Why the New York Times Capitulated
On Sunday, New York Times opinion editor James Bennet resigned after daring to publish a column by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who argued for using the military to help quell the riots that arose from George Floyd’s murder.
The publication of a conservative opinion was too much for many staff members and political activists. It simply deviated too far from the liberal orthodoxy.
The Times only rarely prints conservative opinions, but it also published one of mine back on Feb. 12, 2018. The piece concerned how background checks disproportionately deny gun purchases to law-abiding minorities, particularly black males, the very people who are most likely victims of violent crime and benefit the most from owning guns. Two days after my piece ran, in response to the backlash, Bennet felt it necessary to write the Times staff an unusual 1,500-word essay that explained the need for diverse opinions.
In my case, the Times withstood the pressure somewhat better than it did with the Cotton op-ed. One staffer emailed me: “Everytown [the anti-gun group launched by Mike Bloomberg] and others, have let us know how displeased they are that we ran your piece.” Another Times employee confided in me that they had received some 75,000 “angry” emails the day after my article had run. I got word from other people that gun control groups were organizing email and telephone campaigns to pressure the Times into firing the staff who were involved in running my column and pushing them to promise to never run one of my pieces again.
To save face with progressives, the Times found it necessary to run a Sunday editorial the following weekend that called me a "disreputable economist best known for misusing statistics to suit his own ideological ends.” But I got off lightly compared to Cotton. James Bennet initially tweeted out a defense of his journalistic process, but then added, “We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton’s argument painful, even dangerous.”
All too typically, Casey Johnston, an editorial director of Vice magazine, replied scathingly: “you have no obligation to give every psycho a platform. it directly endangers everyone. resign.”
The day after Bennet’s Tweet, the Times folded by explaining in an editorial that the “editing process was rushed.” It said that Bennet hadn’t read the essay before it was published, and that the piece “did not meet our standards.”
I don’t know about Cotton’s case, but my own piece was definitely not rushed. The fact-checking and editing lasted three months, with dozens of emails back and forth. One Times employee wrote me: “Sorry they made you jump through fiery hoops…”
But the paper still wasn’t done with Cotton’s piece. On June 5, the Times added a 317-word preface that explained why the editorial staff thought Cotton to be wrong. In particular, they attacked the Arkansas senator for claiming that “cadres of left-wing radicals like Antifa [were] infiltrating protest marches.” But they ignored plenty of evidence. The day before their addition, Attorney General William Barr asserted that “the federal government has evidence that the radical left-wing antifa movement as well as other extremist groups have ‘hijacked’ legitimate protests.”
In my case, the orchestrated outrage by gun control organizations probably had its desired effect. It will be a long time, if ever, before the New York Times publishes another of my opinion pieces. Instead of simply objecting to certain arguments, staff and readers demand that people such as Tom Cotton and myself not be heard.
Unfortunately, this is a pattern that I have seen over and over again at different news outlets. For example, after an organized backlash a couple years ago, The Hill will no longer run my pieces. I had written about a book that detailed the Obama administration’s persecution of a law-abiding, Connecticut gun dealer, in an effort to blame someone for the Sandy Hook school massacre. The editor who handled the piece told me how gun control groups descended on The Hill with a flood of emails.
The email campaign eventually proved too much. After publishing 33 of my op-ed submissions without a single refusal, The Hill has since rejected the next 103 pieces, many of which were subsequently published in reputable publications. One member of The Hill staff privately told me that the owner just didn’t want to deal with all of the anger generated by activists regarding my columns. Editors at places from the Los Angeles Times to the Chicago Tribune have told me similar stories about them being pressured.
Progressives claim to defend liberal values, but free speech only seems to apply to speech they like. Even those rare occasions when the Times runs opinion pieces by conservatives, it tries to undermine the credibility of those authors with prefaces and editorials, and thus the paper reveals its fear of open debate. When was the last time conservatives ever organized email campaigns to news outlets to stop them running opinion pieces by those they disagree with?