FILE- In this Aug. 16, 2017 file photo, James Bennet, editorial page editor of The New York Times, leaves federal court in New York after by a lawyer for Sarah Palin, who's suing over an editorial that linked right-wing political rhetoric to the 2011 shooting of former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords. On Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, a federal judge tossed Palin's defamation against the publication, saying the former Alaska governor failed to show the newspaper knew it was publishing false statements in an editorial before quickly correcting them. (AP Photo/Larry Neumeister, File)
NYT editorial editor resigns after running Sen. Tom Cotton's op-ed
03:01 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Steven A. Holmes is a veteran journalist who worked at Time Magazine, The New York Times, where he was part of a team awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and The Washington Post before he joined CNN, where he was a member of the Standards and Practices team until retiring a year ago. The views expressed here are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has been famously quoted asserting that people are entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

At first glance it seems that at The New York Times, they may not be entitled to their own opinion either.

At least that’s how the Times comes off with its ham-fisted handling of a controversial op-ed written by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark). Cotton’s essay called for US troops to be sent into cities to quell rioting that had erupted in the wake of the horrendous killing by police of George Floyd.

At first the paper defended publishing the piece. Then it said it shouldn’t have seen the light of day and editorial page editor James Bennet resigned. Yet the paper’s post-hoc rationale was weak and not supported by evidence.

As a result, one is left with the impression that the Times merely capitulated to internal and external pressure over an opinion piece – a dangerous position for a newspaper that has declared itself a champion of free speech.

Before I go any further, let me make one thing crystal clear. I completely disagree with Cotton’s view. His call for military intervention was premature and reprehensible. This is especially true since no governors had asked for troops at that point and the damage wrought by the rioters was nowhere near the scale of past uprisings such as Detroit in 1967 or Los Angeles after the acquittal of police officers who savagely beat Rodney King.

Having said that, I believe the Times’ decision to declare it should not have published Cotton’s essay was wrong. It sends a chilling signal to future contributors that the paper is willing to play fast and loose with its commitment to making its op-ed page a marketplace for ideas.

Tom Cotton is a leading voice within the Republican Party, and a possible future presidential candidate. His voice – however he may have used it since to capitalize on the Times’ mistakes – deserved to be heard, especially by potential voters who would want to know of his record. And it deserved to be published by a news organization that cherishes diversity, including race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation – and diversity of ideas. Moreover, the reasons the paper gives for its decision are so facile as to make its actions smack of journalistic cowardice.

So what reasons did the Times offer?

In an editors’ note last week, the Times argued that Cotton’s essay “fell short of our standards and should not have been published.” Instead the editors argued, the op-ed “should have been subject to further substantial revisions – as is frequently the case with such essays – or rejected.”

But, what revisions?

First, the Times objects to Cotton’s assertions about the role of “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” in the civil disturbances. The editors’ note that these allegations “have not been substantiated and have widely been questioned. Editors should have sought further corroboration of these assertions or removed them from the piece.”

But what has been most widely questioned is whether antifa is a functioning organization and whether President Trump has the power to declare it a terrorist organization. CNN has also reported on examples of white supremacists looking to exacerbate tensions by posing as left-wing activists online.

Therefore, whether individuals acting under the rubric of antifa were actually involved in the rioting remains a point of debate and investigation, rather than a settled question as the Times’ editor’s note suggests.

Certainly the Times could have pushed Senator Cotton harder to address these claims. But what is most telling is how the standard their editor’s note sets for Senator Cotton’s op-ed fails to line up with their own reporting on the same question.

A story by the Times that was updated a day before Cotton’s essay called antifa a “loosely affiliated group of far-left and anti-fascist activists” that sometimes works with local networks such as Black Lives Matter. The same Times article quoted Speaker Nancy Pelosi decrying “the violent actions of people calling themselves antifa.” Notably, this Times report does not corroborate, one way or the other, what if any role antifa members have played in the recent wave of protest.

Given the Times’ own reporting, it seems that the role in the disturbances of people acting in the name of antifa is a debatable question, not a closed one as the Times’ note suggests. Therefore, the Times can’t demand corroboration for Cotton’s claims and fail to provide any for its own.

The editors’ note also declared that Cotton’s claim that “police officers ‘bore the brunt’ of violence is an overstatement that should have been challenged.”

Cotton’s essay provided anecdotal evidence of police officers, current and retired, who were injured, by rioters. Does this provide proof that more officers than rioters or protesters were injured? It is difficult to say, and the counting should be the subject of a thorough investigation, not a dismissive statement made after the fact by the Times. And since when does “overstatement” in an advocacy piece become a fatal flaw?

Lastly, the editors suggest that Cotton’s essay was unduly harsh, had an “incendiary” headline and lacked context.

Sure, the headline is harsh, even chilling. But it accurately reflects the content and tone of the essay. The Times made it provocative because the piece is provocative. Rejecting it would be tantamount to censoring the piece. Even though Cotton strives to draw a distinction between peaceful protesters and what he terms “bands of miscreants,” I also found his tone upsetting. But generating strong feeling is the point of op-ed columns, not their defect. If the Times wanted to solicit an op-ed offering a counter view or pointing out the dangers of proposals like Cotton’s, that would have been a more appropriate response than the one the Times chose in this case.

Much has been said about how Cotton’s proposal could endanger black journalists as they do their job covering these urban uprisings. Given how journalists have been harassed, attacked and arrested by police, I am not blind to those fears.

Spiking an opinion piece based on reporters’ fears is a slippery slope though. What’s next? Using the same rationale to censor news stories that quote politicians advocating the same thing as Cotton?

The larger problem is that the Times’ failures go deeper than just its wavering response to anger over the Cotton op-ed or its poorly reasoned explanations for why it should not have run.

The episode laid bare a critical lack of quality control for articles and columns that are sure to generate heat from all sides of our politically polarized culture.

As a Standards and Practices editor for more than a decade at CNN, it was my job to vet controversial pieces (including opinion essays) to make sure they were fair and backed up any provocative assertion.

In this case, the Times apparently lacked this kind of quality control for its opinion pieces – a critical failure for a piece on such a volatile subject. The point isn’t whether I would have let the Cotton piece go without any changes. The point is I would have made damn sure the head of the op-ed page had seen it.

The Cotton essay was edited by a junior editor. A more senior editor, deputy editorial page editor Jim Dao, claimed responsibility for overseeing the editing of the piece and has been reassigned to a newsroom position off the masthead at the Times.

In many ways, the Times is also paying for its wrong-headed decision to jettison its Public Editor (the paper let public editor Liz Spayd go in 2017 and eliminated the position entirely). This internal critic’s role was to conduct a thorough investigation of any piece that has sparked anger, looking into its fairness, accuracy, tone and how it was edited. If the Public Editor found flaws in the article or essay, those problems would be the subject of a column in the paper or on its website.

Such public shaming can serve as a powerful deterrent against the kind of sloppiness that surrounded the publication of the Cotton essay. If the Public Editor had found problems in the content of the essay or the editing process, that would have provided solid justification for the Times’ action in essentially forcing out James Bennet and demoting his deputy.

Without that justification it looks like the Times merely caved to pressure.

Get our weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s new newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    I write these criticisms of the Times more in sadness than in anger. I worked there for 15 years, covering, among several issues, race relations. I lived through other moments of internal turmoil such as the scandal wrought by Jayson Blair, a young reporter who made up stories. I worked hard on the committee that sought reforms in the wake of the Blair scandal, forcefully advocating that the paper establish a public editor’s role in the first place.

    I love The New York Times. It is the best newspaper in the world. But my love does not prevent me from calling it out when I think it is wrong.