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Senator Tom Cotton’s ‘Send In the Troops’ op-ed in the New York Times draws backlash from staffers

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 6/4/2020 Elahe Izadi
Tom Cotton wearing a suit and tie: Sen. Tom Cotton. © Pool Sen. Tom Cotton.

Staffers at the New York Times are publicly rebuking their newspaper for publishing an editorial by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., which called for military intervention into American cities where protests over George Floyd's death have led to further unrest.

The swift backlash, which spilled out on Twitter, came from dozens across the organization and included opinion writers, reporters, editors and magazine staffers. Several tweeted the same message - "Running this puts Black @nytimes staffers in danger" - with a screenshot of the editorial's headline, "Tom Cotton: Send In The Troops."

In his op-ed, Cotton defended the invocation of the Insurrection Act, claiming that "rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy," with looting that has nothing to do with Floyd's death, and that an "overwhelming show of force" is needed to "restore order to our streets."

But the Trump administration's talk of deploying troops has set off alarm bells for many in the civilian and military communities alike - especially after U.S. Park Police used tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters in Washington to clear a path for a presidential photo-op on Monday. "Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict-a false conflict-between the military and civilian society," retired Marine general and former defense secretary Jim Mattis wrote in the Atlantic on Wednesday.

Against that backdrop, several Times staffers saw Cotton's essay as an ominous "call for military force against Americans," as Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie put it.

"I'll probably get in trouble for this, but to not say something would be immoral," tweeted Nikole Hannah-Jones, who recently won the Times a Pulitzer for her "1619″ project. "As a black woman, as a journalist, as an American, I am deeply ashamed that we ran this."

Roxane Gay, a contributing op-ed writer for the Times, tweeted "we are well served by robust and ideologically diverse public discourse that includes radical, liberal, and conservative voices. This is not that. His piece was inflammatory and endorsing military occupation as if the constitution doesn't exist."

One Times reporter pointed out that Cotton's assertion that "cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa [are] infiltrating protest marches" has been debunked in Times reporting as misinformation.

On Twitter late Wednesday, editorial page editor James Bennet explained the decision to run Cotton's essay as part of an obligation "to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy."

He added: "We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton's argument painful, even dangerous. We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate." He also included links to several previous editorial-page offerings that praised protesters, addressed systematic injustices and called for police reform.

Times employees are planning to send a letter to the organization's management, according to a statement from the New York NewsGuild, which called the op-ed's publication "an irresponsible choice." The union argued that "invoking state violence disproportionately hurts Black and brown people. It also jeopardizes our journalists' ability to work in the field safely and effectively."

The opinions department is independent from the rest of the newsroom. Yet news staffers remained concerned that the op-ed affected the entire paper's brand and reputation. Three unnamed Times journalists told editors that sources wouldn't send them information because of the op-ed, according to an article about the backlash published by the Times. Freelancer Kara Brown tweeted that she turned down an assignment because of the piece.

As the evening wore on, reporters at other outlets shared their disgust with the essay, tweeting the same message shared by Times staffers.

Bennet has seen backlash for his publishing decisions before, including an essay by conservative columnist Bret Stephens that seemed to compare a professor who had called him a "bed bug" on Twitter to the Nazi persecution of Jews. (Bennet helped edit it.)

There has been speculation that he is one of a handful of editors being considered to succeed executive editor Dean Baquet when the latter steps down in a few years.

“I think if we show we take conservatives seriously and we take ideas seriously . . . we get a lot more moderates paying attention to what the New York Times has to say,” he said in a 2018 staff meeting, according to audio obtained by HuffPost.

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