Newspaper tells the untruth: This morning, we were sorry to read that James Bennet has lost his job at the New York Times.
In this morning's Washington Post, Andrews and Izadi offer a slightly fuller story. Tearfully, Bennet confessed to his guilt. Then he was frog-marched away.
As a general matter, we're always sorry to hear that someone has lost his job. In Bennet's case, it's widely said that he did a great job at The Atlantic, and as far we know that's true.
In the current instance, Bennet has lost his job at the New York Times, where, it now seems clear, an internal madness reigns. We've been noting this problem for many years now. We'd say that the problem's now clear.
Bennet has been forced to step down because of something he didn't do. He didn't read an opinion column by Arkansas senator Tom Cotton.
Cotton's column was published by the Times last Wednesday, though only online. In fairness, the Times publishes so much opinion bafflegab that no single person could humanely be asked to review all such submissions.
Presumably, though, Bennet should have read the column in question. The reasons: Cotton is a Republican senator, and Bennet was editor of the Times editorial page and oversaw the opinion section.
Just this once, we'll be honest. To this day, Cotton's column doesn't fill us with fury.
We aren't experts on policing here. We don't have well-developed views about what does and doesn't make good sense in that general area.
Nor were we scandalized, over the weekend, by the alleged factual errors allegedly lodged in Cotton's column. We'll attempt to evaluate those alleged errors as the week proceeds.
To this day, Cotton's column doesn't fill us with fury. We have been amazed by some of the ways our major journalists, possibly including Bennet himself, have characterized the column.
For today, consider one small but glaring example. Consider what Marc Tracy and/or some unnamed editor says in the New York Times news report which announces Bennet's departure.
Through the report bearing Tracy's name, the New York Times, not without skill, tells the untruth about Cotton's column, if only by omission. We refer to this early passage—paragraphs 4 and 5—in today's news report:
TRACY AND/OR HIS EDITOR (6/8/20): At an all-staff virtual meeting on Friday, Mr. Bennet, 54, apologized for the Op-Ed, saying that it should not have been published and that it had not been edited carefully enough. An editors’ note posted late Friday noted factual inaccuracies and a “needlessly harsh” tone. “The essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published,” the note said.Just for the record, when did Bennet "decline to comment?" Did he decline to comment last Wednesday, after Cotton's column "drew anger?" Did he decline to comment to Tracy over the weekend?
The Op-Ed, by Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, had “Send In the Troops” as its headline. “One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” he wrote. The piece, published on Wednesday, drew anger from readers and Times journalists. Mr. Bennet declined to comment.
For the record, we have no idea! But as we'll see in the next day or two, murky writing is par for the course at the Times, perhaps especially so with respect to a highly fraught topic like this one.
At any rate:
In the passage we've posted, Tracy and/or some editor refer to the five-paragraph "Editors' Note" which now sits atop the Cotton column.
The Editors' Note was appended to the column on June 5, two days after publication. You can read the Editors' Note, and the column itself, by just clicking here.
Tracy's editor quotes the part of the Note which says that Cotton's tone was "needlessly harsh." (More precisely, the Editors' Note says that Cotton's tone was needlessly harsh "in places.")
Tracy's report quotes that assessment while dropping the qualification. It then seems to offer the headline which sat atop Cotton's column as an example of that harsh tone.
In doing so, the news report disappears a basic fact—a basic fact which is included in the short Editors' Note. To show you what "telling the untruth" may look like at revolutionary times like these, we'll now show you the fuller passage from the Editors' Note:
Editors' Note, June 5, 2020:There you see paragraph 4 of the short, five-paragraph Note. It specifically says that the headline, which it calls "incendiary," was written by the New York Times, not by Senator Cotton!
Beyond [certain specific] 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.
Somehow, that tiny small fact has in some way gone missing from today's news report. Nowhere in Tracy's full-length report does this small fact appear.
You're left to believe that it was Cotton who wrote that headline, which seems to have been "needlessly harsh." You're no longer encouraged to know that it was the Times itself which composed that offensive banner.
Perhaps this was just some sort of mistake—a mistake which Tracy and/or his editor will correct before they too are frog-marched away. But this is the way we humans may tend to behave in revolutionary times such as these.
Long ago and far away, in a different global context, the Beatles tried to warn us about this sort of thing! It was easy for them to say, some might want to object.
Having noted the Beatles' effort, let's offer a much wider context:
Over the weekend, we watched the rebroadcast of a three-part PBS documentary about the way the spy services of Elizabeth I protected her from overthrow during her lengthy reign as England's queen. (She reigned from 1558—she was 25—until 1603, when she died.)
Elizabeth and her men foiled many coup plotters. We were struck by the way one miscreant was executed:
For starters, the fellow was hung by the neck, though not until he was dead. Still alive, he was taken down from the gallows and subjected to disembowelment.
He was then cut into quarters while still alive. Eventually, he expired.
We also watched the first hour of an older, two-hour PBS documentary about Anne Frank. Each program touched upon a powerful aspect of our profoundly flawed human nature.
That miscreant was horribly executed by Queen Elizabeth's men. That happened a bit more than five hundred years ago, a mere eyeblink in historical or evolutionary terms.
Something more than a hundred years later, the witch trials occurred in Salem, with their various crazy means of execution. Skip ahead a few centuries more and we encounter the Holocaust.
Not much later, we have the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, then the killing fields of Rwanda. Along the way, we have the killing fields associated with other well-known revolutions, along with the brutal racial history of our own struggling nation.
Our human nature does have its minor flaws! Among those of us a bit more evolved, we've replaced these killing fields with the kinds of revolutionary frenzy which can sometimes be spotted within our upper-end press corps.
Our human assessments are highly flawed, especially at times like these. We're inclined to notice such flaws in others, to disappear them among us.
The amazingly foppish New York Times has been badly flawed for a long time now. Especially within our own blue tribe, its branding as our smartest newspaper may make this fact hard to discern.
According to that Editors' Note, the New York Times placed an incendiary headline atop the Cotton column. The headline was written by the Times, not by Senator Cotton.
This morning, in a news report, we're encouraged to think something different. You can't believe many things you read. Much more on this problem tomorrow.
Tomorrow: A review of that Editors' Note