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New York Times publisher responds to staff outrage over Tom Cotton op-ed

CNN logo CNN 2020-06-04 By Oliver Darcy, CNN Business
a group of people riding bikes down a street: NEW YORK, NY - JULY 27: People walk past the New York Times building on July 27, 2017 in New York City. The New York Times Company shares have surged to a nine-year high after posting strong earnings on Thursday. Partly due to new digital subscriptions following the election of Donald Trump as president, the company reported a profit of $27.7 million in the second quarter, up from $9.1 million in the same period last year. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) © Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America/Getty Images NEW YORK, NY - JULY 27: People walk past the New York Times building on July 27, 2017 in New York City. The New York Times Company shares have surged to a nine-year high after posting strong earnings on Thursday. Partly due to new digital subscriptions following the election of Donald Trump as president, the company reported a profit of $27.7 million in the second quarter, up from $9.1 million in the same period last year. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The publisher of The New York Times sent a memo to employees on Thursday morning after dozens of staffers publicly revolted over an opinion piece in which Republican Sen. Tom Cotton called for the US military to be deployed to cities across the country during the current protests.

The publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, said he understood why some staffers felt the newspaper's work had been "overshadowed by the disappointment and hurt felt" over Cotton's opinion piece.

"I've already heard from many of you and will do more listening in the days ahead, starting with smaller groups of our black colleagues, who are covering this story and living it at the same time," Sulzberger wrote. 

Sulzberger said that Dean Baquet, the executive editor — who does not oversee the opinion pages — and James Bennet, the editorial page editor, would also hold similar meetings, and that the entire leadership at The Times would hold a town hall with employees Friday.

Cotton's piece, published Wednesday and titled "Send In the Troops," argued the Insurrection Act could be invoked to deploy the military across the country to assist local law enforcement with unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd.

The op-ed was published in The Times opinion section, but staffers from both opinion and the newsroom — which operate separate from one another — publicly dissented on Wednesday night.

Dozens of journalists at The Times tweeted a screen shot showing the headline of Cotton's piece and then added, "Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger."

In his note, Sulzberger wrote, "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."

Sulzberger said that The Times doesn't "publish just any argument," and that opinion pieces need to be "accurate, good faith explorations of the issues of the day." 

"It is clear many believe this piece fell outside of 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," Sulzberger wrote.

Sulzberger added, "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."

Sulzberger's note did not quell concerns from staffers who had expressed dismay that The Times published the piece from Cotton.

Immediately after Sulzberger sent his note, some staffers at The Times started discussing it over text messages and Slack, an instant message application used by many workplaces, one employee who participated in some of the conversations told CNN Business.

"The email did not address what many felt were factual inaccuracies in the Cotton Op-Ed and its incitement of violence," the employee said. "It was demoralizing." 

The day before, Davey Alba, a tech reporter for The Times who writes about disinformation, noted on Twitter that Cotton's argument that members of Antifa were "infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd's death for their own anarchic purposes" had been debunked by the paper.

"Our own newspaper has reported that this is misinformation," Alba tweeted on Wednesday.

Some Times staffers, however, disagreed with their colleagues who publicly revolted against the piece.

"I don't feel furious about it — I feel furious that my colleagues are behaving in an unjournalistic way," one Times staffer told CNN Business. "We need Cotton's vile sentiment out there so people can see how the administration thinks and how diabolically wrong it is. Exposing it is what will keep black Times staffers safe."

Bennet, the editorial page editor, defended publishing Cotton's piece in an article published Thursday afternoon.

Bennet said he personally opposed Cotton's views, but added, "It would undermine the integrity and independence of The New York Times if we only published views that editors like me agreed with, and it would betray what I think of as our fundamental purpose — not to tell you what to think, but to help you think for yourself."

Bennet acknowledged the concerns of Times staffers who said Cotton's piece "endangered our colleagues, and specifically our African-American colleagues, by publishing Cotton's Op-Ed."

"There's no concern I could take more seriously than that," Bennet wrote. "And in the face of the fear that lives are at stake, arguments like some I made above about the principles of Times Opinion must sound particularly fatuous."

But, Bennet argued, "Cotton and others in power are advocating the use of the military, and I believe the public would be better equipped to push back if it heard the argument and had the chance to respond to the reasoning. Readers who might be inclined to oppose Cotton's position need to be fully aware of it, and reckon with it, if they hope to defeat it. To me, debating influential ideas openly, rather than letting them go unchallenged, is far more likely to help society reach the right answers."

"But it is impossible to feel righteous about any of this," Bennet concluded. "I know that my own view may be wrong."

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