Last week, Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple wrote a column revisiting the New York Times’ sacking of its opinion editor James Bennet in 2020. Bennet had made some mistakes during his tenure, but he was fired in response to demands by Times staffers angry that his page had published an op-ed by Republican senator Tom Cotton advocating for the National Guard to be used to prevent rioting and looting.
Wemple’s column is notable for two things. First, his reporting establishes that a “fact-checking” exercise the Times used as its pretext for withdrawing the op-ed was farcical. The op-ed had already been fact checked before publication, and the second fact check was designed to come up with reasons to support a decision that publisher A.G. Sulzberger had already made. (Indeed, the “fact checkers,” Wemple reports, seemed disappointed their second search failed to turn up anything useful.)
That the Times was inventing new standards on the fly was perfectly obvious at the time. Why didn’t Wemple make this point then? This is the second, and more interesting, revelation from his column. He bluntly confesses his “posture was one of cowardice and midcareer risk management.”
Wemple may be alone in publishing this admission, but he is not alone in believing it. Many people have shared similar beliefs with me, especially in the angry summer of 2020. It is an unhealthy culture that forces people to suppress their doubts and mouth platitudes for fear of losing their livelihoods.
But the truth is Wemple’s fears were hardly imaginary. In recent years, many journalists lost their jobs as a result of internal social panics even more irrational than the Cotton episode. The Philadelphia Inquirer purged its top editor after its architecture critic wrote a column mourning the destruction of buildings during the George Floyd protests. The Times pushed out its lead science reporter in the middle of a pandemic because a group of prep-school teens he was leading on a foreign trip complained about his centrist politics and having quoted (but not used) a racial slur.
The Post itself had two of its most beloved and decorated staffers retire suddenly after becoming the targets of progressive anger. Gene Weingarten, its Pulitzer-winning humor columnist, wrote a ham-fisted column trying to poke fun at himself for not liking Indian food, which despite his apology set off a wave of calls for him to be fired and replaced with a person of color. Weingarten quietly retired shortly thereafter. The Post also ran a bizarre story about the fact that editorial cartoonist Tom Toles threw a Halloween party at which one guest he barely knew showed up in a costume as “Megyn Kelly in blackface.” A few months later, Toles retired.
I don’t know exactly what happened in all these episodes. Some of them are complicated. It wouldn’t surprise me if some people responded to internal outrage by deciding they’d had enough of it, but were never told explicitly they couldn’t keep their job.
I am quite sure there are more such incidents that have gone unreported. When I stumbled on the news of David Shor’s firing in 2020, one thing that struck me was that nobody wanted to talk about it. Since these purges occur at institutions whose staff are overwhelmingly on the left, most of the victims in these cases have beliefs that place them somewhere from the center to the left of the political spectrum. They usually don’t want to become famous for being a victim of cancel culture. Indeed, becoming a martyr on Fox News compounds the “social death” that many of these victims experience.
What Wemple’s confession reveals is that these purges have a multiplier effect: For every person humiliated or fired for a small or nonexistent offense, many other people will refuse to criticize even transparently absurd left-wing pieties.
Denouncing the arson and looting that often sprung up around the George Floyd protests violated one such taboo. Even today, many progressives continue to defend Bennet’s firing and the response to the op-ed as just and necessary while refusing to admit the actual position at issue. Tom Scocca, in a column headlined “James Bennet Was Wrong and It Was Good He Lost His Job,” describes the op-ed like so: “Cotton called for the federal government to deploy the military against the people protesting the police murder of George Floyd.” Jonathan Katz writes that Bennet “published an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton calling for the U.S. military to crush the nationwide protests that erupted in response to the police murder of George Floyd.”
These descriptions are factually untrue, which is ironic, given that Katz’s headline is “James Bennet and the rewriting of 2020.” Cotton’s op-ed explicitly called for the National Guard to stop rioting and looting and to protect peaceful protest. “A majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants,” Cotton wrote. “But the rioting has nothing to do with George Floyd, whose bereaved relatives have condemned violence.” One could argue that Cotton’s position would have inadvertently resulted in troops suppressing peaceful protesters. But it’s simply not the case that he was calling for this.
Cotton’s argument for sending troops to prevent destruction was not especially strong, but this does not explain the reaction to it. (The Times runs mediocre op-eds regularly.) The point of the backlash was to render beyond the pale any frank acknowledgment of this aspect of the demonstrations.
The motive for many progressives to follow these stifling conventions was sympathetic. If you believe systemic racism and inequality are the greatest crisis in America, which I do, and you also believe the racism of the Republican Party is far more dangerous than any excesses on the left, which I also do, then you might hesitate to admit to anything that might be used by Republicans to discredit the cause of racial justice. Yet that hesitation allows the most unreasonable people on the left to rope the whole progressive movement into indefensible and self-discrediting positions.
The George Floyd protests are hardly the only subject for which this dynamic has prevailed. Progressives decided that the hypothesis that COVID-19 may have originated in a laboratory rather than zoonotically was “racist” — even though this was a purely scientific question, the evidence was and is murky, and it was easier to imagine racist behavior resulting from a theory blaming COVID on Chinese cultural practices than a theory blaming China’s government. Journalists at mainstream organs followed this convention, essentially turning a scientific question into a political one. When institutions adopt illiberal norms of debate that make it impossible to challenge an accusation of racism or sexism, they open themselves inevitably to abuse.
I believe the cultural pressures that produced these errors are in remission. But they haven’t disappeared. As evidenced by the likes of Scocca and Katz, there remains a deep-seated impulse on the left to defend or deny illiberal norms. They insist the wave of hysterical accusations, overpolicing of language, and empowered outrage mobs were a figment of the critics’ imaginations, or that these things happened but were actually good, or perhaps, somehow, both. As people in these institutions begin to lose their fear of speaking truthfully, we need to honestly confront what happened.