Internet InfoMedia the new york times remains haunted by the tom cotton op ed almost 4 years later

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It has been nearly four years since the publication of what’s commonly referred to as the “Tom Cotton op-ed” and to this day people are still talking about it – not regarding what was actually written by the Republican senator, but rather the newsroom drama that stemmed from it. 

On June 3, 2020, The New York Times published Cotton’s piece, titled “Send in the Troops,” which made an argument in favor of the president deploying the military to quell the George Floyd riots that sparked havoc in cities across the country. 

What followed was an unprecedented backlash from within the paper. Dozens of Times employees rushed to social media in a coordinated campaign, many of them echoing the phrase “Running this put Black @nytimes staff in danger.”

Days later, the Times updated Cotton’s piece with a lengthy editor’s note declaring it “fell short of our standards and should not have been published.” Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, who initially defended the op-ed’s publication, later reversed himself, blaming “a rushed editorial process.” Two members of the Times Opinion staff, James Bennet and Adam Rubenstein, were pushed out at the Times as a result. Another staffer, James Dao, was reassigned to a different department. 


DePauw University journalism professor Jeffrey McCall said the episode shows the Times “has a real problem with groupthink” and that the paper is “more interested in journalistic wokeness than traditional reporting and commentating.”  

“A sitting US senator articulating notions shared by a good many Americans should not be considered radical or out of bounds,” McCall told Fox News Digital. “That the Times couldn’t grow a backbone and stand up to its internal activists is sad for the Times, and also for a nation that needs robust debate and deliberation.”

Senator Tom Cotton

A 2020 op-ed written by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., ignited a revolt among New York Times staffers after he suggested the military should be deployed to quell the violence from the George Floyd riots.  (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

While the Times hoped the entire ordeal would quickly become a distant memory, the Cotton op-ed has resurfaced in the national conversation over, and over, and over again. 

Bari Weiss, who had served as the opinion staff editor for the Times, cited the incident in her stunning resignation letter submitted to Sulzberger weeks after the op-ed debacle.  

“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor,” Weiss wrote at the time. “Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired. If a piece is perceived as likely to inspire backlash internally or on social media, the editor or writer avoids pitching it. If she feels strongly enough to suggest it, she is quickly steered to safer ground. And if, every now and then, she succeeds in getting a piece published that does not explicitly promote progressive causes, it happens only after every line is carefully massaged, negotiated and caveated. It took the paper two days and two jobs to say that the Tom Cotton op-ed ‘fell short of our standards.'”


Bari Weiss NYT

Bari Weiss left The New York Times in 2020 to launch The Free Press, accusing the paper of allowing Twitter (now called X) to become its “ultimate editor.” (Getty Images/Bari Weiss)

Bennet, the opinion page editor who had been at the Times for 19 years, first broke his silence in October 2022 expressing his bitterness towards Sulzberger, who he said did not have his back, saying to Semafor “he set me on fire and threw me in the garbage.”

“My regret is that editor’s note. My mistake there was trying to mollify people,” Bennet told Semafor. 

Fast-forward to December 2023, Bennet authored a stunning essay in The Economist about how the Times “lost its way,” recalling the apology he was forced to give on a company-wide Zoom meeting with a “couple thousand people.” 

“The plan had been for the newsroom to talk about its coverage of the protests. Now the only subject was going to be the op-ed. Early that morning, I got an email from Sam Dolnick, a Sulzberger cousin and a top editor at the paper, who said he felt ‘we’ – he could have only meant me – owed the whole staff ‘an apology for appearing to place an abstract idea like open debate over the value of our colleagues’ lives, and their safety.’ He was worried that I and my colleagues had unintentionally sent a message to other people at the Times that: ‘We don’t care about their full humanity and their security as much as we care about our ideas,’” Bennet wrote, noting that he was contacted by a Sulzberger ally and advised to both apologize and acknowledge his “privilege.”

“I told the meeting that I was sorry for the pain that my leadership of Opinion had caused. What a pathetic thing to say. I did not think to add, because I’d lost track of this truth myself by then, that opinion journalism that never causes pain is not journalism. It can’t hope to move society forward,” Bennet continued. 


Sulzberger-Bennet NYT

New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger and former Times opinion editor James Bennet have engaged in a bitter feud following the turmoil over the Tom Cotton op-ed. (Getty)

Bennet said his remarks were immediately vilified on the company’s internal Slack messaging system and that he was told to resign the next morning. 

“Sulzberger called me at home and, with an icy anger that still puzzles and saddens me, demanded my resignation. I got mad, too, and said he’d have to fire me. I thought better of that later. I called him back and agreed to resign, flattering myself that I was being noble,” Bennet recalled. 

Sulzberger rejected Bennet’s characterization of what transpired following the Cotton op-ed, calling it a “false narrative” in a statement previously given to Fox News Digital. 

“It certainly is a bit bizarre that NYTimes-world has not been able to put L’Affaire Cotton behind it,” Cornell Law School professor and media critic William A. Jacobson said. “That so much has been made over so little reflects the internal intolerance at the Times. The Cotton op-ed was treated as heresy, not just disagreement, and those involved needed to be punished as part of the post-George Floyd purge.” 

“The revolution started to eat its own at the Times, with silly yet vicious in-fighting that punctured the myth that the Times was an objective journalistic enterprise,” Jacobson added. 


Rubenstein, the young editorial assistant who had been hired by the Times in 2019, was scapegoated by his own colleagues in a report published by the paper about the Cotton op-ed uproar, writing “The Op-Ed was edited by Adam Rubenstein, according to staff members in the editorial department.”  

Last week, it was his turn to tell his side of the story, this time in The Atlantic. 

Rubenstein revealed how op-eds written by conservatives are further scrutinized in the editorial process than liberal pieces and detailed at length the process of getting the Cotton op-ed published. He made a dig at Sulzberger’s claim of a “rushed editorial process,” telling readers that he “was never interviewed as part of any formal review” despite being the op-ed’s primary editor. 

He shed light on how far-left the newsroom’s politics were. As the Hunter Biden laptop surfaced leading up to the election, Rubenstein recalled “Many of my colleagues were clearly worried that lending credence to the laptop story could hurt the electoral prospects of Joe Biden and the Democrats.” 

Perhaps the most explosive anecdote from his tell-all was how he was shamed by an HR representative during his orientation for saying Chick-fil-A was his favorite sandwich for an icebreaker.

“We don’t do that here. They hate gay people,” the HR rep scolded him before others “started snapping their fingers in acclamation.”

Adam Rubenstein eating Chick-fil-a New York Times

Ex-New York Times opinion editor Adam Rubenstein revealed that he was once humiliated by an HR representative after he declared he enjoys the spicy chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A during an orientation for new hires.  (Jonathan Torgovnik/Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Rubenstein’s Chick-fil-A incident set X ablaze with liberal detractors like his former Times colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones accusing him of making up the story, which had repeatedly been verified by other journalists and Rubenstein’s acquaintances aware of the orientation snafu. 

Donald McNeil Jr., a former science reporter at the Times, panned the “alarming” Chick-fil-A episode, saying “nobody played kindergarten games” when he was first hired at the paper in 1976.

“The Times took corporate culture seriously – orientation was not trusted to HR geeks,” McNeil told Fox News Digital. 

Like Bennet and Rubenstein, McNeil faced the wrath of other Times staffers in 2021 when it was reported that he had used the n-word in a discussion about the slur itself during a 2019 educational trip he led. That resulted in his own resignation


As someone with 40+ years at the Times, McNeil witnessed negative changes in the newsroom, saying the Sulzberger family has “lost confidence in their ability to run a company and have become prisoners of the consultant industry.”  

“Under [Sulzberger’s father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.], we had McKinsey probes and ‘Deming quality circles.’  We got laminated copies of various ‘mission statements’ and ‘Rules of The Road’ placards to post on our desks. We were given moose cookies to remind us to ‘talk about the moose at the table.’  The place filled up with HR and CorpComms people with zero idea of what makes a good journalist tick – and an obsession with controlling the narrative whenever the Times was criticized. That was a mistake. The Times is not a fragile office-seeker. It has a 173-year-old reputation to rest on. It need not panic every time it’s criticized,” McNeil said.

Donald McNeil Jr.

Former New York Times science reporter Donald McNeil slammed the “poisonous atmosphere” in the newsroom in his final years at the paper. (Getty Images)

The veteran reporter recalled how he was docked a week’s pay in 2015 for “penning a rude reply to a Yale medical student who had sent me a condescending email.”

“I was told I had ‘violated Times core principles.’  My reaction was: ‘What? OK, I screwed up by being nasty to the Yalie. But I thought our core principle was to give the news impartially without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect, or interest involved – not to turn the other cheek to every putz who sneers at us,'” McNeil said. 

McNeil doubled down on his support of publishing the Cotton op-ed, saying Bennet was “absolutely right” to print it, even with “an inflammatory headline.” 

He took aim at the “poisonous atmosphere” that has taken over the Times newsroom. 

“During my career, the in-house atmosphere changed from ‘You’ll make a modest but decent living and The Times will instinctively have your back’ to ‘The Times resents paying your salary, and it sometimes will have your back…until the heat rises and it doesn’t,'” McNeil said. “In my opinion, Times management is partially responsible for the newsroom’s poisonous atmosphere.  It’s not explained away merely by what conservative thinkers usually cite – that the paper has hired many Ivy League wokes who grew up ratting out their classmates on social media.  Times management itself fostered the ‘us vs. them’ mentality and the sense of ‘you’ll be punished for any misstep – especially if it becomes public.'”


Rubenstein eventually left the Times in December 2020, writing “It had been made clear to me, in a variety of ways, that I had no future there.”

He concluded, “It was clear to me then, and it’s clear to me now that the fight over Cotton’s op-ed was never about safety, or the facts, or the editing, or even the argument, but control of the paper and who had it. In the end, all that mattered was that an example had been made.”

The New York Times did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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