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At The New York Times, an Uprising Over James Bennet’s Incompetence

The paper’s staff is in an incandescent rage over the decision to publish an op-ed calling for the violent disruption of First Amendment rights.

Larry Neumeister/AP

Less than two weeks ago, amid the pandemic and the explosion of demonstrations against police violence across the country, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton unveiled a shocking bill that went largely unnoticed. The bill, the Secure Campus Act, would ban Chinese students from receiving visas to participate in graduate or postgraduate STEM programs. A month earlier, on Fox News, Cotton said it was “a scandal” that “we have trained so many of the Chinese Communist Party’s brightest minds to go back to China.” (Studies suggest that most Chinese students remain in the United States after graduation, no small feat given how hostile and baffling the U.S. immigration apparatus is.) Cotton also said that Chinese students should only be able to study things like “Shakespeare” and “The Federalist Papers” in the U.S., adding: “They don’t need to learn quantum computing.”

That three sitting members of Congress could introduce such a bill, targeting Chinese visa applicants based explicitly and solely on their national origin, without it making much of a dent in the discourse, is evidence of what a sorry state we’re in. This bill is racist, and it is also quite clearly fascist: It is designed to whip up fear and fury about Chinese people, punishing students who come here for completely legitimate reasons—and whose contributions to America and to human progress are, obviously, invaluable. This was all I could think about when I saw that Cotton had been granted space to publish a piece in The New York Times’ opinion section, titled: “Send In the Troops.”

This is a senator who, by all the supposed standards of the Liberal Media, should already be ostracized, even without calling for the military to “restore order” to the streets. (As far as I can tell, the Times did not even write about Cotton’s bill when it was released; Cotton’s op-ed did, however, make assertions that the paper’s reporting had already proven false.) A senator pushing the Chinese Exclusion Act 2.0 should not be James Bennet’s first call, if he thinks his section has so far been too biased in favor of the right to protest. Yet here Cotton is, in the pages of the paper of record, on the thirty-first anniversary of the beginning of the Tiananmen Square massacre, arguing for the president to invoke the Insurrection Act to create “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers” from the military.

It shouldn’t go unmentioned that the streets of Washington, D.C., have already been overrun with at least 15 different kinds of military and federal troops, including Bureau of Prisons officers who wore no identification and refused to identify themselves to the media. Or that, on the same day that law enforcement teargassed peaceful protesters so the president could awkwardly hold up a Bible in front of a church, dozens of police officers trapped peaceful protesters on Swann Street NW—while a CVS was being looted downtown. This is order being restored—one kind of order, at least.

Others have already covered the myriad ways that Cotton’s op-ed is disgraceful, including his invocation of Eisenhower using federal troops to enforce desegregation in the 1950s as a defense of using the military to quell “rioters” today. His argument rests on the lie that the military would perfectly distinguish the “miscreants” from peaceful protesters, which we’ve already seen is false. (This aside, I also do not want troops shooting people who loot a Macy’s.) A military helicopter in D.C. flew low over peaceful protesters to intimidate them on Monday night, a tactic used in warfare.

The obvious and inevitable outcome of sending in the troops, the only reason you would do so, is to do violence. Troops are not some magical invocation of order; they establish order through violence. They are violence. We know Cotton expects, even welcomes this, because of his recent tweet that advocated murdering “rioters and looters,” by calling for “no quarter” for them—a military phrase that means killing the enemy instead of accepting their surrender. Sending in troops to control protests against racism, organized and attended largely by black people, is an attempt to enforce white supremacy; to tell dissenters that the state considers you a threat. Calling for “overwhelming force” is, just like his Chinese students bill, a way of signaling that he is a fascist.

The decision to publish the op-ed has been met with an unprecedented amount of public criticism from Times staffers. The News Guild, which represents Times staff and also represents the staff of The New Republic, released a statement condemning the decision to publish the piece. Many staffers tweeted a variation on the sentiment that publishing the op-ed puts black Times staffers, or black people in general, in danger. Usually, public criticism of a bad Times op-ed, from regular offenders Bret Stephens or Bari Weiss, is limited to cryptic subtweets. There is a reason for this: The Times essentially forbids staffers from criticizing the opinion columnists, particularly for the news side.

Last year, the Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet told his newsroom that people retweeting or even simply liking tweets critical of the paper was “really painful” for him. “Let’s catch our breath before tweeting stupid stuff or stuff that hurts the paper—or treats our own colleagues in a way that we would never treat them in person,” he told the staff. (This was right after the paper’s Washington editor, Jonathan Weisman, tweeted an embarrassing thread that implied Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were not really from the Midwest: Obviously, certain people are given more leeway to tweet “stuff that hurts the paper.”) Last night, a former climate reporter for the Times, Kendra Pierre-Louis, revealed that “if you are an NYTimes employee and tweet something Bret Stephens doesn’t like he will take the tweet and complain about it to your manager.” The fact that the paper punishes public criticisms of the opinion section is an open secret; media people who are friends with Times staffers know this. So it is all the more remarkable that last night, the dam broke, and the paper’s Potemkin neutrality was finally revealed to be a sham.

In response to the widespread criticism, Bennet—who rarely tweets himself—publicly defended the decision to publish the op-ed with a familiar and incoherent line: that publishing it was a way to ensure “public scrutiny and debate” of Cotton’s views, and that “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.” Bennet is posing Cotton’s call for state violence as a “counter-argument” to the paper’s own editorial, which argued the police should protect the right to protest and said, “too many police officers have little interest in protecting legitimate protest.”

Bennet’s weak defense obscures the reality that the Times is still choosing which opinions count. Giving Cotton space in an op-ed, rather than covering his opinions as news, is not a way of ensuring scrutiny: It is a way of giving his opinion validity. The paper clearly sets what it considers to be the bounds of reasonable debate within its pages—which affect the bounds of reasonable debate elsewhere, given the influence of the paper. I cannot imagine it would publish a KKK Grand Wizard on why race mixing is unacceptable, or a defense of pedophilia—though by Bennet’s recently stated editorial standards, it is now so obligated.

Nevertheless, I’m not holding my breath for the paper to publish a defense of looting businesses, an article about how violence against police is justified, or a dissertation from the man who stole a police radio and repeatedly said, “Suck my dick” over the air, as much as I’d love to hear more from this iconic New Yorker. Like any platform that doesn’t publish everything that is posted to it, the Times opinion section picks and chooses which opinions are worth hearing. This is not only a good thing, it’s inevitable. A news outlet cannot, and should not, publish everything. Once you accept that, you have to own the consequences of publishing what you do publish—not pretend that critics are opposed to free speech.

As others have noted, Cotton’s op-ed was not even a particularly good argument for sending in the troops. But this is not about being exposed to others’ views, anyway. The decision to publish this particular op-ed is clearly rooted in the fact that Cotton is a U.S. senator, and one who recently advocated for murdering protesters. Bennet is giving a senator space in the paper’s pages not only to shift the goalposts of what he initially called for and launder his reprehensible statement into something with a more respectable varnish, but to advocate for his solution. As Slate’s Tom Scocca noted yesterday, “The op-ed is part of [Cotton’s] effort to misrepresent what he said as something more reasonable—even as the Times lets him publish unchecked falsehoods [about] who’s to blame for violence.” Bennet either understands that he’s actively engaged in this dishonesty, or he’s too ignorant to know better. In other words, he’s either a reprobate or an incompetent.

Cotton’s op-ed is not a “viewpoint”; it is a policy proposal from a member of the government with far more power to influence that decision than a journalist or critic. In more normal times, a sitting senator calling for sending the military to “subdue” protests would be considered news in itself. It’s rarely valuable to allow sitting politicians to occupy space on newspaper opinion pages. Rather, elected officials should appear in reported stories about their views (or proposed bills). As one of the paper’s star black writers, Astead Herndon, said on Twitter: “if electeds want to make provocative arguments let them withstand the questions and context of a news story, not unvarnished and unchecked.”

You don’t have to think the Times is a good paper to recognize that its opinion section wields huge influence over elite discourse in this country. You also don’t have to be a radical to recognize that “free speech” defenses of publishing salivating fascist dreck are complete bullshit; or to suspect that James Bennet would not have allowed this piece to be published if he thought it was without merit and, therefore, that Bennet is an odious fascist, too. Bennet is one of the three main candidates to replace Dean Baquet as editor of the Times. If this incident doesn’t end his chances, it will not only be clear once again that the paper is not up to the present moment; it will be clear that it values the right to openly perform white supremacy over the dignity of its black employees.