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The New York Times’s Attempt to Explain That Terrible Tom Cotton Op-Ed Is Almost as Bad as the Essay Itself

Tom Cotton looks like a dumbass.

Earlier this week, the New York Times made the decision to publish a despicable op-ed by Republican senator Tom Cotton, in which he called for use of the Insurrection Act to quell protests. The federal government needs to “send in the troops,” he said, to control protesters whom he baselessly and insultingly claims are just “nihilist criminals” with no interest in the murder of George Floyd.

It was an absolutely shameful essay that should never have been published. A large number of New York Times employees, both within the op-ed department and elsewhere, condemned it for putting Black employees in danger.

The op-ed also sparked a mass virtual walkout within the company.

Today, the Times expressed some regret and offered explanations for the op-ed. They weren’t great. First of all, James Bennet, the editor in charge of the opinion section, reportedly told employees that he hadn’t even read the piece before it went to print. A spokesperson said the editorial process for the essay was “rushed” and that that’s why the piece “did not meet our standards.”

The Times’s publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, said that “Given that this is not the first lapse, the Opinion department will also be taking several initial steps to reduce the likelihood of something like this happening again.”

I think two very basic steps they can take would be to 1) Have the editor read the pieces they publish, and 2) Not “rush” the process of putting up racist, violent material. Oh, and they could also stop courting people like Tom Cotton, who they reportedly reached out to for this essay in the first place.

Bennet tried to offer an explanation on Twitter for his decision to run the piece he didn’t read, which got ratioed into oblivion. “Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy,” he wrote, adding that he knows readers found the article “painful, even dangerous,” and that’s why they published it, because it “requires public scrutiny and debate.”

Except that’s not how this sort of op-ed works. By publishing Cotton’s words, they’re not setting it up for debate or scrutiny. An interview could potentially do that, but by letting him write an op-ed, it gives the impression that his words alone are worth publishing. On top of that, it gives the outlet’s resources—in addition to its clout—to making sure Cotton gives the strongest article possible.

Journalist Virginia Heffernen had a great thread explaining this, writing that “As someone who once had to rewrite…N*wt Gingrich…to make his argument even track, I can testify that it takes a lot of work to make a Gingrich or Cotton sound even just normal. Sound…fit to print.”

Obviously, a lot of people are going to claim that Cotton deserves to have his opinions published in any outlet at all, and that denying him that opportunity would be censorship. That argument is ridiculous. Any platform is supposed to have standards, both of content and quality. If Cotton is entitled a New York Times op-ed, then you are, too. And me. And literally everyone that has ever submitted a pitch. (Not that Cotton pitched his idea.)

On that whole promise to do better, I’ll believe it when I see it in print. But multiple NYT employees and former employees have come out to say what the rest of us already definitely assumed: That what makes it to print is a reflection of the work environment as a whole.

This is such an important time to support journalism. Why does the New York Times’s op-ed department keep making that so difficult?

(image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.