Is the Tom Cotton NYT Op-Ed Free Speech?

A mural of George Floyd at the site of his deadly arrest in Minneapolis. False information related to his death is spreading online.Credit…Caroline Yang for The New York Times

On June 3, 2020 Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) wrote a New York Times op-ed in which he argues that the United States government should call in the U.S. military to quash the people who are protesting the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer.

For many NYT staff, along with many many others, this Op-Ed was way over the line.


The foundation for his entire premise was blatant misinformation. He not only refers to Black Lives Matter protestors as “rioters,” “looters,” and “insurrectionists,”, but he also repeats the false claim made by Trump that “antifa” have infiltrated the marches.

If indeed the NYT op-ed editors needed to fact-check that and verify that it was indeed a false claim, then all they needed to do was to turn to an article that they themselves had published within the New York Times a few days earlier on June 1 – Misinformation About George Floyd Protests Surges on Social Media…

The unsubstantiated theory that antifa activists are responsible for the riots and looting was the biggest piece of protest misinformation tracked by Zignal Labs, which looked at certain categories of falsehoods. Of 873,000 pieces of misinformation linked to the protests, 575,800 were mentions of antifa, Zignal Labs said.

The antifa narrative gained traction because “long-established networks of hyperpartisan social media influencers now work together like a well-oiled machine,” said Erin Gallagher, a social media researcher.

That began when Mr. Trump tweeted on Sunday that “ANTIFA led anarchists” and “Radical Left Anarchists” were to blame for the unrest, without providing specifics. Then he called antifa “a Terrorist Organization.”…

… And on Twitter, a fake “manual” specifying “riot orders” that was supposedly issued by Democrats directing antifa activists to stir up trouble circulated prominently. But the so-called manual was a resurrection of an old hoax linked to the April 2015 riots in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, the fact-checking website Snopes reported.

How have NYT staff Responded?

Not only did Times staffers flood Twitter, but some also took sick days on Thursday and Friday to protest the op-ed.

The Twitter stance by staff is highly unusual because the NYT has an official, and quite frankly dubious, policy that forbids staff from taking sides on Social Media. Even that however was not sufficient to deter many.

On their internal Slack one staff member wrote …

“It has never been my expectation that every piece the New York Times publishes will confirm my personal worldview, but it was also never my expectation The Times would run an op-ed calling for state violence that uses multiple false and misleading claims to make its argument, and which our own journalists report is impacting their safety and ability to source stories.”

It has also been reported in Vanity Fair that more than 800 employees sent a letter to management asking for … “corrections, as well as for ‘an editor’s note or follow-up, or, ideally, a fully reported news story’ to ‘examine’ what the letter calls ‘cherry-picked facts woven together with hyperbolic assumptions that were gross exaggerations.

Here are some of the twitter reactions by NYT staff

You can find many many tweets here. Below are some samples …

Defending the undefendable

The first reaction by James Bennet, the editor in charge of the op-ed section, was to defend the decision to run the article.

In the context of the above defence, where exactly would they draw the line?

In the context of “scrutiny” it was soon revealed that Bennet had not even read it before it was published.

How have others in the media viewed this?

You can most probably guess, but why guess when you can read their own words …

What has now happened?

Some things are of course inevitable. Senator Cotton has received praise from the idiot-in-chief, and that perhaps is one outcome he was striving to achieve.

The NYT op-ed editor, James Bennett, resigned on Sunday June 7.

Bennet’s other deputy, Jim Dao, who publicly admitted that he “oversaw the acceptance and review of the Cotton Op-Ed”, is being demoted and reassigned.

The op-ed did not make it to the print edition.

The on-line version, still available, now includes the following editors note …

After publication, this essay met strong criticism from many readers (and many Times colleagues), prompting editors to review the piece and the editing process. Based on that review, we have concluded that the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.

The basic arguments advanced by Senator Cotton — however objectionable people may find them — represent a newsworthy part of the current debate. But given the life-and-death importance of the topic, the senator’s influential position and the gravity of the steps he advocates, the essay should have undergone the highest level of scrutiny. Instead, the editing process was rushed and flawed, and senior editors were not sufficiently involved. While Senator Cotton and his staff cooperated fully in our editing process, the Op-Ed should have been subject to further substantial revisions — as is frequently the case with such essays — or rejected.

For example, the published piece presents as facts assertions about the role of “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa”; in fact, those allegations have not been substantiated and have been widely questioned. Editors should have sought further corroboration of those assertions, or removed them from the piece. The assertion that police officers “bore the brunt” of the violence is an overstatement that should have been challenged. The essay also includes a reference to a “constitutional duty” that was intended as a paraphrase; it should not have been rendered as a quotation.

Beyond those factual questions, the tone of the essay in places is needlessly harsh and falls short of the thoughtful approach that advances useful debate. Editors should have offered suggestions to address those problems. The headline — which was written by The Times, not Senator Cotton — was incendiary and should not have been used.

Free Speech?

The role of the editor is, amongst other things, to act as the gatekeeper and check for accuracy. In this instance the NYT utterly failed.

As a publisher the NYT has no obligation or mandate to give a platform to blatant falsehoods, calls for violence, and misinformation. They promote themselves as a platform that maintains a distinct standard…

At a time of growing and even justified public suspicion about the impartiality, accuracy and integrity of some journalists and some journalism, it is imperative that The Times and its staff maintain the highest possible standards to insure that we do nothing that might erode readers’ faith and confidence in our news columns … the journalism we practice daily must be beyond reproach.

If indeed they fail to maintain that standard, or fail to correct mistakes, then the utterly false charge made against them and most other mainstream platforms by some right-wing pundits of being “Fake News” starts to become a credible argument.

Now more than ever is the time to hold the line and take a stance both for truth and also against violence. That is especially true for state-sponsored violence against innocent citizens expressing their right to protest peacefully.

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