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'NYT' Editorial Page Editor Resigns After Op-Ed Backlash


There was news this afternoon of a major shakeup at the New York Times. The newspaper announced that James Bennet has resigned as the editorial page editor. His deputy is being given a different role in the newsroom.

That news comes in the wake of a controversy over the Times decision to run an op-ed last week by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton titled "Send In The Troops." In the piece, the Arkansas Republican urged President Trump to use military force to quell the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. And joining me now to discuss this is NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik.

Hi, David.


MCCAMMON: So, David, why don't you start by telling us about the controversy that led to this resignation.

FOLKENFLIK: So this op-ed was posted online, I believe last Wednesday. And it almost instantly set off a flare and a firestorm, particularly within the Times newsroom. It was in some ways an intentionally provocative, incendiary piece, as it turned out, invited by the Times. Cotton, a conservative Republican, had called for, as you said, the involvement by the president of military to put down a protest, create order, particularly about where they'd been violent.

And a number of New York Times reporters pointed out that there was essentially not only a clash between protesters and police, that the police were seemingly caught on video violating civil liberties of citizens all over the country but also of journalists - that many have been hurt by police and other law enforcement officials operating in sort of a paramilitary way, and this would escalate, essentially, the kinds of risks that journalists were taking.

And additionally, the argument was made by Times journalists that this was, in a sense, beyond the pale - that this was seemingly the advocacy of an extra-legal application of order at the risk of people's rights. I think something like 800 Times journalists ultimately signed a letter of protest. Some tried to organize a bit of a sick-out. This was real, in a sense, rebellion within the newsroom ranks.

MCCAMMON: Of course, this op-ed was written by a sitting U.S. senator. How unusual is it for newsroom journalists to criticize an editorial page editor? I mean, the newspaper has published a lot of controversial pieces over the years.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. And there are two things worth noting here, one of which is that the New York Times has policies, as do major - many major journalistic outlets, that say, basically, don't trash your own news organization for the editorial choices they make publicly. You're not supposed to do that on social media. And I've got to say, if you looked on Twitter, Facebook, other places in the 24, 36, 48 hours that ensued, they were all over this on social media.

The second thing is, of course, that what many journalists don't realize - newsrooms and editorial pages operate separately with separate leaders. And at the same time, that was all blurred. They said, this is my brand, my New York Times. It's doing it to us. We don't feel that this represents who we are journalistically even as some of their colleagues, particularly some more veteran journalists, say, we're supposed to be exposing our readers and ourselves to a wide range of thoughts, a wide range of thinking on these topics.

MCCAMMON: And just a few days ago, Bennet and The Times publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, were defending the op-ed. What's changed?

FOLKENFLIK: It's head-spinning. And what's changed was it wasn't tenable within the newsroom. A.G. Sulzberger is the scion. It's his family which has led the New York Times, one way or the other, for essentially a century. He needed to show the newsroom that he heard it, particularly on issues of race and racial justice. James Bennet had aspirations to lead the news pages to succeed Dean Bennett (ph). That wasn't going to happen. What happened is that they realized they'd lost the newsroom over this, whether or not you agree with them on the merits.

MCCAMMON: And briefly, who's taking over now, David, for the New York Times editorial page? And what kind of pressure do they face?

FOLKENFLIK: A senior deputy named Katie Kingsbury comes in. She's a Pulitzer winner herself, a veteran of the Boston Globe who arrived a few years ago, just a year after James Bennet himself. Bennet's four-year run at the time showed his ambitions in expanding the number of voices and the range of voices proved in some ways to conflict with some of the expectations of both the readership and the very journalists working across the hall in the newsroom itself.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.