James Bennet and the rewriting of 2020
Sometimes, history changes unexpectedly toward the good. And then, powerful people with something to lose try to change it back.
Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple contributed to the latter yesterday when he published a column titled “James Bennet was right.” The piece was an apologia for Bennet’s actions in the summer of 2020, when, as editor of the New York Times’ opinion section, he 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. Bennet was forced to resign.
Wemple’s column, in turn, was prompted by comments Bennet made in former Times media columnist Ben Smith’s new $25 million media venture Semafor. The former Times editor (who more than landed on his feet with a regular column in the Economist), told his former colleague that the Times “set me on fire and threw me in the garbage” in order to curry the “applause and the welcome of the left.”
That might sound like the angst of a guy who’s still disgruntled at losing his job. And it is, for a compelling reason: Bennet is right … His outburst in Semafor furnishes a toehold for reassessing one of the most consequential journalism fights in decades … [It is] long past time to ask why more people who claim to uphold journalism and free expression — including, um, the Erik Wemple Blog — didn’t speak out then in Bennet’s defense.
It’s because we were afraid to.
He is right that Bennet’s firing was one of the most consequential set-pieces in the summer that, for better or for worse, changed the world. Its effects still being felt from national politics to Elon Musk’s impending takeover of Twitter to Vladimir Putin’s self-justifications for the war in Ukraine. (More about all of that shortly.) But Wemple is tellingly wrong, almost to the point of mendacity, about what actually happened.
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Let’s go back to June 1, 2020. As you no doubt remember, it was the start of a brutally hot summer, the first of the coronavirus pandemic. The video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin squeezing the life out of George Floyd had begun spreading around the world exactly one week before. Though there had been plenty of images of police killing unarmed Black men in the years prior, this one struck a particularly deep chord — particularly in Black communities that were being ravaged by the pandemic — and suddenly a shockingly larger protest wave broke out across the country.
This was different from previous protests against police brutality for two major reasons. The first was its sheer size. By mid-June, as many as 26 million Americans — a figure equivalent to 12% of the adult population of the United States — had taken part in a Black Lives Matter protest. It was by far the largest protest movement in U.S. history, despite violent and widespread police crackdowns against protesters and journalists, and the usual early media focus on looting and property damage.
The other, directly related, difference was the overwhelming and cross-cutting popularity of the protests. Specifically, for the first time in American history, a large proportion of white Americans were not only sympathetic to Black demands for civil justice but actively took part in the marches themselves. There were many reasons for this, including the visceral horror of the Floyd video and fact that white liberals had become more comfortable with protest and direct action over the previous three years of the Trump presidency. But suffice it to say, for the first time anyone living could remember, a major, cross-class and cross-racial portion of the U.S. mainstream was talking seriously about major societal change with regard to policing, incarceration, and structural racism in general.
Police, unaccustomed to being challenged at that scale, reacted with systematic violence. Officers drove SUVs into crowds of protesters; dragged, kicked, and Tased unarmed civilians, and carried out indiscriminate arrests. Some police worked hand-in-glove with white supremacists and other white vigilantes in an attempt to intimidate the protests into submission. On June 1, National Guardsmen in Louisville, Ky., shot and killed 53-year-old David McAtee, a Black restaurant owner who fired warning shots after police fired a volley of pepper balls into his store, which a Times investigation found “may not have been distinguishable at the time from other ammunition.”
Journalists, perhaps because of such investigative work, were directly targeted. The Guardian listed just a few that same week:
Linda Tirado, a photojournalist, was shot with a “less-lethal” round while covering protests in Minneapolis on Saturday, permanently losing vision in her left eye.
Michael Adams, a Vice News correspondent, lay down when ordered to do so by police, holding a press pass above his head. He was still pepper sprayed in the face.
Kaitlin Rust was broadcasting on WAVE3 News in Kentucky when an officer appear to take aim before hitting her with pepper balls. “I’m getting shot,” she shouted live on air. Police later apologised.
The American right meanwhile lost its mind. Everything conservatives had worked for since the end of the capital-c Civil Rights Movement — the end of Affirmative Action, the policing of minority neighborhoods, the abrogation of the Voting Rights Act (and the attendant electoral benefits of voter suppression for the Republican Party) — was suddenly in doubt. Even worse, the old playbook — focus on property damage and incidents of violence, send out the police to crack skulls, call all the protesters rioters and anarchists — wasn’t working. Clearly, something more needed to be done.
As Wemple notes, on June 1, 2020, Tom Cotton used his personal Twitter account to call for, as Wemple put it: “military intervention against unrest in U.S. cities.” Specifically, the senator called for the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to be deployed against “these Antifa terrorists” with “zero tolerance.”
Wemple, perhaps intentionally, omits what happened next. Facing criticism and (accurate) accusations that he was calling for the violent state suppression of free speech and pouring fuel on an already raging fire, the junior senator from Arkansas doubled down:
“No quarter” is a military term, as Cotton — who never tires of reminding people that he was an Army lieutenant — obviously knows. It means no survivors or prisoners allowed; everyone must be killed. It is, as you’d imagine, a war crime. Here it is in the 2007 U.S. Manual for Military Commissions, Part IV, Crimes and Elements:
a. Text. “Any person subject to this chapter who, with effective command or control over subordinate groups, declares, orders, or otherwise indicates to those groups that there shall be no survivors or surrender accepted, with the intent to threaten an adversary or to conduct hostilities such that there would be no survivors or surrender accepted, shall be punished as a military commission under this chapter may direct.”
And this was not just a theoretical issue. Again, police were brutally attacking protesters in the streets. President Trump, then the commander in chief of the U.S. military, had just that day militarized the federal response to a protest in D.C. and, in what would become an infamous move, oversaw the firing of tear gas to clear demonstrators from the park next to the White House. The D.C. National Guard used UH-72 Lakota helicopters, at least one hovering just 55 feet off the ground, to “frighten and scatter protesters” with propeller wash — a tactic sometimes used in combat to disperse a perceived enemy. If Senator Cotton’s “no quarter” proposal had been taken seriously, it would have amounted to the opening of a civil war.
So, of course, James Bennet gave him an op-ed.
Cotton’s op-ed, which ran June 3, was dishonest in a variety of ways. First, in what it says: In calling for “overwhelming show of force,” the senator describes the largest civil-rights protests in U.S. history as “an orgy of violence” — a spectacle in which “nihilist criminals” who are “simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction” and “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” were “infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.”
That is incoherent as written; nihilists and political radicals are definitionally opposites. But it was also an extremely poor read of what was going on. In fact, it was right-wing radicals who infiltrated the protests, such as the white supremacist who helped spark the riots in Minneapolis by smashing the windows of an AutoZone. Cotton also crucially papered over the wanton violence being committed by police across the United States — and the National Guard, whose helicopter maneuvers had occurred two nights before — as he called for more military force to be brought to bear in the streets.
More damning from an editorial standpoint, Bennet’s opinion page allowed Cotton to launder his statements from two days before: not dealing at all with his open demand that protesters be given “no quarter,” and simultaneously pretending that ordering the U.S. military into American streets would not amount to a form of “martial law.” He did that by pointing to past instances of the domestic use of the military, most notably the use of federal troops to ensure the racial desegregation of schools, including in Cotton’s home state of Arkansas. A competent editor would have pushed back on this line of argument — pointing out, rather than calling for troops to be dispatched to a single high school in Little Rock, Cotton was calling for the mobilization of troops into essentially every American city. (Not to mention the disingenuousness of employing past examples of federal troops being used sparingly in the long, slow dismantling of Jim Crow as a pretense to quickly stamp out civil-rights protests.)
Further, Cotton and his editors at the Times seem to have recognized that their audience would be predisposed to support the protesters. Thus, they allowed him to smuggle in claims that “a majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants” and that “the rioting has nothing to do with George Floyd.” No attempt was made, by Cotton or his editors, to drill down to the inherent contradiction in that argument: If “nihilist criminals” and “cadres of left-wing radicals” were mixed in with the “peaceful protesters,” how could the military be trusted to differentiate between the two? Wouldn’t the spectacle of U.S. soldiers gunning down people in American cities deter not only looting but anyone going outside their house at all?
Cotton’s “overwhelming show of force” was, he claimed, “to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.” But which laws? The police fired pepper balls directly at the people standing in front of McAtee’s restaurant in Louisville, causing the fatal confrontation, because they were violating a curfew law. Some journalists targeted by police were caught in the confusion of an “unlawful assembly order.” Was the senator demanding “no quarter” for them too?
Times staffers were asking those questions. As Wemple notes, numerous reporters, many of them Black, asserted that Bennet had put them in even greater danger than they already were by running a call for an already violent response to become even more violent. Wemple mocks these objections in his column, putting “danger” in scare quotes and calling it “manipulative hyperbole,” and interpreting their refusal to give an on-the-record answer an irrelevant question as a lack of “conviction behind a central argument in l’affaire Cotton.” (Wemple asked the staffers whether Bennet’s experience covering violence in Gaza twenty years ago somehow exempted him from the criticism. I’d have ignored it too.)
So why didn’t Bennet ask those questions? It wasn’t just that he didn’t think of them. What emerged between the publication of Cotton’s op-ed and Bennet’s forced resignation was a crucial fact that Wemple simply brushes past. As the Post reported at the time: Bennet admitted he had not even read Cotton’s piece before it was published.
That’s right. The editor of the Times opinion section, ahead of the publication of an incendiary op-ed — written by an official who, for all he knew, was about to use his section to call for the U.S. military to give “no quarter” to millions of people, including his own colleagues — did not even bother to read it. And it isn’t like this was some dense, 30,000-word opus; the op-ed was just over 800 words long. It didn’t even interest Bennet to know what it said?
Worse, Wemple knows this was the case, because he makes a passing mention of it in his column. (“Although Bennet said he hadn’t read the piece ….”) Wemple also acknowledges that “the op-ed was one of several storms under Bennet’s management,” including a June 2017 “editorial that triggered a defamation lawsuit from Sarah Palin, an antisemitic cartoon and personnel fiascoes.” Bennet also faced allegations of an abusive management style, especially regarding women, at his previous job as editor of The Atlantic. That is the picture of someone who should not have one of the most powerful and influential jobs in America media.
So why is Wemple dragging out a carefully conscribed, misleading defense of an editor who rightly lost his job two years ago and promptly landed another? It’s because, as I noted earlier, “l’affaire Cotton” (and l’affaire Bennet) have achieved an almost mythological status among those who need to rewrite the story of the 2020 civil rights protests — a protest movement that threatened, for a moment, to address deep injustices of the U.S. system — into something else.
The quest for that “something else” now dominates discourse in America and beyond. Desperate to undo the social movement that threatened their place atop the social hierarchy, the right and its handmaidens in the squeamish center have fought obsessively to recast the protest summer as the aborted dawn of a new, terrifying tyranny — of “cancel culture,” anti-racism, and the most feared of them all, “wokism” — in which revolutionary mobs working with the Hollywood elite and the mandarins of the Democratic Party (don’t think too hard about it) will … well, do something bad.
In this fantasy, it is Tom Cotton and the defenders of the existing hierarchy who are the resisters, the “heterodox” truth-tellers whose free speech rights have been mercilessly trampled upon. This fiction did more than launch the most profitable Substacks. It has been used as a justification for the Jan. 6, 2021 storming of the Capitol and for the apartheid-raised tech billionaire Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. And there are others invested as well: Just as Wemple was publishing his column, Vladimir Putin — a man who has never met a critic he did not want to be poisoned to death — used it in his speech to a Russian foreign policy club as a post hoc justification for his invasion of Ukraine, claiming that he is fighting against a Western Nazi “cancel culture” that “does not allow free thought to develop.”
That is why James Bennet must have been right. It’s too hard for someone like Erik Wemple to imagine the world any other way.
Edited by Tommy Craggs