For Sulzberger, better known as A.G., the past 10 days—in which he tried to quell an unprecedented staff revolt at The New York Times over a bellicose, racially toxic op-ed by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, and essentially fired his editorial page editor, James Bennet—have amounted to both his most searing crucible and the defining moment of his young tenure as publisher of the 169-year-old newspaper.
“I really lament the loss of a talent that I respect and admire more than you could know,” Sulzberger, 39, told The Daily Beast about Bennet’s abrupt forced resignation this past Sunday—a mere four days after Bennet’s deputy Jim Dao and a junior editor, former Weekly Standard staffer Adam Rubenstein, published Cotton’s online screed. It was jarringly titled “Send in the Troops,” a polemic in which the Donald Trump-loving Republican demanded that the U.S. military be deployed in response to widespread protests against police brutality.
“But at the end of the day, the most important thing, when you have these crises, is: Can you show up on Monday morning and lead the team out of it,” Sulzberger added. “I really regret that the answer we all got [for Bennet] was ‘no.’”
Sulzberger offered no further on-the-record comment about a debacle that has raised questions among journalists both inside and outside the Times about his leadership of the paper, provoked a public outcry and a larger-than-usual number of subscription cancellations, and challenged the Times’ commitment to publishing unpopular and even unpalatable opinions.
“I really lament the loss of a talent that I respect and admire more than you could know.”
— A.G. Sulzberger on James Bennet
Bennet’s dismissal even alarmed—of all people—rocker Sean Ono Lennon. “This is the end for you guys,” John Lennon’s younger son tweeted in what might have been the unkindest cut of all. “Firing someone for allowing different opinions in your paper means you are no longer a real news paper [sic]. It’s been fun. You had a good run. The best in fact. R.I.P.”
Critics of A.G. Sulzberger’s handling of the crisis cited his confusing response to the uproar. The morning after the Cotton article went online June 3rd and prompted a staff mutiny, he sent a letter to employees that seemed to support Bennet’s initial defense of the piece—namely, as Bennet wrote on June 4, that “the public would be better equipped to push back if it heard the argument and had the chance to respond to the reasoning… Readers who might be inclined to oppose Cotton’s position need to be fully aware of it, and reckon with it, if they hope to defeat it.”
In his own letter on that morning, A.G. wrote: “I believe in the principle of openness to a range of opinions, even those we may disagree with, and this piece was published in that spirit.”
Yet barely five hours later, Sulzberger and the Times whipsawed staffers with a head-spinning about-face.
“We’ve examined the piece and the process leading up to its publication,” the paper’s spokeswoman, Eileen Murphy, said in a statement. “This review made clear that a rushed editorial process led to the publication of an Op-Ed that did not meet our standards. As a result, we’re planning to examine both short-term and long-term changes, to include expanding our fact-checking operation and reducing the number of Op-Eds we publish.”
In an internal Slack message, Sulzberger announced: “Given that this is not the first lapse”—a reference to various unwelcome and embarrassing controversies on Bennet’s watch—“the Opinion department will also be taking several initial steps to reduce the likelihood of something like this happening again.”
By most accounts, at the time he wrote his initial apparent defense, A.G. had been unaware of the—surprising to many—lapse that Bennet had failed to read Cotton’s article before it was published.
During a virtual town hall on Friday—conducted online because of the coronavirus pandemic—Sulzberger argued that his initial defense was simply meant to be a “placeholder” until he could learn the specifics of how the Times came to publish the op-ed.
“It has been a moment of a lot of pain and anguish,” he told staffers during the town hall. “And I’ve heard from so many of you how this op-ed and this moment added to that.”
By some accounts, the controversy also exposed a profound rift inside the Times along generational, cultural and ideological lines.
In a series of widely criticized social media posts—apparently live-tweeted during a private meeting between Bennet and his editorial and opinion staff—right-leaning opinion editor Bari Weiss caricatured the divide as a “civil war” between “the (mostly young) ‘wokes’ ” who allegedly seek to quash uncomfortable ideas and “the (mostly 40+) liberals” who honor the values of free speech. (During the combative town hall last Friday, one questioner asked if Weiss will be fired; the answer was no, although bosses were said to be evaluating her social media conduct.)
A.G. Sulzberger, who joined the Times as a metro reporter in 2009 after working for the Providence Journal and The Oregonian, was an associate editor in early 2016 when his father, former publisher and current New York Times Co. Chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., dismissed longtime editorial director Andrew Rosenthal and recruited Bennet to helm the Times’ influential Opinion department.
Bennet—who had worked at the Times as a White House and foreign correspondent and successfully ran The Atlantic magazine for a decade—racked up a decidedly mixed record over the past four years.
With A.G.’s enthusiastic backing, he went on a hiring spree for both the editorial board—which formulates the Times’ official positions on issues of the day—and the Op-Ed department and stable of columnists, recruiting such disparate voices as conservative contrarians Weiss and Bret Stephens (who, in a Friday column, lamented that the paper “caving” to the “mob” only further empowered Cotton), and liberal writers Michelle Goldberg, Jamelle Bouie, and Mara Gay.
During last Friday’s town hall, a clearly shaken Bennet fell on his sword and apologized repeatedly for the Cotton column—which had prompted more than 800 Times journalists to sign an open letter to management arguing that it had endangered the lives of the paper’s black reporters; he revealed that the Times had been publishing, online and in print, an astonishing 120 opinion pieces per week. Sulzberger told the staff that number will be significantly reduced as part of a “reimagining” of the Opinion department.
“They fostered a culture of innovation, broadened the range of voices we publish and pushed us into new formats like video, graphics and audio,” A.G. wrote in his Sunday memo announcing Bennet’s resignation and the departure of Jim Dao to an undefined role in the newsroom. “I’m grateful for their many contributions.”
However, Bennet also presided over a series of unfortunate events—notably the February 2018 hiring and immediate firing of tech journalist Quinn Norton (after social media critics pointed out that she had tweeted bigoted and racist slurs and was pals with a neo-Nazi), and an ongoing defamation lawsuit from former Alaska governor Sarah Palin over a June 2017 editorial in which Bennet had inserted phrases that inaccurately linked her to the 2011 mass-shooting that wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona.
“Last week we saw a significant breakdown in our editing processes, not the first we’ve experienced in recent years,” A.G. wrote in the memo. “James and I agreed that it would take a new team to lead the department through a period of considerable change.”
Bennet declined to discuss his defenestration. “I’m just not talking at all about this,” he texted The Daily Beast. Until recently, the 54-year-old Bennet was widely considered a top candidate to succeed Executive Editor Dean Baquet—who, if tradition prevails, will step aside by September 2022 when he turns 66. “I’m still trying to sort through the whole thing myself, as you might expect,” Bennet added.
While Bennet was well-liked at the Times and widely considered a talented journalist and “a good man,” as one insider put it, a member of the opinion staff told The Daily Beast: “It’s a very painful time, and none of this had anything to do with personal animus toward James. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do”—namely, his resignation—“but there was no joy.”
“I was shocked that A.G. didn’t accept any responsibility himself for the circumstances that surrounded this particular controversy.”
— Prominent journalist and friend of Bennet’s
Yet A.G., who comes across as an empathetic boss trying clean up a mess made by others, should be held largely accountable for the circumstances that led to the latest troubles, especially the business imperative to churn out massive amounts of content under demanding time pressures to keep readers engaged, said a prominent journalist who asked not to be further identified.
“I was shocked that A.G. didn’t accept any responsibility himself for the circumstances that surrounded this particular controversy,” this person told The Daily Beast. “The editorial pages and the op-ed pages traditionally report to the publisher… The publisher is supposed to be shaping the strategy of the editorial and opinion pages. That’s always been the fun of owning a newspaper.”
Under Sulzberger, “there has been a heavy investment in the growth of opinion at the Times,” the journalist continued, noting that Bennet is a friend. “That was something that A.G. wanted and approved, because it drives their subscription strategy. New York Times readers like to read opinions—especially opinions that align with their own—and they increasingly don’t like to read opinions that don’t align with their own.”
It’s the publisher, not the editor, who sets goals for subscription sign-ups, the journalist noted. “That is a business strategy. That is what the subscriber loop feedback is telling them. It’s great that they’ve achieved this sustainability by moving away from advertising to subscriptions”—around six million Times subscribers to date, including almost a million who pay for the ink-on-paper edition—“but let’s be clear, they’re following their audience and looking at what their audience reads the longest and where they feel emotionally attached to the Times file. And opinion is one of the areas where that data lights up…
“So to call out the Tom Cotton op-ed, as stupid and offensive as it may have been, as some kind of lapse of judgment, it just doesn’t add up. You would expect a leader like A.G. to share some of the responsibility for this. Instead, he threw James under the bus.”
When the younger Sulzberger’s father handed off the publisher’s duties in January 2018, A.G. became the sixth member of his family to hold the job since his great-great grandfather, Adolph Ochs, bought a controlling interest in the newspaper for $75,000 in 1896; he’s likely to remain publisher for the next quarter century. In the next couple of years he will make such hugely consequential personnel decisions as choosing Bennet’s replacement (he’s named Katie Kingsbury as an interim opinion chief through the November election) and picking the next executive editor to lead the Times newsroom.
Among the candidates touted to succeed Dean Baquet are A.G.’s cousin, assistant managing editor Sam Dolnick (who has overseen the Times’ expansion into video and audio presentations), and Baquet’s No.2, managing editor Joseph Kahn.
According to Times staffers, A.G. has impressed colleagues and employees with his lack of pretension, his appetite for hard work, and his journalism chops. “He’s a better reporter than his father or his grandfather,” said a longtime Times insider, referring to the late Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, a tough ex-Marine who was publisher from 1963 to 1992.
A.G. has also proved his willingness to rattle cages and upset traditions, as with his famous 2014 in-house innovation report—which somehow was obtained by BuzzFeed and published in full—that concluded that the Times was lagging severely behind the media industry in its digital and video capabilities. “It was more than 100 pages long. I quickly realized its findings and criticisms were devastating,” then-executive editor Jill Abramson wrote in Merchants of Truth, a book about—among other issues—her firing from the Times, a headline-making dumpster fire of a controversy orchestrated by A.G.’s father.
Seven months after he became publisher in July 2018, Sulzberger demonstrated backbone when he lectured President Trump about the dangers of his anti-news media rhetoric during a meeting at the White House.
That incident was a triumph; the current one, less so.
By one knowledgeable account, Sulzberger agrees with the insight of former BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, now the Times media columnist, that it’s OK to make people angry, just don’t do it by accident.
In other words, it’s one thing to choose to stride into controversy with eyes open, but it’s quite another to stumble into it. The Cotton column was an example of the latter. It was such an explosive moment, and the opinion team was so traumatized, Sulzberger believed, that it was difficult to fathom how Bennet would be able to project the necessary confidence to rally his staffers, lead them through the storm, get them safely back out again, and then preside over the changes necessary to fix what was broken in the op-ed process.
While some at the Times claim that Sulzberger had reacted to the controversy by seeking Bennet’s resignation to appease the mob out of panic—a frequent interpretation of any quick decision made under piercing scrutiny and massive public outcry—those familiar with his thinking said Sulzberger prides himself on a streak of stubbornness that makes him averse to bowing to outside pressures; instead he tried, in conversations with Bennet and others, to methodically analyze the situation and figure out the way forward.
Among those who advised A.G. to cut Bennet loose, by some accounts, was newsroom leader Baquet, who didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Over the last week he acquitted himself really well,” Times Co. chief executive Mark Thompson told The Daily Beast. “He is decisive but also thoughtful and he listens carefully to advice before reaching a conclusion. He’s also a tough customer—he has repeatedly stood up to Donald Trump, and I thought that last week, despite the difficult and painful circumstances, he calmly and methodically got to the bottom of what had happened.”
Thompson added: “I couldn’t feel more disheartened by the loss of James Bennet, who is such an original and creative editor. So where we ended up is incredibly sad. Nonetheless I think the process A.G. went through is hard to fault. It led to painful consequences but was clear-cut. That to me is what a publisher has to do.”