When Bad Ideas Happen to Good Newspapers


The New York Times, it’s fair to say, is an obsession for Jewish readers. The Jewish community includes the Gray Lady’s most loyal readers — and arguably its biggest critics. For the second group, this was a week for schadenfreude, when a staff rebellion over an op-ed forced the departure of James Bennet, the opinion editor, after a vitriolic Twitter debate over free speech, journalistic ethics and the boundaries of opinion.

At issue was the op-ed page’s decision to publish online an essay by Sen. Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican, calling for federal troops to meet the George Floyd protests with an “overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.” The piece was posted on Wednesday, June 3.

Times staffers complained that the piece advocated violence against peaceful demonstrators, endangered people of color and gave a platform and legitimacy to an odious attack on free speech and peaceful assembly. A letter signed by over 1,000 Times staff members said Cotton’s essay was also full of inaccuracies, and that while the paper should publish a diversity of views, no writer is entitled to a platform to air “shaky facts and gross assumptions.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones of The Times Magazine, a Pulitzer Prize winner for her coverage of race, tweeted, “As a black woman, as a journalist, as an American, I am deeply ashamed that we ran this.”

The Times, in a statement saying it regretted publishing the Cotton piece, explained that “a rushed editorial process led to the publication of an Op-Ed that did not meet our standards.” Bennet was out by Sunday.

There are a few aspects of this debate that need to be teased out.

The first is whether there are some ideas that are so odious that they don’t deserve airing in the pages or on the website of a responsible newspaper. There certainly are: No one needs to hear the “other side” represented by avowed racists, neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, climate “skeptics,” anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, quack scientists or the mentally unstable.

But even if Cotton fits one or more of these categories, he is still a member of the U.S. Senate, and one who has the ear of the president. I think there is value in airing the unvarnished, unmediated views of an influential political figure so that readers can read and evaluate the actual, however ugly, thoughts and intentions of people who shape policy.

If, say, a prominent Israeli politician submitted an op-ed that revealed something disturbing and extreme about her and her followers, I would be inclined to publish it as a service to readers. 

And I would do so in the context in which The Times printed Cotton’s op-ed: in a news ecosphere that includes reporters and opinion writers feeding a full understanding of the issue, op-eds presenting contrary views and links to news articles contextualizing the writer’s proposals and explaining where they fit within the current political debate.

The second issue, and the one that I think disqualified Cotton’s op-ed, is quality. As the old saw goes, writers are entitled to their opinions, not their facts. If Cotton’s were the only piece you read about this month’s events, you would have thought that small gatherings of what he calls “peaceful, law-abiding protesters” were vastly outnumbered by masses of “nihilist criminals” — when exactly the opposite is true.

Cotton’s piece also didn’t even try to explain why federal troops could do a better job containing violence than local police or the National Guard. He didn’t talk about training, leadership, equipment, authority, local recalcitrance or any of the other factors that might justify a federal response over local efforts. “An overwhelming show of force,” a phrase usually associated with military action abroad, was the extent of his argument.

The third issue is a generational one: The pushback at The Times appears to have been led by younger staffers. I spoke to graying colleagues in the media who, like me, mostly defended The Times’ decision to publish Cotton’s incendiary piece (and who, like me, don’t remember a similar internal hullaballoo about Times’ op-eds attacking, often misleadingly, Israel and its supporters). For the old guard, presenting diverse voices, even repellant ones, fulfills a newspaper’s mission of shining sunlight in dark places. As media critic Jack Shafer (born 1957) put it in Politico, “[I]nstead of being outraged by the Times publication of the Cotton op-ed, I’m grateful, because it damningly revealed in his own words his dangerous intentions better than any mere news story or interview could have.”

A younger guard, meanwhile, believes reflexive objectivity allows people with discredited and dangerous ideas to air them in the name of “fairness.” “American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment,” tweeted Wesley Lowery (born 1990), formerly of the Washington Post, in response to the Cotton essay. “We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.”

One person’s “moral clarity,” however, is another person’s censorship. I still insist that the public is served by the publication of bad ideas by public figures who have the power or connections to implement them. Far more dangerous than Cotton’s highly public yawp are the lawmakers who tacitly approve of and facilitate awful policy without taking responsibility for their ideas or actions. Forewarned is forearmed. 

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.