Revenge is best served cold, as James Bennet's blistering takedown of our former newspaper, The New York Times, shows in riveting detail. Bennet, the Times' former editorial page editor now at the Economist, waited three years after being forced out of the paper in 2020 before describing how the Times has abandoned its commitment to objective reporting, blurred the boundary between news and opinion, suppressed conservative views and shifted from being overtly "liberal" to an "illiberal" paper all too willing to "shut debate down" and embrace a "culture of intolerance and conformity."
Bennet's meticulous account gets what has happened to the Times mostly right. But as I know first-hand, the abandonment of the paper's traditional values, especially its commitment to objective reporting, began far earlier than even Bennet suggests.
His 17,000-word cover story focuses on how he was "chased out" of the paper for publishing an op-ed by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton which argued that the U.S. military should be called in if local police needed support in ending urban riots and violent protests over the murder of George Floyd.
But Bennet's attack on the Times is broader and should be read by all who want to understand why readers, especially conservatives, have grown skeptical, indeed, dismissive of the "paper of record."
His essay joins a growing body of criticism by former Times insiders – Bari Weiss, Jeff Gerth, and my own account – about how and why the paper's leadership – Publisher A.G. Sulzberger and former executive editor Dean Baquet, in Bennet's case – increasingly caved to the demands of digitally obsessed revenue models and its younger, left-leaning staff.
"It's a story of social ostracism, scapegoating, and cowardice," tweeted Bari Weiss, the Jewish editor who resigned after her boss Bennet was pushed out. In her own resignation letter, she describes the bullying, harassment, and intimidation she faced – being called a Nazi and racist, a liar, and a bigot – by progressive colleagues, none of whom was ever reprimanded.
Bennet mentions that the Times was "slow to break it to its readers that there was less to [former President Donald] Trump's ties to Russia than they were hoping." But Gerth, my friend and former Times colleague, documented last February in excruciating detail for the Columbia Journalism Review what former Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker called the media's "willful deception," especially The Times, in its coverage of Trump's alleged connections to Russia and more broadly, in its other reporting on Trump, whom it clearly and openly despised.
Bennet also detected ideological bias in its belated coverage of Hunter Biden's laptop, and its "slow" acknowledgment that Trump might have been right in asserting that "COVID came from a Chinese lab."
In another stunning vignette, Bennet reports that when he relayed a conservative columnist's concerns to Sulzberger that the paper scrutinized conservative arguments far more than liberal ones, the publisher, who rarely missed an opportunity to stress his commitment to expanding the editorial page's ideological diversity, "lost his patience."
He told Bennet to "inform the complaining conservative that that's just how it was," Bennet writes. "There was a double standard and he should get used to it." Bennet is right to call that a prime example of the paper's ideological bias and sheer "hypocrisy."
That double standard was also evident in the paper's reaction to and protection of Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "1619 Project," which commemorated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia.
Praising the project for "understanding" that 1619 and protecting slavery was the reason for the nation's "true founding," the paper's news division quietly erased that claim from its digital version after historians and readers expressed outrage and pointed out numerous other errors in her work.
And though Bennet bizarrely calls the project "excellent," he could not help but point out that while the Times never acknowledged significant errors in that project, it lost little time in asserting that the Cotton op-ed did not meet the paper's "standards" and should not have been published.
The paper I joined in 1977 is not today's New York Times. But the drift leftward and blurring of news and commentary preceded Bennet's forced resignation and Trump's presidency. It dates back to the departure of Abe Rosenthal, the paper's legendary and now controversial executive editor, and A.G.'s father's cowardly decision to fire two of his successors – executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd.
All three were devoted to the paper's avowed commitment to covering news "without fear or favor." Rosenthal once told me that Times editors had to "lean right" because virtually all their reporters "leaned left." Abe's tombstone bears only his name and proudest achievement: "He kept the paper straight."
Arthur Sulzberger, the former publisher who was once a close friend, fired Raines and Boyd in 2003 ostensibly because of a scandal surrounding Jason Blair, a fabulist reporter who had plagiarized or invented some 36 articles during his four years at the paper.
A 7,500 word expose on him was followed by a scathing staff meeting at which Raines and Boyd's leadership was denounced by reporters who charged that the duo bullied them and governed by "fear." I had never heard reporters accuse editors who had recently won seven Pulitzers for our post-9/11 coverage (I shared in one of them) of "losing the confidence of the newsroom."
Arthur could have defended his strict but principled editors, just as his son could have stood by Bennet. But both caved to their staff's whims. The staff revolt in 2003 transformed the paper. Reporters and even interns who once lived in fear of their editors now made their editors fear.
Bennet only briefly alludes to that incident. While the Times still does some extraordinary reporting, it is doubtful that its reputation for slanted, ideologically driven journalism can be reversed. But Bennet has done well in exposing how a lack of courage has weakened the paper and helped diminish public confidence in journalism, vital to any democracy.