Why a fired editor’s indictment of New York Times liberalism is so devastating

It may seem like old news – a fired New York Times editor hitting back at his old paper, three years later, in what might be viewed as sour grapes.

As for the central charge – that the New York Times is way too liberal – that may strike some as exceedingly obvious.

But what James Bennet, the ousted editorial page editor, has delivered, in the form of a 17,000-word essay in The Economist, is a thoughtful, penetrating and revealing argument about the deterioration of journalism. And it deserves a hearing. 

I don’t agree with everything Bennet does. It’s hard to imagine, even though it wasn’t flagged for him, that he didn’t read the online op-ed by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton before it led to his dismissal. Bennet also wrote a totally unfair editorial linking Sarah Palin to a mass shooting that was proven wrong, and led to an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit by the former governor.

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But he’s an extremely smart guy, a former editor of the Atlantic, whose Times section won two Pulitzers in his four years on the job, and now tackles the most explosive issue in the newspaper business.

And it comes four years after a fired executive editor, Jill Abramson, said in a book that the Times news pages had become “unmistakably anti-Trump,” sometimes containing “raw opinion” that led to the paper being “mistrusted.”

In The Economist, Bennett writes: “The Times’s problem has metastasized from liberal bias to illiberal bias, from an inclination to favor one side of the national debate to an impulse to shut debate down altogether. All the empathy and humility in the world will not mean much against the pressures of intolerance and tribalism.”

And it wasn’t just the opinion section: “As the top editors let bias creep into certain areas of coverage, such as culture, lifestyle and business, that made the core harder to defend and undermined the authority of even the best reporters.”

A demonstrator holds a “Lock Him Up” anti-Trump sign outside of the Lewis R. Slaton Courthouse ahead of an expected indictment of former US President Donald Trump on August 14, 2023, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by CHRISTIAN MONTERROSA/AFP via Getty Images)

This is where I say, as Bennet acknowledges, that the Times is still capable of terrific work, especially on long-term investigative projects. But all that is for naught if the newspaper loses the trust of its readers – not to mention other news organizations that take its cues.

These words pack a powerful punch: “To assert that the Times plays by the same rules it always has is to commit a hypocrisy that is transparent to conservatives, dangerous to liberals and bad for the country as a whole. It makes the Times too easy for conservatives to dismiss and too easy for progressives to believe. The reality is that the Times is becoming the publication through which America’s progressive elite talks to itself about an America that does not really exist.”

In less polite language, the paper is living in a fantasy land.

And the Times didn’t always live up to its mantra of diversity. When Bennet took over, the opinion section didn’t have a single Black editor. And of the 11 regular columnists, only two were women and just one was a person of color.

Bennet had an earlier taste of “the environment of enforced groupthink” when, on the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration, he published a page of pro-Trump letters to the editor.

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“I was astonished by the fury of my Times colleagues. I found myself facing an angry internal town hall, trying to justify what to me was an obvious journalistic decision. During the session, one of the newsroom’s journalists demanded to know when I would publish a page of letters from Barack Obama’s supporters. I stammered out some kind of answer. The question just didn’t make sense to me,” since the paper published pro-Obama and anti-Trump letters virtually every day.

This is a paragraph that’s been widely picked up: “The Times was slow to break it to its readers that there was less to Trump’s ties to Russia than they were hoping, and more to Hunter Biden’s laptop, that Trump might be right that Covid came from a Chinese lab.” And on these topics, the Times had plenty of company.

Perhaps that’s why, according to an internal marketing memo, the paper’s liberal bias had become “a selling point.” That makes me cringe.

The greatest indictment in the piece, in my view, is that Publisher A.G. Sulzberger initially supported his man James.

The op-ed by Sen. Cotton, an Army veteran, called for the use of federal troops to protect people and businesses from rioters–and the Times had already published pieces with the opposite view.

Senator Tom Cotton

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), listens during the confirmation hearing for Lieutenant General Timothy Haugh, nominee to be the Director of the National Security Agency, and Michael Casey, nominee to be the Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, in the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, July 12, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

“I get and support the reason for including the piece,” Sulzberger emailed Bennet, since he thought Cotton’s view was backed by the Trump White House and most senators. 

When Bennet called Dean Baquet, then the executive editor, he agreed, noting that Cotton was a potential presidential candidate.

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Then came an explosion from the woke newsroom. And three days after the initial show of support, Sulzberger, with an “icy anger,” fired Bennet. He had, in my view, quite honestly caved.

Sulzberger, whose family controls the Times, has since accused Bennet of a “false narrative” and said the opinion section now features more conservative voices.

Former President Donald Trump

Former President Donald Trump appears in a campaign-style ad posted to his Truth Social account in 2022. (Donald Trump/Truth Social)

What struck me most, for all the elevated critiques offered by James Bennet, is what went down in November of 2016.

“To the shock and horror of the newsroom, Trump won the presidency.”

Shock. Horror. And it gets worse.

“Many Times staff members – scared, angry – assumed the Times was supposed to help lead the resistance.”

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And that, with Trump the leading Republican candidate, is how many younger journalists, obsessed with social justice, view their role today.

You can quibble with Bennett’s contentions here or there, and he’s obviously striking back at his former employers. But I think he proves his case.

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