James Bennet – When the New York Times lost its way
In June 2020, amidst a tumultuous climate in America, marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide protests following George Floyd’s death, the New York Times found itself at the heart of a contentious debate. James Bennet, then the editorial-page editor, approved an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton, which ignited a storm within the newspaper’s ranks and highlighted a deepening ideological divide.
Bennet’s piece, “When the New York Times lost its way, America’s media should do more to equip readers to think for themselves,” reflects on this incident, drawing a vivid picture of the internal conflicts and philosophical struggles within the Times. It raises critical questions about the role of journalism, the balance of opinion and news, and the handling of controversial viewpoints.
Bennet recalls how The New York Times, once a paragon of journalistic neutrality, began to display a discernible tilt toward liberal ideologies, significantly during his tenure from 2016 to 2020. This shift was not subtle; it was a transformation that saw the paper increasingly align with progressive viewpoints, frequently at the expense of conservative perspectives.
Dean Baquet, the executive editor, and Bennet initially supported the publication of Cotton’s op-ed. However, this stance soon faced severe backlash, primarily from the Times staff. The crux of the controversy centered around Cotton’s call for military intervention to quell the protests, a viewpoint that many staff members felt was a direct threat to their safety and antithetical to the values of the newspaper.
The internal turmoil that ensued was unprecedented. Staff members took to Twitter and internal communication channels to express their dissent, ultimately leading to Sulzberger, the publisher, demanding Bennet’s resignation. This moment marked a significant shift in the Times’ operational ethos, revealing a move from what Bennet describes as “liberal bias” to “illiberal bias.” This shift, according to Bennet, signifies a reluctance to engage with ideas that contradict the predominant ideological leanings within the organization.
He further illustrates this bias by recalling Sulzberger’s response to a conservative columnist’s complaint about the stringent editorial scrutiny their pieces received compared to liberal counterparts. Sulzberger’s blunt acknowledgement of a double standard and advice to “get used to it” starkly contrasts the paper’s publicly professed commitment to impartiality.
Bennet recounted how he was urged by senior newsroom editors to attach “trigger warnings” to op-ed pieces authored by conservatives.. Such a practice, as Bennet suggested, not only stigmatized conservative voices but also signaled an implicit acknowledgment of the paper’s own bias. This directive to preface conservative opinions with warnings, in essence, served as a clear marker of the increasingly hostile environment for conservative perspectives within the esteemed publication.
The New York Times, a historically venerated institution in American journalism, has fallen hard. The Bennet episode brings to light how they have failed in navigating the complex interplay of journalistic integrity, editorial independence, and the pressures of an increasingly polarized and digital-first media environment. As the 2024 presidential election looms, these issues gain even more significance, raising questions about the Time’s biases in reporting election progress and results.
James Bennet’s candid recounting of his experiences at the New York Times opens a window into the inner workings of one of the world’s most influential newspapers. No one wants to see “how the sausage is made” but when the “sausage” is making people sick, it is time to take a look. The New York Times is a biased newspaper, in need of close examination.