Media Criticism

James Bennet's Resignation Proves the Woke Scolds Are Taking Over The New York Times

Staffers framed their opposition to Sen. Tom Cotton's op-ed as a matter of workplace safety.


James Bennet resigned as editorial page editor of The New York Times on Sunday, following a successful campaign by irate staffers to oust the person who published an inflammatory op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) that suggested the government deploy federal troops to "restore order in our streets."

"Last week we saw a significant breakdown in our editing processes, not the first we've experienced in recent years," Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger said in a note to the paper's staff. "Both of us concluded that James would not be able to lead the team through the next leg of change that is required."

This development is remarkable for several reasons. First, Bennet was widely expected to be a frontrunner for the Times' top job, executive editor, when current chief Dean Baquet retires. His sudden fall from grace opens up unexpected opportunities for others.

But more importantly, Bennet's resignation was an instructive show of force from those Times staffers who want the paper to be more transparently progressive. Their successful strategy—describe their opposition to someone else's speech as a matter of personal safety—is straight out of the woke left's playbook. Dismayingly, we should expect to see this tactic deployed more frequently in the future.

Cotton's op-ed was poorly argued, constitutionally unsound, morally questionable, and factually flawed. But Cotton is not some random right-wing kook. The fact that he is a key policy maker of the Trump era might suggest that publishing his authoritarian dictates is a better course of action than keeping Times readers in the dark about them.

A cadre of staffers reacted with apoplectic rage that the paper would dare solicit Cotton's opinion on such a sensitive topic. "As a black woman, as a journalist, as an American, I am deeply ashamed that we ran this," said Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Times reporter who has also been credibly accused of making factual errors, though don't expect any walkouts at the Times over it.

Vox's explanation of the Cotton clash, which quotes several anti-Bennet staffers anonymously—their names redacted "for fear of retaliation," an amusingly mixed-up concern—paints the issue as one of Times reporters growing increasingly frustrated. They were frustrated with Bennet, and with opinion page writers Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, whose columns are generally conservative, contrarian, or otherwise at odds with the paper's left-leaning staff. (For what it's worth, I've criticized Stephens but find Weiss genuinely insightful and interesting.) Some of their frustrations are understandable, if not entirely defensible: News reporters are generally discouraged—or even prohibited outright—from expressing their opinions on social media, which might put some in the position of feeling like they can't publicly dissent from opinion pieces published under their own banner. Vox claims that some Times reporters are losing stories because sources won't talk to them after the Cotton op-ed, though it's hard to put blind trust in anonymous claims.

In any case, Times staffers merely denouncing the op-ed would have been one thing. The op-ed deserves denunciation, so it would be hard to argue that they were wrong to do so, considerations about keeping news and opinion separate notwithstanding.

But here's the key aspect of this affair: The progressive group didn't just say that the op-ed was wrong and shouldn't have been published. They stated directly that publishing it undermined their personal safety. Their choice of phrasing was deliberate—part of an effort to gird their opposition to the op-ed in the language of workplace safety, according to a piece by Times media columnist Ben Smith:

That pattern continued last week, as Times staff members began an extraordinary campaign to publicly denounce the Op-Ed article written by Senator Cotton. Members of an internal group called Black@NYT organized the effort in a new Slack channel and agreed on a carefully drafted response. They would say that Mr. Cotton's column "endangered" black staff members, a choice of words intended to "focus on the work" and "avoid being construed as hyperpartisan," one said. On Wednesday evening around 7:30, hours after the column was posted, Times employees began tweeting a screenshot of Mr. Cotton's essay, most with some version of the sentence: "Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger." The NewsGuild of New York, later advised staff members that that formulation was legally protected speech because it focused on workplace safety. "It wasn't just an opinion, it felt violent—it was a call to action that could hurt people," one union activist said of Mr. Cotton's column.

This is quite obviously nonsense: Cotton's words placed no one in imminent danger. Sadly, it's becoming distressingly common for progressive employees who wish to silence a dissident view to cite workplace safety as a pretext. To take just one example, this was how conservative writer Kevin Williamson got fired from The Atlantic.

This is a disturbing trend that ought to concern everyone—liberals included. It's an insult to actual workplace safety issues, for one thing. For another, it makes the office a dangerous place to express a potentially unpopular opinion. Journalistic institutions shouldn't live in fear of difficult conversations, or of provoking offense. But the necessary consequence of this new regime of safetyism will be everybody walking on eggshells.

My book Panic Attack contains countless other examples of woke young people weaponizing ever-expanding definitions of safety against people who disagree with them. In the book's closing pages, I observed that they'd been able to "hijack existing, well-intentioned harassment law in order to make campuses more repressive places. It's not impossible to imagine the same thing happening in the work place." Not impossible at all: It's happening before our very eyes.