After a week of brutal criticism — and an open staff revolt — over the publication of a column by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton that called for the military to crush the George Floyd protests, New York Times Op-Ed section editor James Bennet has resigned.
Publisher A.G. Sulzberger announced the news to staff in an email on Sunday. Katie Kingsbury, who joined The Times in 2017, has been named as acting Editorial Page Editor through the November election. In addition, Jim Dao, the deputy editorial page editor responsible for the section Cotton’s op-ed was published in, will step off the masthead and will be reassigned to the newsroom.
“James is a journalist of enormous talent and integrity who believes deeply in the mission of The Times,” said Sulzberger in a statement. “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.”
“Last week we saw a significant breakdown in our editing processes, not the first we’ve experienced in recent years,” Sulzberger added.”James and I agreed that it would take a new team to lead the department through a period of considerable change.”
- Cliff Levy (@cliffordlevy) June 7, 2020
Bennet’s tenure as Op-Ed editor, which began in 2016, has been marked by considerable criticism, particularly for his hiring of right-wing pundits like Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss. He has also been criticized for dozens of editorials published under his watch, which among other things included a guest column by Blackwater founder Erik Prince that called for the U.S. to increase the use of private military contractors in war zones, which critics said was a flagrant conflict of interest.
Despite this, Bennet was reported to be in high regard with NYT leadership and considered a frontrunner to succeed Dean Baquet as editor-in-chief of the paper. But the criticism finally reached a boiling point over Cotton’s piece, which was widely slammed as both racist and fascist because it urged the U.S. military to crush nationwide protests and unrest following the Floyd’s death at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin.
Dozens of Times staffers broke the company’s unevenly applied social media policies to publicly denounce the article, tweeting “This puts Black @nytimes staff in danger,” and they were joined by some of the paper’s highest profile contributors. Added to this, the New York Times guild condemned the paper’s decision, calling it “a clear threat to the health and safety of journalists we represent.”
But the backlash, even from staff, might not have been the primary reason for Bennet’s resignation. According to an internal Slack exchange obtained by Slate, the Times’ customer service center reported over 200 subscription cancellations in one hour last week, the highest ever recorded by the paper.
As it happens, this was the second time since Bennet was hired that the Times has been beset with a mass defection of subscribers in response to an Op-Ed article. The first occurred in 2017 after the paper published Bret Stephens’ debut column, which advocated outright climate denialism. So many users canceled their subscriptions in response that Bennet was forced to publicly defend the decision.
During a staff call on Friday, Sulzberger called Cotton’s editorial “contemptuous” and admitted that it never should have been published. The staff call also revealed that the Times approached Cotton to write the piece instead of the other way around, and that it was put through a “rushed editorial process.”
“We’ve examined the piece and the process leading up to its publication. 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,” said a spokesperson in a statement to TheWrap.
In his statement announcing Bennet’s departure, Sulzberger said that the NYT would not “retreat from its responsibility to help people understand a range of voices across the breadth of public debate. That role is as important as it’s ever been.”
“Because we have faced questions in recent days about our core values, I want to say this plaintly: As an institution we are opposed to racism in every corner of society. We are opposed to injustice. We believe deeply in principles of fairness, equality and human rights. Those values animate both our news report and our opinion report.”
Bennet’s departure was criticized by President Donald Trump, who called Cotton’s column “excellent.”
“The State of Arkansas is very proud of Tom,” Trump tweeted. “The New York Times is Fake News!!!”