All the newspaper's assessments: We can't tell you why James Bennet didn't read Tom Cotton's submission.
Bennet was editorial page editor of the New York Times. Cotton, a high-profile senator, had offered a submission for possible publication.
As it turned out, the publication of Cotton's column led to a major uproar. In the end, it also cost Bennet his job.
We don't know why Bennet didn't review the column, but this wasn't the first time in recent months that he seemed to be missing in action. Back in January, the puzzling newspaper published a somewhat puzzling dual endorsement for president.
Two female candidates, Warren and Klobuchar, were still viable for the Democratic Party nomination. In an unusual move which could have been mocked as comically "correct," the puzzling newspaper's board decided to endorse both.
The endorsement(s) were announced at the end of a clown-like, hour-long TV program. The reality show-resembling program included videotaped excerpts of the board's lengthy interviews with the various hopefuls.
Bennet, the nominal chair of the board, didn't appear in the embarrassing hour-long TV show. Nor did his name appear in transcripts of the lengthy interviews conducted with the various contenders.
At the start of this month, he didn't read the Cotton column. Earlier, he didn't seem to have played a role in the dual endorsement(s). That process was led by Kathleen Kingsbury, the deputy editorial board editor who has now been named the acting head.
(In a matter which might seem slightly unusual, Kingsbury's husband, Alex Kingsbury, is also on the board.)
Bennet seemed to be missing in action during the candidate interviews. Meanwhile, in a possibly puzzling manifestation, Kingsbury had made a point of asking every presidential candidate a certain personal question.
You see that personal question below, as it was asked of, and answered by, Candidate Warren:
KINGSBURY (1/14/20): Well, one more personal question for you. Who has broken your heart?Every candidate was asked to say who had broken his or her heart. In fairness, this is the kind of question journalists ask to show us that, despite their standing, they're just as dumb as we are.
WARREN: My first husband.
KINGSBURY: Why? Do you mind telling?
WARREN: Well, yeah.
KINGSBURY: Oh my god, we’re running out of time. We have a bunch of questions around technology.
Also in fairness, no candidate was asked what type of tree she would choose to be if she could choose to be one. But so it went as the newspaper's board moved toward its dual endorsement.
Last week, we were given another chance to see this group in action. Cotton's essay was published, though only online, on January 3. An uproar followed, with staffers saying the column made them feel unsafe.
(Yesterday, a Times staffer seems to have said, in a comment to this essay by Jonathan Chait, that staffers were forced to take that approach by their union:
("Speaking as someone inside the Times, the reason the reporters deployed the 'This endangers me' formulation was only because our union told them that was the only line they could take, to insist that it was a workplace danger issue," this apparent staffer wrote. We can't verify the accuracy of any part of this. You can peruse the fuller statement within the comments to Chait.)
An uproar followed the publication of the Cotton column. Two days later, a five (5) paragraph Editors' Note was placed above the column.
Presumably, the Editors' Note was the work of the full editorial board. Or, despite the plural form, it may have come from Bennet alone. Authorship wasn't spelled out.
The Editors' Note was just five grafs long. Paragraph 1 said this:
EDITORS' NOTE (6/5/20): After publication, this essay met strong criticism from many readers (and many Times colleagues), prompting editors to review the piece and the editing process. Based on that review, we have concluded that the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.One day earlier, both Bennet and the newspaper's publisher had defended the publication of the column. Now, the unnamed editors (plural) were saying that the column shouldn't have been published. (The publisher also flipped.)
Should the column have been published? On that point, we have no major view. A great deal of foolishness does get published by the Times Opinion section. We can't say it's clear tpo us that Cotton's column, even as published, managed to fall below the paper's prevailing "standards."
That said, a question popped into our heads as we read the Note. Did the Times do anything right when it reviewed Cotton's original submission? The second paragraph of the Note went like this:
EDITORS' NOTE (continuing forect;ly): The basic arguments advanced by Senator Cotton—however objectionable people may find them—represent a newsworthy part of the current debate. But given the life-and-death importance of the topic, the senator’s influential position and the gravity of the steps he advocates, the essay should have undergone the highest level of scrutiny. Instead, the editing process was rushed and flawed, and senior editors were not sufficiently involved. While Senator Cotton and his staff cooperated fully in our editing process, the Op-Ed should have been subject to further substantial revisions—as is frequently the case with such essays—or rejected.According to that paragraph, Senator Cotton and his staff did what they should have done. That said, the editing process by the Times had been "rushed and flawed."
After that came paragraph 3. In our view, the writing in this very paragraph also seems rushed and flawed:
EDITORS' NOTE (continuing directly): For example, the published piece presents as facts assertions about the role of “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa”; in fact, those allegations have not been substantiated and have been widely questioned. Editors should have sought further corroboration of those assertions, or removed them from the piece. The assertion that police officers “bore the brunt” of the violence is an overstatement that should have been challenged. The essay also includes a reference to a “constitutional duty” that was intended as a paraphrase; it should not have been rendered as a quotation.In that paragraph, the editors question two factual claims. We can't tell you what Cotton would have said or done had the claims been questioned or challenged before the column was published.
That said, good God! Consider the sentence we've highlighted—the editors' absurdly fuzzy, jumbled attempt to discuss a paraphrase which was rendered as a quotation.
Rather plainly, this refers to a certain apparent quotation which appears in the published version of Cotton's column. In the column as published, it wasn't clear who or what was being quoted, or if anyone was being quoted at all.
In fact, the federal government has a constitutional duty to the states to “protect each of them from domestic violence.”That sentence appears in the version of Cotton's column which appeared in the Times. But who is being quoted there? As you can see from reading the fuller passage, no attribution appears.
Is that the way the column was written by Cotton himself? If so, that bit of writing was bungled, and it should have been challenged in the editing process.
That said, the highlighted writing by the editors is so murky and so unclear that a question comes to mind. We can't help wondering if the editors themselves somehow managed to turn a submitted paraphrase into a published quotation.
We're not saying the editors did that, although they certainly might have. We're saying that their writing there is perversely unclear.
To us, that highlighted sentence from the Editors' Note is highly instructive. Even in writing five (5) paragraphs about a matter of major interest, the editors couldn't avoid such jumbled, unclear prose.
We saw similar murkiness in their fifth and final paragraph. The fourth graf wasn't much better:
EDITORS' NOTE (continuing directly): Beyond those factual questions, the tone of the essay in places is needlessly harsh and falls short of the thoughtful approach that advances useful debate. Editors should have offered suggestions to address those problems. The headline—which was written by The Times, not Senator Cotton—was incendiary and should not have been used.We're sorry, but that's just awful. We start with paragraph 4:
Finally, we failed to offer appropriate additional context—either in the text or the presentation—that could have helped readers place Senator Cotton’s views within a larger framework of debate.
After scolding Cotton for being, in places, "needlessly harsh," the editors admit that they were the ones who wrote the headline, which they call "incendiary!"
That final, hopelessly murky paragraph finally takes the cake. In an attempt to "offer additional context," might the editors have inserted material into Cotton's text which didn't come from Cotton himself? We'd like to think the answer is no, but that's almost what they seem to be saying.
That said, their writing is again so unclear that it's hard to know exactly what they're saying. And this is the way these editors function when the whole world is watching!
Is there anything the Times did right in handling Cotton's column? First, Bennet himself failed to read it. Then, the people who did edit the column blew past various points of alleged concern, eventually adding a headline which the editors call incendiary.
Along the way, they may have blown past an unsourced quotation without requiring that a source be cited! Or—Who really knows?—they may have created this blunder themselves. Even as they denounce the column they themselves chose to publish, their writing is so unclear, at several points, that it's hard to know what they did and what they think they should have done.
On June 3, they published the column. On June 4, they defended their decision to publish the column. On June 5, they published this murky tome, in which they kept denouncing Cotton for things they themselves had done and had failed to do.
In the uproar which followed the publication of the column, various staffers swing into action, "fact-checking" (and in one case, "truth"-checking) what Cotton had apparently written. We'll only say that the fact-checking skills of some of these staffers sometimes seemed remarkably weak.
Meanwhile, for one example out of ten million, consider the degree of discernment put on display by an array of such scribes. The assessment in question is this:
Olivia this isn’t a bad opinion. NYT has no reason to give a platform to someone making an argument for using lethal force against American citizens exercising constitutional rights. The same constitution that gives him title of senator. Why the NYT stamp of approval?Really? Did Cotton advocate "using lethal force against American citizens exercising constitutional rights?" On what planet do people like this get hired as upper-end journalists, let alone as Pulitzer winners?
(Inevitably, the person who wrote that comment now teaches at the Columbia School of Journalism! Or so Nuzzi says.)
Staffers said the publication of the column made them feel unsafe. This claim would have e been the final blow in our own assessment of New York Times staffers, until one apparent staffer said the staffers were forced to adopt that approach based on union rules. On what planet can a culture like this really expect to survive?
We have no doubt that members of the board, and other Times staffers, are all good, decent people. Their culture, though, is often clown college, and their skills are remarkably weak.
We offer this as anthropological insight. We've been guided in these ruminations by several top major experts. They report to us from the years which follow a certain impending "war."