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‘Are We Truly So Precious?’: James Bennet’s Damning NYT Portrayal

Armed with extensive email correspondence and verbatim quotations from his final days at the Times, Bennet accuses the Times leadership — especially publisher A.G. Sulzberger and former executive editor Dean Baquet — of betraying him in the heat of the controversy over Cotton’s op-ed, which called on then-President Donald Trump to use the military to suppress violent protests and looting during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020.

Bennet recounts that Baquet was at first “taken aback” by the mounting criticism of the piece in the days after its publication, even going so far as to ask Bennet, “Are we truly so precious?” (“The answer, it turns out, was yes,” Bennet writes.)

In another vivid episode, Bennet says that when he told Sulzberger about a conservative columnist’s concerns that the paper held conservative arguments to a more scrupulous standard than liberal ones, Sulzberger “lost his patience” and told Bennet to “inform the complaining conservative that that’s just how it was: There was a double standard and he should get used to it.”

Bennet writes that Sulzberger and Baquet privately backed his decision to run Cotton’s piece. But when criticism of the op-ed from readers and Times staffers began to mount in June 2020 — culminating in a series of fiery internal Times meetings and heated exchanges on the company’s internal Slack channels, all of which Bennet recounts in lurid detail — Sulzberger and Baquet flip-flopped. Sulzberger, Bennet’s boss, eventually forced him to resign.

“Sulzberger called me at home and, with an icy anger that still puzzles and saddens me, demanded my resignation,” Bennet recounts of his final conversation with the publisher.

In a written statement to POLITICO Magazine, Sulzberger pushed back against Bennet’s characterization of the culture at the Times.

“James Bennet and I have always agreed on the importance of independent journalism, the challenges it faces in today’s more polarized world, and the mission of The Times to pursue independence even when the path of less resistance might be to give into partisan passions. But I could not disagree more strongly with the false narrative he has constructed about The Times. Our commitment to independence is evident in our report every day.” He added: “James was a valued partner, but where I parted ways with him is on how to deliver on these values. Principles alone are not enough. Execution matters. Leadership matters.”

In raw and often personal terms, Bennet — a veteran journalist who rejoined the Times in 2016 after a decade-long stint as the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic — links his own ouster from the Times to contentious and ongoing debates about the media’s role ahead of the 2024 presidential election. The piece — which argues that “changes in the American news media played a critical role” in Trump’s first election in 2016 — landed like a bombshell in media circles, eliciting both praise and scorn from fellow journalists, who alternately praised Bennet for his moral clarity or condemned him for his self-serving defense.

Bennet paints a picture of a contentious and often acrimonious generational and philosophical civil war within the Times newsroom between 2016 and 2020. While old guard Times journalists continued to privately support traditional journalistic values like fairness, pluralism and political independence, Bennet writes, they gradually capitulated to their younger, more ideologically motivated colleagues, who pushed the paper to elevate liberal viewpoints and shun conservative perspectives.

“The Times’s problem has metastasised from liberal bias to illiberal bias, from an inclination to favour one side of the national debate to an impulse to shut debate down altogether,” Bennet writes. “All the empathy and humility in the world will not mean much against the pressures of intolerance and tribalism without an invaluable quality that Sulzberger did not emphasise: courage.”

Bennet charges that this gradual leftward shift came to infect the paper’s coverage of a range of issues beyond Trump, gradually undermining its credibility and pandering to its most left-leaning readers.

“The Times was slow to break it to its readers that there was less to Trump’s ties to Russia than they were hoping, and more to Hunter Biden’s laptop, that Trump might be right that covid came from a Chinese lab,” Bennet writes.

And the issue wasn’t contained to the paper’s senior leadership. Over time, Bennet writes, more and more of his colleagues came to embrace an insular and openly ideological approach to the Times’ reporting.

“I think many Times staff have little idea how closed their world has become, or how far they are from fulfilling their compact with readers to show the world ‘without fear or favor,’” he writes. “And sometimes the bias was explicit: one newsroom editor told me that, because I was publishing more conservatives, he felt he needed to push his own department further to the left.”

Bennet’s disagreements with the paper’s shifting editorial values came to a head in June 2020, when he greenlit an op-ed by Cotton, a hard-line conservative and close political ally of Trump.

In the op-ed, which was published as mass protests over the police murder of George Floyd spread across the United States, Cotton called on then-President Trump to invoke an obscure law known as the Insurrection Act, which would have authorized the federal government to employ the U.S. military in an “overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”

The op-ed elicited widespread condemnation both inside and outside of the Times newsroom, with many readers and Times staffers taking to Twitter (now called X) and the paper’s internal Slack channels to argue that the paper’s decision to publish the piece endangered both non-violent protesters and the Times journalists who were covering the protests.

Two days later, on June 5, the paper added a lengthy editor’s note to the piece, conceding that the op-ed “fell short of [the Times’] editorial standards and should not have been published. Two days after that, the paper’s top editors announced Bennet’s resignation, citing “a significant breakdown in our editing process.”

In his essay, Bennet offers a lengthy defense of his decision to publish Cotton’s op-ed, pointing to the range of perspectives that the Times opinion pages had published on the protests, including arguments against the use of military force to suppress the protests.

He also notes that the piece had initially enjoyed the support of both Sulzberger and then-Times executive editor Dean Baquet, both of whom agreed with Bennet that Cotton’s argument was newsworthy given the Arkansas Republican’s influence in the Trump White House and among congressional Republicans.

Bennet’s essay arrives as arguments about journalistic ethics and free speech are heating up in newsrooms around the country due to ongoing debates about the war in Gaza. In recent weeks, several high-profile journalists have been fired or forced to resign from their publications after making public statements in support of Gaza, prompting a broader debate about the line between journalistic objectivity and political advocacy.

In his essay, Bennet accuses the Times of coming down on the wrong side of this debate, which he describes as raging on and off at the paper since he first joined as a Metro reporter in 1991.

Yet even before his firing, Bennet writes, he had grown troubled by a shift in the paper’s editorial philosophy: “The old liberal embrace of inclusive debate that reflected the country’s breadth of views [gave] way to a new intolerance for the opinions of roughly half of American voters.”

Yet the Times eventual capitulation to the criticism of Cotton’s op-ed was indicative of a subtle yet important shift in the paper’s editorial outlook, Bennet writes. Whereas the Times has in recent decades had to contend with accusations of undue liberal bias, the paper’s most critical failing in the post-Trump era is its apparent illiberalism — a problem that at once makes it less able to confront Trump’s anti-democratic impulses and more like the ex-president than its leaders would likely care to admit.

“One of the glories of embracing illiberalism is that, like Trump, you are always right about everything, and so you are justified in shouting disagreement down,” Bennet writes. “This is how reasonable Republican leaders lost control of their party to Trump … [and] it is why the leadership of the New York Times is losing control of its principles.”

This report has been updated to reflect a statement from the Times

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