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June 4, 2020, 2:20 p.m.
Reporting & Production

“This puts Black @nytimes staff in danger”: New York Times staffers band together to protest Tom Cotton’s anti-protest op-ed

“It has never been my expectation that every piece the New York Times publishes will confirm my personal worldview, but it was also never my expectation The Times would run an op-ed calling for state violence.”

New York Times staffers are banding together in protest after the paper ran an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) arguing that the United States government should call in the U.S. military to quash the people who are protesting the alleged murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer. (Times employees are not the only newsroom staffers protesting this week.)

Times management spent the day defending the op-ed. Then, on Thursday evening, the Times PR team released a statement saying that Cotton’s op-ed “did not meet our standards.”

Cotton referred to Black Lives Matter protestors as “rioters,” “looters,” and “insurrectionists,” repeated the false Trump claim (debunked earlier this week by the Times itself) that “antifa” have infiltrated the marches, and called for “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”

Times staffers flooded Twitter on Wednesday to protest the op-ed, tweeting “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger” and “Running this puts Black people, including Black @nytimes staff, in danger.” In doing so, they chose to violate the Times’ controversial policy that forbids staffers from “taking sides” on social media.

Several Times employees also took sick days Thursday to protest the op-ed. “It has never been my expectation that every piece the New York Times publishes will confirm my personal worldview,” one employee wrote in a company Slack, “but it was also never my expectation The Times would run an op-ed calling for state violence that uses multiple false and misleading claims to make its argument, and which our own journalists report is impacting their safety and ability to source stories.”

Employees took “the unusual step of sending a letter to management asking for a number of corrections,” Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reported, “as well as for ‘an editor’s note or follow-up, or, ideally, a fully reported news story’ to ‘examine’ what the letter calls ‘cherry-picked facts woven together with hyperbolic assumptions that were gross exaggerations.'” Slate’s Ashley Feinberg reported that as of midday Thursday the letter had been signed by nearly 500 Times staffers. (Another nugget from Feinberg’s story: According to one Times customer service rep, between 4 and 5 PM ET on Wednesday the paper received 203 editorial cancellations, “the highest hourly total ever in the data we have.”)

Times employees received an upswell of support from journalists at other organizations and journalism-adjacent folks. Sewell Chan, a former New York Times op-ed editor, said the op-ed “falls short of sound journalistic practice,” adding, “The richest, largest and most powerful newspaper in America needs to exercise discretion and prudence in the use of its platform. This fell far short.”

Times management defended the 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,” Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger wrote in a memo to staff Thursday. Times opinion editor James Bennet, who is widely seen as a possible successor to Times executive editor Dean Baquet, said on Twitter that “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments” and claimed Cotton’s viewpoint required “public scrutiny and debate.” He elaborated further in a Thursday post: “I worry we’d be misleading our readers if we concluded that by ignoring Cotton’s argument we would diminish it.” It was later revealed that Bennet had not read the op-ed before it was published.

Comments on the op-ed were turned off when it first ran on Wednesday, then were turned back on. On Thursday morning, they were turned off again; by Thursday evening, they were back on. There are currently 1,932 comments on the op-ed.

The op-ed did not run in the Thursday print edition of the paper. As of Thursday evening, it could not be found on the front page of the Opinion section online at all.

This story is being updated frequently.

Photo of The New York Times building by Scott Beale used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 4, 2020, 2:20 p.m.
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