FILE - This June 22, 2019 file photo shows the exterior of the New York Times building in New York. Some staff members at The New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer called in sick to protest editorial decisions they found insensitive about protests over George Floyd's death. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Headlines, op-ed prompt staff protests at NY Times, Inquirer

June 04, 2020 - 6:46 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — Some staffers at The New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer called in sick Thursday to protest decisions at each newspaper they believe were insensitive in the midst of nationwide protests about police mistreatment of black Americans.

At the Times, an opinion column by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton supporting use of the military to quell demonstrations prompted a rare public rebuke from dozens of staffers and the paper’s guild. Times management didn’t back down from the decision to publish it.

The Inquirer apologized for a “horribly wrong” decision to use the headline “Buildings Matter, Too” on an article.

The twin uprisings illustrated raw feelings unleashed by the video of George Floyd dying last week after a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee against his neck, along with long-time concerns about whether newspaper staffs reflect the makeup of their communities.

In his column, headlined “Send in the Troops,” Cotton condemned “nihilist criminals” out for loot and the thrill of destruction and “left-wing radicals” who want to exploit Floyd's death to create anarchy. The Arkansas Republican, supporting President Donald Trump, said it was time to supplement local law enforcement with federal troops.

Several Times journalists responded on social media by saying the article puts black staff members in danger.

“As a black woman, as a journalist, I am deeply ashamed that we ran this,” tweeted Nikole Hannah-Jones, who last month won a Pulitzer Prize for her magazine piece, “The 1619 Project,” about black Americans since the first arrival of slaves.

Opinion writer Charles Warzel said he objected to providing a platform for views that could justify escalated action against peaceful protesters.

James Bennett, the newspaper's editorial page editor, said Thursday that he personally disagreed with Cotton and believed troops could lead to innocent people being hurt. The Times' opinion page had published several pieces with that view, he said.

“Readers who might be inclined to oppose Cotton's positions need to be fully aware of it, and reckon with it, if they were to defeat it,” Bennett wrote in an essay. “To me, debating influential ideas openly, rather than letting them go unchallenged, is far more likely to help society reach the right answers.”

Still, he said, “I know that my own view might be wrong.”

Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger said in an email to staff that he generally believes in the principle of being open to a range of opinions, but he wants to listen to what staff members have to say.

One newsroom employee at the Times, Nozlee Samadzadeh, tweeted that she was one of more than a dozen employees calling in sick Thursday to protest the column.

Cotton told Fox News Channel that the protest exposed the hypocrisy of liberals who “go into meltdown” when exposed to views they disagree with. He commended the newspaper for publishing his piece.

Days earlier, the Times was criticized for a bland early edition headline on a story about peaceful demonstrators being forced away from the White House for a Trump photo-op. The original headline, “As Chaos Spreads, Trump Vows to ‘End it All’" was later changed to ”Trump Threatens to Send Troops into States."

The Inquirer headline was over a piece by architecture critic Inga Saffron, who worried that buildings damaged in violence over the past week could “leave a gaping hole in the heart of Philadelphia.”

After the initial headline, considered diminishing to the Black Lives Matter movement, the Inquirer whiffed on an online replacement, writing “Black Lives Matter. Do Buildings?”

Eventually, the newspaper settled on “Damaging buildings disproportionately hurt the people protesters are trying to uplift.”

Features reporter Brandon Bell wrote on Twitter that he was calling in “sick and tired” to work on Thursday. Some 30 members, out of a staff of about 210, skipped work for the same reason, a spokesman said.

Bell was among those who distributed an open letter of protest, saying African American journalists were tired of careless mistakes that make it harder to do their jobs and, at worst, put lives at risk.

“We're tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age,” the letter read. “We're tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.”

The Inquirer published an apology from top editors. Publisher and CEO Lisa Hughes said in a memo to staff that no one would be charged a sick day for taking Thursday off.

“This headline was offensive and inappropriate; we should not have printed it, and it highlights a systemic failure that we have to address,” she wrote in the memo, adding that The Inquirer needs a more diverse staff.

Richard Prince, a former staff member at the Washington Post who writes “Journal-isms,” an online column about diversity issues, said the online uprising illustrates both newspapers need to do a better job listening to and acting on the concerns of black staff members.

“It’s no coincidence that the complaints about marginalization that the reporters are covering are similar to those they are voicing in their own newsrooms, even though journalists of color hold high management positions in both places,” Prince said. “I understand that so many newspapers are in survival mode, but part of the solution is true diversity and inclusion.”

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Business Writer Tali Arbel in New York contributed to this report.

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