“Country Braces for a 9th Straight Night of Unrest,” went the headline at the top of the New York Times home page Wednesday evening. Lower down, on the right-hand side, the usual spot for opinion articles, was the headline for an essay by a United States senator that had stirred opposition outside and inside the paper: “Send In the Troops.”
The Op-Ed, written by Tom Cotton, a Republican of Arkansas, argued for the federal government to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would enable it to call up the military to put down protests in cities across the country.
“One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” Mr. Cotton wrote.
The Times has reported on the debate within the administration over whether or not to follow this course of action.
In the essay, Mr. Cotton also described instances of looting in New York City as “carnivals for the thrill-seeking rich as well as other criminal elements” and warned that the antifascism movement “antifa” had infiltrated the marches. (On Monday, a Times article described the theory that antifa was responsible for the riots and looting as “the biggest piece of protest misinformation tracked by Zignal Labs,” a media insights company.)
It is not unusual for right-leaning opinion articles in The Times to attract criticism. This time, the outcry from readers, Times staff members and alumni of the paper was strong enough to draw an online defense of the essay’s publication from James Bennet, the editorial page editor.
“Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy,” Mr. Bennet wrote in a thread on Twitter. “We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton’s argument painful, even dangerous. We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate.”
Mr. Bennet was the editor in chief of The Atlantic before he became the head of the opinion department in 2016. The opinion section is run separately from the news side. Mr. Bennet reports to the publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, as does the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, who is in charge of news coverage. The distinction between opinion pieces and news articles is sometimes lost on readers, who may see an Op-Ed — promoted on the same home page — as just another Times article.
When asked for comment, a spokeswoman for The Times referred to Mr. Bennet’s Twitter thread.
The Times published Mr. Cotton’s essay on a day when the country was gripped by civil unrest prompted by the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.
Dozens of Times staff members responded to the Op-Ed on Twitter by tweeting the sentence (or variations on it): “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.” Discussion of the Op-Ed on social media had included the newspaper’s social media policy, which instructs newsroom employees not to post partisan comments and to be “especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that The Times is seeking to cover objectively.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine who won the Pulitzer Prize in commentary last month, tweeted, “As a black woman, as a journalist, as an American, I am deeply ashamed that we ran this.”
The NewsGuild of New York, the union that represents many Times journalists, said in a statement on Wednesday that the Op-Ed “promotes hate.” “This is a particularly vulnerable moment in American history,” the statement said. “Cotton’s Op-Ed pours gasoline on the fire. Media organizations have a responsibility to hold power to account, not amplify voices of power without context and caution.”
Several members of the Times opinion staff, whom the paper allows more leeway on social media, also weighed in. Charlie Warzel, an opinion writer, tweeted, “i disagree with every word in that Tom Cotton op-ed and it does not reflect my values.”
Three Times journalists, who declined to be identified by name, said they had informed their editors that sources told them they would no longer provide them with information because of the Op-Ed.
Roxane Gay, an opinion contributor who is also an advice columnist for the Business section, tweeted her opposition, saying that while she supported the publishing of a range of opinions, the Op-Ed “was inflammatory and endorsing military occupation as if the constitution doesn’t exist.”
Kara Brown, a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, tweeted that she had turned down an assignment from The Times because of the Op-Ed. In an interview, she said the assignment would have been to profile the rapper Noname for the Styles section.
In his tweets on Wednesday, Mr. Bennet noted that the opinion department had published several essays in support of the protests.
Edmund Lee contributed reporting.