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The Times they are a-changin’

12 June 2020

By Henry Taylor, Executive, and Jamie Williams, Senior Executive

Much like political advisers, it’s never good when the newspaper becomes the story. In the last week, an earthquake has reverberated within one of the world’s most respected news outlets, the New York Times. The aftershock has resulted in the resignation of the paper’s opinion editor, James Bennet. 

The controversy began when the paper published a piece by Republican senator Tom Cotton, calling for an “overwhelming show of force” from the US military to respond to the unrest in numerous American cities following the death of George Floyd. Sharp criticism from the paper’s readership was followed by an internal backlash over the piece, with more than 800 staff members signing a letter in protest. The drama was played out on the front pages of the New York Times itself. Newsception, if you will. 

Bennet published an explanation for his decision to run the piece, arguing that the paper had a responsibility to feature a range of views and not just those of the editorial team. A statement by the paper rapidly followed claiming that the piece did not meet its editorial standards and should not have been published, in part because it contained claims that the paper had previously identified to be false. Bennet stepped down shortly after it became apparent that he failed to review the piece before it was published. It has also been revealed that the NYT also solicited the piece following a tweet from Cotton. 

The situation raises difficult questions over the role of opinion pages in newspapers and the responsibilities of their editors when faced with divisive issues. For many, radical viewpoints should be published principally so they can be scrutinised and critiqued and, the idea that the opinion pages should go beyond simply reflecting the views of their editor is widely accepted. Closer to home, we have seen recent opinion pieces from Labour leader Keir Starmer in traditional Tory stalwarts such as the Mail and the Telegraph.

The New York Times’s own response suggests that the reason the piece should not have been published was not because of its viewpoint, but its quality. However, editing an opinion column becomes uniquely difficult when the issue is highly charged. While Bennet wanted a diversity of opinion, in a crisis, words matter more. On divisive issues like US race relations, national newspapers wield genuine power – the power to shape public attitudes and behaviour. At a time when thousands of US citizens have taken to the streets to express their anger, the output of newspapers has potentially damaging real-world consequences.

Another takeaway from the situation at the New York Times is the power of individual journalists.  A few decades ago, the thought of a revolt within the newsroom would seem alien, with editorial teams wielding power over what was published – and how. However, this situation has demonstrated that journalists are now at the centre of protest and can exert power over published material. Journalists have become activists within their organisations. 

As the role of opinion becomes increasingly politicised through internal and external protest, such pieces will be placed under the microscope. Editors may respond by tightening up their editorial processes, enhancing their fact-checking operations. Given the backlash over Cotton’s piece, we may see popular papers shift towards safer, less provocative pieces on divisive issues – or avoid them altogether. Whether the result will be a restricted marketplace for ideas or a more measured public discourse remains to be seen.