The public response to the killing of George Floyd has overturned the newsrooms of some prominent media organizations, including the New York Times. The Times newsroom staged an “uprising” of its own after the paper published an op-ed by the conservative Arkansas senator Tom Cotton. In the early days of the Floyd protests, when looting broke out in many cities, Cotton called for the use of the military to suppress the violence. Led by a group of black Times employees, a majority of the newsroom signed a letter denouncing the decision to publish the op-ed. The letter claimed that publishing Cotton’s call for the use of the military in the streets of U.S. cities put black Times employees in danger.
The Times’s publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, disavowed the decision to publish the piece, and James Bennet, the editor of the op-ed page, submitted his resignation. Sulzberger promised that the operations of the opinion section would be overhauled to avoid any similar offense in the future. In submitting his resignation, Bennet confessed that he had not read Cotton’s piece before it appeared online. He also stated his belief that, when it comes to ideas, including bad ideas, “the right thing to do is expose them on our platform to public scrutiny and debate, and that’s the best way, that even dangerous ideas can be discarded.” Perhaps understandably, he said he is now reconsidering that approach to journalism.
The fact that Bennet had not read the piece before it was published online put him in an untenable position (it never appeared in the print edition). But given the sheer volume of material the opinion section produces each day, especially online, it is probably impossible for any one person to read everything. Some decisions about what to publish may have to be delegated to others. Beyond the dilemma of managerial responsibility for one’s staff, however, a much more important question remains: Why shouldn’t the Times publish a piece that advocates a course of action contrary to the political and cultural convictions of the paper’s staff? Isn’t that what a truly liberal opinion section is for?