Media

The Inside Story of the Tom Cotton Op-Ed that Rocked the New York Times

The New York Times building in New York City (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)
The Cotton team explains how the explosive piece got accepted and edited.

When a newspaper publishes a bombshell op-ed, it doesn’t want the chief casualty to be its own credibility.

But this is what has happened with the New York Times and the op-ed it ran by Arkansas senator Tom Cotton this week advocating using federal troops to quell riots.

The piece caused a revolt among woke Times staffers, and now the paper has issued a statement saying that the process was rushed and that it’s going to expand its fact-checking operation in response.

The paper hasn’t yet identified any factual errors in the piece, and its statement seems a transparent way to try to climb down from its decision to publish the piece to appease its staff and readers.

The Cotton team has no idea what the Times is talking about. The senator had fairly recently written two other op-eds for the Times. “Each time,” a Cotton staffer says, “the process was rigorous and somewhat onerous, and that was true of this time as well.”

This is how the process worked, according to Cotton’s office.

The senator endorsed invoking the Insurrection Act on Monday morning on the Fox News program Fox and Friends, and also on Twitter. He and his team then decided to pitch an op-ed to the New York Times.

The original pitch to the paper on Monday was to package together the argument on the Insurrection Act with another proposal, but the editors were interested in a piece focused solely on the Insurrection Act. There was “haggling,” the Cotton staffer says, “over what the angle and point of the piece ought to be.”

This negotiation took place with an editor who the Cotton team assumed was working with his superiors on his end.

After several rounds of back of forth Monday and into Tuesday, Senator Cotton accepted the Times-approved topic. Then, the drafting process began, with the senator finishing the final version late on Tuesday. Around 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Cotton’s office delivered the piece to the Times.

There were at least three drafts back and forth. The Times would send along edits for approval, and the Cotton team would sign off, and then there would be another round.

The first two rounds focused on clarity and style, and the last round on factual accuracy.

Regarding the fact-checking, the Cotton staffer says, “It was pretty rigorous. We were going into the weeds.” They went through each sentence to make sure that it was supported and that the links said what they were represented as saying. “We were challenged on a couple of things,” he adds, “and actually made changes.”

These weren’t earth-shattering changes, but they tightened the piece up. For instance, the original draft referred to a Morning Consult poll saying that 58 percent of Americans approved using federal troops, whereas it was 58 percent of registered voters.

This process, with back and forth over phone, email, and text, extended through the morning and afternoon on Wednesday. Cotton and his team then signed off on the final version around 2:30 p.m. It was posted shortly after.

Then, all hell broke loose.

So far, the only concrete problem with the piece that the Cotton team has heard about from the Times is an orphan quote. Somewhere along the line, the phrase “protect each of them from domestic violence” was entered into the piece in quotes, without any indication where the quote comes from. At one point, the fix that the Times had suggested was simply removing the quote marks, which the Cotton team had accepted, although as of this writing the quote marks remain.

As does the entire op-ed that the Times negotiated over before accepting and extensively edited and fact-checked — even if, now, it doesn’t want anyone to know it.

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