Times Leadership Shaken Up Over Cotton Op-Ed

Another week, and the New York Times editorial team is still in the headlines, as the fallout continues over the publication of an op-ed by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, which some Times’ staffers considered controversial. Now, editorial page editor, James Bennet, has resigned and Jim Dao, a deputy editorial page editor, has been “reassigned” to the newsroom. Deputy editorial page editor, Katie Kingsbury, will take over for Bennet and Dao at least through the national election in November.

All of these significant leadership shifts come in the wake of what some are calling a “tumultuous week” in the life of the nation’s newspaper of record. Ever since the decision was made to run Cotton’s editorial piece, staffers have continued an ongoing and somewhat heated debate about whether or not publishing that piece was the right editorial decision.

Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger called the debate important, adding: “This has been a painful week across the company. It has sparked urgent and important conversations…”

The spark for those “important conversations” was an op-ed by Cotton entitled: “Send in the Troops,” which suggested in may be time for the implementation of the Insurrection Act to deploy military forces in various cities across the country facing trouble with violence and looting connected to social protests following the death of George Floyd.

When the piece came out, staffers in both the editorial and news offices at The Times publicly decried the decision, even as Bennet defended publishing the piece. Later, Bennet called the decision a “break down” in the editorial process, insinuating that publishing the article was a bad call. Dissenters, though, said the conversation was about “something more.” They wanted to talk about the role The Times plays in modern American society, and if that role should include providing a forum for all opinions, regardless of how they are perceived or understood by readers.

Pundits commenting on the issue, looking in from the outside, said the situation illustrated elements of communication in the United States in the modern digital age. Currently, some people are calling for moving the needle on what’s acceptable to publish or to say in public, while others are defending unilateral freedom of speech no matter the venue.

As it stands, both Sulzberger and Bennet are on record as saying the editorial process isn’t what it could be. In a recent town hall style meeting, they talked about “structural” issues with the process. Sulzberger wrote: “Last week we saw a significant breakdown in our editing processes, not the first we’ve experienced in recent years… James and I agreed that it would take a new team to lead the department through a period of considerable change…”

That this situation was “not the first” likely references a series of missteps in recent years, including mistakes in a story related to allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against Justice Brett Kavanaugh and an apology issued after publishing an anti-Semitic cartoon in the international edition of The Times. Given these and other incidents, which have all been repeatedly referenced over the past week, The Times chose to make a change. Now, we will see if these shifts quiet the critics.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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