The New York Times apologized to its staff on Friday in a lengthy, tense meeting in which the paper’s top editors strongly suggested they will overhaul the oft-controversial and scrutinized opinion page.
Earlier this week, the Times published an op-ed, headlined “Send in the Troops,” in which Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) enthusiastically called for the deployment of American military forces to suppress the ongoing protests against police brutality. The column sparked immediate criticism from readers and many of the paper’s own staffers, who publicly denounced the decision to publish it.
One by one during Friday’s staff meeting, the paper’s top leaders apologized for the opinion piece. At one point, the paper admitted that it did “invite” Cotton to write the column.
The paper’s controversial top opinion editor James Bennet issued a mea culpa, claiming he let his section be “stampeded by the news cycle,” and confessed that the backlash had inspired him to rethink the op-ed section entirely.
“I just want to begin by saying I’m very sorry, I’m sorry for the pain that this particular piece has caused,” he said, adding, “I do think this is a moment for me and for us to interrogate everything we do in opinion.”
During the Q&A portion of the meeting, Bennet took several confrontational questions from irate staff. When asked why he did not personally read Cotton’s column before publishing it, Bennet said it was “another part of the process that broke down.” He added, “I should have been involved in signing off on the piece… I should have read it and signed off.”
When asked about the senator’s claim that the Times approached him to write the op-ed, Bennet admitted that the opinion page had seen Cotton’s tweets on the subject and “we did ask if he could stand up that argument. I’m not sure we suggested that topic to him but we did invite the piece.”
The paper’s executive editor Dean Baquet, meanwhile, said he was “impressed” and “proud” of the solidarity Times staffers showed each other following the publication of the op-ed, telling staff he stayed up all night following its publication on Wednesday reading their comments.
Under questioning, Baquet also reaffirmed the paper’s editorial positioning, referencing his previous declaration that the Times should not be “the opposition party,” adding, “I think some news organizations have gone a little bit far—not about Trump—but to please an audience.”
“We all work at the Times because we believe this institution can help right wrongs in a way that few others can,” added Meredith Kopit Levien, the paper’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “I’m sorry that this time we increased pain rather than reduced it.”
Levien said the issue was a “leadership problem, and we will treat it as such.”
The newspaper’s publisher A.G. Sulzberger admitted the op-ed was “sloppy” and the tone was contemptuous and “inflammatory.” He emphasized that Times leadership regretted publishing the piece altogether.
Still, the publisher defended Bennet, saying he has “as tough a job as anyone I can imagine in any newsroom,” saying Bennett and his team had diversified and modernized the opinion section.
“I’m not defending the piece, but I suspect there was a good-faith attempt” to shine a light on Cotton’s point of view, Sulzberger added.
“Serious editorial mistakes” were made, said the paper’s CEO Mark Thompson, who said the company’s executives “have something to think about… the scale of the anger.” He called for a “weekend of deep reflection” on what transpired.
Cotton’s op-ed sparked an immediate outcry online, and roiled the ranks of the paper’s staff. In a public display of anger about the opinion column, Times staffers from across many departments all tweeted its headline along with the caption “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.”
As a result, the paper seemed to reverse course on its decision to publish Cotton’s piece. Bennet initially stood by the op-ed’s publication, posting a lengthy Twitter thread on Wednesday evening justifying the decision. But on Thursday, a Times spokesperson said that Cotton’s piece did not meet the paper’s standards, and was the result of a “rushed editorial process.”
The piece has also increased scrutiny on Bennet. Since joining the Times in 2017, the paper’s top opinion editor has been subject to numerous outcries from readers and staff over various editorial decisions. The publication of Wednesday’s piece reignited some of the most contentious internal debates of the past several years.
The Times has said that as a result of the ordeal, the paper is considering reducing the number of op-eds published by as much as 20 percent in order to increase scrutiny on pieces before they run. During Friday’s meeting, Baquet said the criticism of the op-ed from Times staffers did not violate the paper’s strict social-media policies, which limit what Times reporters are permitted to say online.
During Friday’s call, staffers demanded a full autopsy of the publication of the op-ed. But Bennet pushed back, saying he was not pleased with the paper’s decision to publish the name and background information of the editorial assistant—Adam Rubenstein, formerly of The Weekly Standard, a now-defunct conservative outlet—who oversaw the piece.
Bennet confirmed that Cotton’s column will not run in the newspaper’s Sunday print edition.