was concocting excuses to appease angry staffers and readers, consider the fact that on Sunday night the news section reported: “James Bennet, the editorial page editor of The New York Times, has resigned after a controversy over an Op-Ed by a senator calling for military force against protesters in American cities.”
In fact, Cotton never called for using “military force against protesters.” He wrote that a “majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants,” and he explicitly rejected any “revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters.” The Times eventually deleted the original claim, and the sentence in question now asserts that he called “for a military response to civic unrest in American cities.” The paper did not publish a correction or an editor’s note acknowledging the error in the news story. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about this whole sorry episode.
The meltdown at the Times does highlight one piece of good news: Journalists are debating the decision to publish an op-ed about deploying the military because elected officials see no need to have the same debate. The arson, looting, and violence that occurred the weekend before Cotton raised the possibility of deploying the military have abated thanks to a stronger response from law enforcement and the National Guard. We have thankfully not seen the scale of violence seen during the 1992 L.A. Riots, when 30 people had been killed by the time George H. W. Bush called in the Army and Marines to assist police.
CNN reported last Thursday that Republican senators opposed deploying the military. When Cotton first raised the possibility of sending in federal troops on June 1, he said that should only be done if police and National Guard couldn’t control the riots. During a June 8 appearance on Fox News, he acknowledged that “fortunately, more and more cities and states called in the National Guard through Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday last week” and deploying the military “was not necessary” any longer, if it had ever been.