On Thursday evening, the New York Times issued a public apology for publishing a June 3 op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), titled “Send in the Troops.”
In the op-ed, Cotton had denounced the “revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters.” He wrote that a “majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants,” but the U.S. military should be deployed under the Insurrection Act to help restore order with “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”
On Thursday night, the New York Times news section published a story titled “New York Times Says Senator’s Op-Ed Did Not Meet Standards.”
Which “standards” didn’t the op-ed meet? The paper’s official statement does not say.
“We’ve examined the piece and the process leading up to its publication,” a Times spokesperson said. “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 paper’s assertion that the article “did not meet our standards” followed by a pledge to expand “our fact-checking operation” gives readers the false impression that there was a factual error in the piece.
But the paper has not identified a single factual error, nor has it issued a correction or retracted the op-ed.
The Thursday evening news story reported: “The editors said that the article had been fact-checked, but added that they would fact-check it again.”
Translation: They haven’t discovered an error, but they’re still looking for one so they can pretend they weren’t simply trying to appease a mob of outraged staffers who threatened to paint editors as racist.
So, by all appearances the newspaper issued an official statement designed to mislead its readers.
On Thursday, Times opinion-page editor James Bennet wrote an article defending the decision to publish the op-ed. “We published Cotton’s argument in part because we’ve committed to Times readers to provide a debate on important questions like this,” Bennet wrote. “It would undermine the integrity and independence of The New York Times if we only published views that editors like me agreed with, and it would betray what I think of as our fundamental purpose — not to tell you what to think, but to help you think for yourself.”
In an email to staff Thursday morning, publisher A. G. Sulzberger also defended publication of the Cotton op-ed. “I believe in the principle of openness to a range of opinions, even those we may disagree with, and this piece was published in that spirit,” he wrote.
By Thursday evening, Sulzberger had done an about-face, writing to his colleagues that the op-ed “did not meet our standards” without specifying which standards the article failed to meet. Sulzberger “added that an editor’s note from the newspaper’s standards department was on its way,” the paper reported.
As of 11:00 a.m. Friday, that editor’s note was nowhere to be seen. When it appears, it will be hard to believe the paper is telling the full truth, given that both Bennet and Sulzberger defended the merits of publishing the piece only to change their minds after 160 Times staffers threatened to engage in a “virtual walkout” — whatever that means.
Journalists are supposed to speak truth to power, whether it’s the power of a government or the power of a mob. Sulzberger and Bennet did just that on Thursday morning. Whatever sorry cover story they end up settling on to explain their about-face, this embarrassing episode for the New York Times will ultimately be a story of truth bowing to power.