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The New York Times opinion desk has a neoconservative problem

When The New York Times published an incendiary op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton calling for the U.S. military to crush Black Lives Matter protests, the paper did more than spark an internal staff revolt. 

The Times’ decision to publish Cotton also highlights a neoconservative media network’s  pipeline into America’s paper of record — and how figures from that network have embroiled the Times in controversy after controversy.

The Cotton article —brimming with bloodlust for black people and their allies, and riddled with factual inaccuracies — was edited by Adam Rubenstein, a young editor who joined the Times’ opinion section last year.

According to the New York Times’ own reporting on the matter, as part of the editing process Rubenstein asked for photographs of federal troops enforcing desegregation orders in Mississippi in 1962 to illustrate Cotton’s comparison between anti-segregation federal troops and what he wanted the military to do now. Times photo editor Jeffrey Henson Scales criticized the use of the photos as a “false equivalence.” While it’s unclear what Rubenstein thought of Scales’ criticism, the photos were ultimately published in the Cotton article.

Before joining the news industry, Rubenstein participated in discussions on the Iraq War and Jewish thought and politics at the Hertog Foundation — the foundation of neoconservative funder Roger Hertog — and the Tikvah Fund, which has seeded an array of right-wing publications devoted to defending Israel and neoconservative thought.

Rubenstein began his media career in May 2017 as a Robert Bartley Fellow for the Wall Street Journal, a paper that has become a training ground for neoconservatives who go on to the Times. The fellowship is for beginner journalists at the Rupert Murdoch-owned conservative paper.

After his stint at the Journal, Rubenstein became an assistant opinion editor at The Weekly Standard, the magazine founded by Bill Kristol, a key neoconservative force behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq, now better known for being one of the most prominent Never Trump elites. (The Weekly Standard has since closed down.) While at The Weekly Standard, Rubenstein won plaudits for dogged reporting critical of Steve King, the racist Republican representative who just lost his hard-fought GOP primary in Iowa.

The Weekly Standard, though, is known for far more than its reporting on King. It’s a magazine that provided the intellectual firepower for the invasion of Iraq and had long pushed for regime change in Iran.

Cotton himself was part of the force that invaded Iraq in 2003, and he became famous in conservative circles when in 2006 as an active duty officer stationed in Iraq, he penned a letter to the Times attacking it for publishing a story on a classified Bush administration program that purported to trace terrorist finances.

Soon after, Kristol took him under his wing and the Standard promoted Cotton’s career as he rose through the conservative ranks from becoming a congressman to later winning election as a U.S. senator. Now, Cotton is widely seen as a potential heir to Donald Trump (Kristol pushed for Cotton to run for president in 2016).

Rubenstein joined the Times in July 2019. But his ascent from neoconservative institutions straight to America’s most valuable opinion pages was not unique.

It’s a path that was followed by two of his most controversial colleagues at the Times opinion page: Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss. Both of them, too, were at the Wall Street Journal before joining the New York Times, where they have since pushed a militarist and right-wing agenda.

Both Weiss and Stephens have been enveloped in their own controversies in recent years. Weiss — who has gone after critics of Israeli government policies — has used the New York Times to smear organizers of the the Women’s March and to boost the so-called “intellectual dark web,” the term given to right-wing adjacent figures who take umbrage at being asked to respect transgender people and Muslims. After Cotton’s op-ed was published this week, Weiss defended the decision in a Twitter thread that was panned as misleading and inaccurate.

Stephens has used his platform to continue to call for military action against Iran and extol the virtues of “Jewish genius.” But his biggest blow-up came when he e-mailed a George Washington University provost to complain about a tweet written by a GW professor that had compared Stephens to a “bed bug.” Stephens, who quit Twitter after being subjected to thousands of mocking messages on the platform, then wrote an article obliquely comparing the professor’s’ joke to Nazi rhetoric.

Now The New York Times finds itself in yet another controversy provoked by its dalliance with the neoconservative right, with more than 160 staffers planning to participate in a virtual walkout over the publication of Cotton’s piece. Moreover, the paper’s senior staff claim publication of Cotton’s article was rushed and did not go through the normal editorial process. It’s enough controversy to question the wisdom of tapping into the neoconservative media pipeline to staff its opinion pages.

This article was updated for clarity.