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A woke struggle session at the New York Times

Adam Rubenstein has exposed the mindless intolerance that now governs the liberal newsroom.

Jenny Holland

Topics Identity Politics USA

It has been nearly four years since the publication of that opinion essay in New York Times by Republican senator Tom Cotton. And still the row rumbles on.

Cotton’s essay was published at the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. It urged the federal government to call in troops to crack down on the widespread violence, looting and killing that had broken out in cities across America in the weeks after George Floyd died at the hands of police.

The backlash from within the New York Times was so fierce that it led to the resignations of two editors who had worked with Cotton’s staff and overseen the essay’s publication. Within days of publication, editorial page editor James Bennet was forced out. Adam Rubenstein, who subedited the essay, initially soldiered on for a few months. In the meantime, he was outed as the subeditor in the Times’s own coverage of the drama, despite his junior role, and was attacked by colleagues on the paper’s internal Slack channels.

Back in December last year, James Bennet wrote a lengthy account of his experience for The Economist. This week, Rubenstein published his own version of events in the Atlantic. It makes for grim reading.

Rubenstein makes some eyebrow-raising claims. His article is a damning indictment not just of the New York Times itself, but also of the wider culture in liberal-elite circles that is now totally intolerant of differing viewpoints. For instance, after the Cotton uproar, an internal Slack channel called ‘op-sensitivity’ was created ‘in which editors were encouraged to raise concerns about one another’s stories’. He also recalls how a ‘friend’ contacted his girlfriend, asking her to repudiate him. These are not the normal interactions of a healthy society – they are 21st-century struggle sessions.

Like Bennet before him, Rubenstein claims that the paper’s top brass had initially supported the editorial team, before caving to pressure from woke colleagues. Apparently, the Cotton piece made black New York Times staff feel unsafe. Like Bennet, Rubenstein points to the irony of the Times publishing multiple opinion pieces written by actual dictators and defenders of murderous regimes, without any outcry from staff – much less resignations.

Unlike Bennet, who has worked in journalism since the early 1990s, Rubenstein has never experienced an un-woke New York Times newsroom. He includes a hilarious anecdote about the orientation session he attended when he was first hired by the Times. When asked, as an icebreaker, what his favourite sandwich was, he mistakenly thought that answering ‘the spicy chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A’ would make him seem relatable to his new colleagues. Instead, all hell broke loose.

Unfortunately, Rubenstein had not taken into account the prior uproar in liberal American circles over the owner of Chick-fil-A’s stance on gay marriage. Rubenstein writes: ‘The HR representative leading the orientation chided me: “We don’t do that here. They hate gay people.”’ And then, the rest of the new hires snapped their fingers at him in agreement. ‘Not the politics, the chicken’, Rubenstein feebly attempted to explain. ‘But it was too late. I sat down, ashamed.’

Personally, I think ‘not the politics, the chicken’, should be made into some kind of self-help mantra for recovering liberals.

On a more serious note, the reaction of many ‘progressive’ journalists to this amusing story has actually been quite telling. ‘Never happened!’, they have cried all over social media these past few days. As if finger-snapping disapproval over a chicken sandwich were really so unthinkable in an uber-woke workplace.

Of course, this anecdote was not really the main point of Rubenstein’s story. Missing the forest for the trees is a feature, not a bug, of the liberal-elite mindset. Incredibly, many liberals still refuse to acknowledge that a woke cultural revolution has even taken place at all. They have branded Rubenstein a liar and a right-wing hack simply for recounting his first-hand experience of this.

Unfortunately, this kind of reaction has not been confined to younger generations of journalists. I have seen multiple comments from older media types – some of whom I knew personally from my three years working at the Times in the late 1990s – that have been just as contemptuous and dismissive of Rubenstein’s plight as any Trump-deranged Gen Zer has been.

I would also bet my house that those damning him for working on Cotton’s piece will have themselves supported a harsh government crackdown on, say, anti-mask protests or the ‘January 6’ riot. Not all protesters and rioters are created alike in the eyes of liberal journalists.

To be clear, disagreement on what should have been the core issue in Cotton’s essay – when, if ever, it is acceptable to deploy soldiers on home ground – is necessary and valid. Even in the context of unprecedented levels of rioting, this is still a politically and morally complex question. But that is all the more reason why both sides of the argument should be heard. Instead, we have a large group of influential journalists whose worldview is so fragile that they cannot allow these discussions to take place at all. Public debate on matters of huge importance is dangerously constrained as a result.

Rubenstein’s experience illustrates how it is impossible to have a reasonable dialogue with those who are ideologically committed to seeing you in the worst possible light. Unfortunately, the modern newsroom is now overwhelmed with such people. This is a disaster for journalism.

Jenny Holland is a former newspaper reporter and speechwriter. Visit her Substack here.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics USA

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