New York Times Group Erupts Over Charge Editorial Was Softened At Governor’s Behest

Editorial page editor calls the anonymous accusation on an alumni Facebook page “a complete lie.”
The New York Times staff has been in turmoil since a recent round of buyouts and other changes.
The New York Times staff has been in turmoil since a recent round of buyouts and other changes.

New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet shot down an anonymous claim circulating among current and former colleagues that he softened an editorial at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s behest and then pushed out the writer of the piece after the writer complained.

“It’s a complete lie,” Bennet said in a statement Wednesday to HuffPost.

The anonymous accusation has been hotly debated this week among Times veterans, along with the decision to publish the charge on an alumni Facebook page, which, while technically private, has more than 2,400 members. The group is primarily for alumni but also includes current staffers such as Bennet, who rejoined the Times last year as editorial page editor.

On Monday night, former Times reporter Matthew Wald published the account from a “well-informed newsroom colleague” who alleged that Bennet forced out Lawrence Downes, a member of the editorial board since 2004, after he “took exception to changes Bennet made” in a May editorial Downes had written about renovations to Penn Station.

“These changes, Downes believed, were made after the editorial had gone through the normal editing cycle” and appeared ready for publication, according to the post, which was obtained by HuffPost.

The anonymous writer charged that Cuomo, who has a reputation for responding aggressively to editors, contacted Bennet about the editorial before its publication.

“All the excised material was critical of the governor,” the post read. “Downes saw the revised editorial only after it had been published. He wrote an angry email to Bennet, who responded by suspending him immediately. When Downes returned to work a few weeks later, Bennet told him he was out.”

Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha said by email Wednesday night, “It’s simply untrue that the editorial was softened in response to pressure by the Governor.”

The Times just completed a round of buyouts, which has led to the departures this past week of high-profile journalists including James Risen and Michiko Kakutani. Poynter’s list Friday of who took buyout packages includes Downes but reports he accepted the package in May.

Downes declined to comment when reached by HuffPost.

It’s unclear what, if any, pre-publication edits were made to the piece. But the published version, “Let Penn Station Breathe,” placed the primary responsibility to fix the train station on Cuomo and included criticism of the governor’s efforts.

The editorial, which like most at the Times are unsigned, suggested that Cuomo’s plan to fix Penn Station fell short of “radical intervention” and urged the governor to do better. “Instead of defending his plan, Mr. Cuomo would be better off fixing it,” it read.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a news conference at Penn Station on Sept. 19, 2016. Changes in an editorial about
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a news conference at Penn Station on Sept. 19, 2016. Changes in an editorial about the governor's responsibility for the station is at the center of a debate between current and former New York Times staffers. 

Downes, who is not a member of the Facebook alumni group, saw a copy of the post and requested that it be taken down. But Wald, who updated the post with Downes’ request to remove it, did not comply as of Wednesday night.

Wald could not be reached for comment.

Downes’ abrupt departure in May added to uncertainty inside the Times about the future of the editorial board, according to staffers who asked to remain anonymous because they are unauthorized to speak publicly.

While Times management is putting additional resources into the paper’s opinion section, including beefing up video and graphics, the ranks of the editorial page staff have dwindled in recent months, with several departures among the latest wave of buyouts. The opinion and editorial staffs are also in the process of moving from the Times building’s 13th Floor ― where they were separate from the newsroom ― to closer quarters on the 5th Floor.

The author of the Facebook post described the ranks of editorial staff as “depleted” and suggested deputy editorial page editor Terry Tang, who left the paper in May, was also pushed out. The Times recently announced that Kathleen Kingsbury, the Boston Globe’s managing editor for digital, will join the paper in August as deputy editorial page editor.

Dozens of Times alumni commented on Monday’s post, several of whom praised Downes ― who joined the paper in 1993 ― as a skilled editor and beloved colleague. Some expressed concerns about Bennet’s stewardship if the accusations were true that he softened the piece in response to the governor’s objections, which would also mean he discussed it with the governor before publication. And the decision to publish triggered a broader ethics debate given Wald’s decision to run the anonymous accusation without first approaching the parties involved.

Randall Rothenberg, a business executive and former Times reporter, commented on the Facebook page that the post made him “very uncomfortable.”

“It’s second-hand hearsay, with lots of serious charges of heavy moral weight, without a request for a response from the accused parties,” he wrote. “Yeah, okay, this is a Facebook group, not the newspaper of record. But it’s also kinda like a small town paper in a way…. Doesn’t seem right.”

In a reply on Facebook, Wald defended publication and suggested that a Times staffer might only be able to question the decisions of a high-ranking editor like Bennet if provided anonymity. He also wrote that buyouts have “changed the atmosphere of the newsroom” and that staffers may now be more reluctant to challenge editorial decisions out of fear they could be urged to leave in the next round.

Former Times Executive Editor Max Frankel suggested to the group not to post “anything anonymously.”

“Do not post anything ‘off the record’ or ‘confidentially,’” Frankel wrote. “An audience of 2400 is never ‘private.’ Do not reflect on the performance of Times colleagues, past and present, without requesting their direct comment.”

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