#freeJamesBennet!

If you’re spending a lot of time at home because of Covid and the polar vortex covering nearly three-quarters of the country, you’re probably scouring the NetflixAmazonHuluDisney catalog for stuff to watch. Here’s a tip: “Framing Britney Spears,” the fascinating new documentary about Britney’s career, her messy conservatorship and the #freeBritney movement.

Even if you’re not a Britney fan (which I am not), you’ll appreciate the passion of her fans, who created a true grassroots movement to liberate Britney from her conservatorship and bring her out of the murky legal wilderness where she’s being held.

It’s time to do the same for James Bennet, the former editorial page editor at the New York Times who was ferociously canceled by the newsroom after running an editorial by Sen. Tom Cotton calling for the National Guard to help tamp down the George Floyd protests last summer.

Let’s start it here: #freeJamesBennet.

A brief recap is in order. It seems so long ago now, but it was only last June that the country was being convulsed by huge public demonstrations against the brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The protests smashed through the guard rails of free speech when buildings were burned and looted, small businesses were destroyed and lives were lost.

In the midst of this chaos, the Times ran an op-ed on June 3 by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, titled “Send in the Military.” In it, Cotton called for an “overwhelming show of force” to quell the riots. Four days later, Bennet “resigned.” Bennet’s transgression, according to publisher A.G. Sulzberger, was “a significant breakdown in our editing process.” He said Cotton’s piece was “needlessly harsh” and contained factual inaccuracies.

Here’s what really happened. The newsroom revolted and lodged a petition, signed by 800 people, protesting the publication of the op-ed. Bennet didn’t resign. He was shown the door to appease the newsroom mob. He had published a piece that challenged the prevailing narrative of the George Floyd movement and paid the price. He was effectively placed in a journalistic “conservatorship” where his voice was stifled and his agency ripped away.

I met James once. We had a drink in 2008 and had a fascinating discussion about Barack Obama’s historic run for the Presidency. I found him to be bright, articulate and completely unpretentious. He was editor of The Atlantic at the time and eight years later, I applauded when the Times hired him to run the editorial pages. One of his early decisions was to lure Brett Stephens away from the Wall Street Journal to give the Times op-ed pages an additional perspective from a center-right voice. That immediately set off a trip-wire in the Times newsroom — James had let the camel’s nose under the tent.

The Cotton op-ed was the perfect pretense for the newsroom revolt, which unfolded quickly and publicly thanks to social media. (I should add here that in my newspaper experience, there were generally two kinds of newsrooms: those that were editor-led and those that were reporter-led. The Times is clearly the latter.)

Here’s something shocking, so if you have any children in the house, don’t let them read any further. The Times has double standards. James was quickly ushered out of 620 8th Avenue, but the same standard did not apply in at least two instances after he left.

The Times ran a celebrated podcast called “Caliphate” that explored the radicalization of a Canadian Muslim. It won a Peabody Award. As it turned out, the primary source for the series made it all up. The Times acknowledged the lapse in editorial standards and returned the Peabody award. The reporter? Rukmini Callimachi wasn’t fired and didn’t resign. She was “reassigned.”

Just recently, the Times quietly acknowledged that it was incorrect when it reported that Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick had died after being beaten with a fire extinguisher by a Trump supporter on Jan. 6. In fact, Officer Sicknick suffered a fatal stroke. No word on what happened to the reporter who perpetrated the fallacy.

The author back in the newsroom (that’s me working the phones while everyone else poses.)

We had a saying when I was in the newsroom. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” That dictum came into play in all three of these examples. The rush to build newsroom-agreed narratives crowded out dissenting voices on the op-ed pages and vigorous editing on the news side. James Bennet was a victim of this agenda journalism.

This agenda journalism doesn’t just afflict the Times. Last summer, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story about the Floyd riots headlined “Buildings Matter Too.” The headline led to a public apology, a sickout by the newsroom staff and the resignation of the paper’s top editor, Stan Wischnowski.

This drift toward agenda journalism has been underway for some time. You can probably draw a line back to its origins in the 60s, but that’s a topic for another post. It has definitely accelerated in the past several years (documented thoroughly in this piece by Martin Gurri) and erupted in full force with the Bennet affair.

To its credit, the Times is making some of its thinking transparent about this new approach. After a large group of respected historians took issue with the Times’ 1619 Project — an attempt to reorient the beginning of American history to the start of slavery — Times editor Jake Silverstein wrote a thoughtful self-critique acknowledging the project’s shortcomings.

But here’s something that would go even further to strengthen the backbone of the Times’ leadership: bring James back.

Where is he now? Last I heard he was named “Visiting Senior Editor” at the Economist (hmm . . . does he work out of a hotel room instead of an office?). His successor at the Times is Kathleen Kingsbury and the title of the job has been changed from Editor of the Editorial Pages to Opinion Editor. By all accounts, Kathleen is a fine journalist. But there’s still room at the Times for James to return and for A.G. Sulzberger to declare the newsroom a safe space for diversity of thought.

#freeJamesBennet!

Oh, and #freeBritney too!

3 comments

  1. Spot on, Russ, as usual. I’m currently reading “Merchants of Truth,” by former NYT Executive Editor Jill Abramson, which centers on the wrenching transition to digital news platforms – WaPo, NYT compared with Vice and BuzzFeed. Abramson has been criticized for some borderline plagerism in a few passages, but the book overall is fascinating and provides a real insider view of the Times newsroom.

    1. Dennis I read that book too and thought it did a great job of explaining the industry shift. Do you follow Ben Smith, former editor of Buzzfeed who is now the Times media critic? He’s very good.

  2. Haven’t read Ben Smith – I’ll check him out. By the way, love the old CC Times newsroom shot. Good memories!

Leave a Reply to Russ Yarrow Cancel reply