A.G. Sulzberger’s No Good, Very Bad Explanation For Tom Cotton’s Belligerent Op-Ed

speaks onstage during the 2018 New York Times Dealbook on November 1, 2018 in New York City.
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: A.G. Sulzberger, Publisher, The New York Times, wrote a very bad defense of the decision to publish Tom Cotton's OP-ED (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images for The New York Times)
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June 4, 2020 3:42 p.m.

Yesterday, amidst global protests about police brutality, the venerable New York Times published an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) titled “Tom Cotton: Send In the Troops.”

“The nation must restore order,” the sub-headline read. “The military stands ready.”

This piece was met with visceral anger. The union representing New York Times staff, the NewsGuild, issued a statement that Cotton’s message “undermines the journalistic integrity of our members, puts Black staff members in danger, promotes hate, and is likely to encourage further violence.” Countless journalists tweeted “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.” 

There are many people who can explain to you more intelligently than I why this op-ed was dangerous, racist, and ignorant. I want to explain to you why the defense of this op-ed by Times’ publisher A.G. Sulzberger is eye-openingly bad. 

You can read the full “defense” here. I want to focus on this passage:

The op-ed page exists to offer views from across the spectrum, with a special focus on those that challenge the positions taken by our Editorial Board. We see that as a source of strength, allowing us to provide readers with a diversity of perspectives that is all too rare in modern media. We don’t publish just any argument — they need to be accurate, good faith explorations of the issues of the day — and there are many reasons why Op-Eds are denied publication. It is clear many believe this piece fell outside the realm of acceptability, representing dangerous commentary in an explosive moment that should not have found a home in The Times, even as a counterpoint to our own institutional view. 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. But it’s essential that we listen and to reflect on the concerns we’re hearing, as we would with any piece that is the subject of significant criticism.

First, this business about running op-eds that “challenge the positions taken by our Editorial Board” is pretty ridiculous. It ascribes a value and importance to the New York Times editorial board that simply doesn’t exist. Editorials, separate from op-eds, are written, sometimes anonymously, by staff on the editorial board. This is different from a column or an op-ed, which represents the views of the author. Editorials often represent the views of the editorial board — but not the entire editorial staff. Of course, this difference is often lost on readers who assume editorials represent the views of the newsroom. Editorials are outdated and it’s long past time to abolish them.

It’s a whole new level of absurd to expect readers, upon finding an op-ed in the New York Times, to think, “Oh, well this is just to challenge the New York Times editorial board’s own view” — one reason Sulzberger gives for why the Times’ published Cotton. Nobody thinks that. It’s delusional, ivory tower thinking.

Even if readers understood that that was the purpose of the op-ed, how can that be a benchmark for what is published? As Sulzberger goes on to say (admit?), “We don’t publish just any argument — they need to be accurate, good faith explorations of the issues of the day — and there are many reasons why Op-Eds are denied publication.”

What? Did he read Cotton’s piece? A foundational premise is that the protests are solely about George Floyd’s death. That in and of itself is incorrect. How is that accurate? And how is a passage like this in “good faith”?

But the rioting has nothing to do with George Floyd, whose bereaved relatives have condemned violence. On the contrary, nihilist criminals are simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction, with cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.

I find in many ways this defense more troubling than the op-ed itself because it betrays a dangerous rubric: If it’s so important for the Times’ to publish things that challenge its own editorials, what else are they willing to publish? How far does this “spectrum” go? The KKK is on a spectrum. Stephen Miller is on a spectrum. When will it be their turn? Separately, will the Times be publishing any thoughts from antifa supporters? Black Bloc, perhaps? 

The New York Times opinion page is broken and has been for a long time. It’s infected with dangerous “both-sides” thinking. I can’t really put it any better than Jay Rosen, who wrote on Twitter:

I hope the Times reconsiders how it uses its opinion page. In 2020, publications — especially ones like New York Times — have a responsibility to monitor what they amplify. There are million of other publications, Mr. Sulzberger. You didn’t have to give him your platform, and your defense is navel-gazing nonsense. The world can not be defined simply in terms of the Times’ editorial writers and the opposition to them.

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