Bad headline, small changes at the New York Times

Anxiety over the core audience's rising influence helps explain events after 'Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.'

15 Aug 2019 6:20 pm 66 Comments

Knowing the characters involved — columnist Joan Walsh and the New York Times — this announcement last week caught my eye:


Separating from the Times was not a decision she took lightly, Walsh said. “I’ve put this off for almost 3 years. They are blowing their coverage of this crisis. I’m out.”

I’m still in. I consider myself a Times loyalist. My loyalty is expressed through criticism and watchfulness, and by paying for a digital (plus print on weekends) subscription. I have no stake in the company, but in the institution of the Times, especially the ongoing journalism of it, I do feel a kind of stake, a public one. It’s not clear to me how I am supposed to protect it. So I write.

What do you do?

At this site ten months ago, I tried to explain why there was such tension between Times journalists and many of their core readers— like say, people who follow Joan Walsh! (Absorb that earlier post before this one if you really want my sense of the situation.)

The core readers have more power now. They are a bigger part of the mix. How that power should be recognized, when it might be used, how to listen carefully to it without listening too much… no one really knows yet. The digital audience itself, the Times own interconnected public, does not know its own power.

But how to achieve independence from the newest corrupting influence — the most attached part of the audience — is already a live concern among Times editors. These events lie in the background of Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism, which is not just a hastily abandoned headline but the name of a public episode now.

The readers have more power:

They have more power because they have more choices. And because the internet, where most of the reading happens, is inherently two-way. Also because Times journalists are now exposed to opinion and reaction on social media. And especially because readers are paying more of the costs. Their direct payments are keeping the Times afloat. This will be increasingly so in the future, as the advertising business gets absorbed by the tech industry. The Times depends on its readers’ support more than it ever has.

1.) Depends on readers’ support more than it ever has. 2.) Got rid of the public editor. That’s an example of the kind of disconnect that has created tension.

Meanwhile, pressures on the news system because an authoritarian got into office are exposing to public view parts of the Times that have never been strong. For example, filtering out the more lurid and unfounded criticisms to hear what concerned people are trying to tell you. The Times is not great at that.

The Times is not great at learning from past mistakes when the fuller dimensions of that mistake come into view. Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia. Or at reframing the way they approach Trump’s racism, away from a long string of deplorable incidents to a structural, load-bearing and thus central feature of his campaign and presidency.

Steven Greenhouse is a former reporter for the New York Times:

Maybe that “decades-old journalistic reflex” no longer applies. Maybe this is the kind of updated thinking people outside the Times are pushing for. James Fallows of the Atlantic said it on Twitter today:

the NYT is overall by far the most ambitious and “best” US news organization. But its framing of US national politics, “what about the emails!” onward, [is] really not at the standard of rest of the organization, or what the country needs.

The people outside the Times trying to tell the Times this are for the most part liberal and cosmopolitan, part of the core readership. They are appalled by Trump and want to see his dark sides further exposed. They want the Times to be tougher on his supporters and more relentless in calling out his lying, his racism, his misogyny, his xenophobia. They want Times journalists to see what they see — an assault on democratic institutions — and to act accordingly. And they want a reckoning with the coverage of Hillary Clinton in 2016 because they know that somehow this is in the way of all other things.

They are not wrong to want these from the New York Times. Each point can be acted upon within the rules of hard-hitting investigative journalism and a traditional check-on-power stance, adapted to the urgency of the hour. The reckoning with 2016 is something any good institution would do to learn and progress after a major failure. But the Times seems unable to get to that place.

In October, 2018 I made an easy prediction.

In so many ways since the election, the Times has risen to the occasion and excelled. But it has a problem with its core supporters. Until it is put right, there will be blow-ups, resentments and a lot of misunderstanding.

The mixture I described came to a boil this week and last. Not a boil over. Just a boil. But contained movement is still movement. I will try to isolate for you some of the small changes.

It started on August 5th. Public reaction to a majestically bad headline, Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism, was so strong that executive editor Dean Baquet had to do multiple interviews to explain what happened and limit the damage. These pieces are still coming in.

On Monday, August 12, Baquet called a staff meeting at the Times to air complaints. According to reports in the Daily Beast and Vanity Fair, journalists of color and younger generations of Times journalists often led the questioning. Inconsistency and lack of logic in calling things racist were said to be some of the items on the table. Though quickly corrected, the bad headline remained a flashpoint inside the paper and out.

One of the editors on Baquet’s team explained it this way:

“I think this is a really difficult story to cover, the story of Donald Trump and race and his character. We’re in a bit of uncharted territory. There is definitely some friction over, how does the paper position itself?

A Times newsroom in uncharted territory. Uncertainty over where to stand in the triangle formed by Trump, race and American politics. These were not the confident tones the editors had been striking before Monday’s meeting, or before the wildly discordant headline. Small change.

That nameless Times editor (there are lots of them in this episode) asks a good question: how does the paper position itself toward the Trump movement, which incorporates the New York Times as a hate object and tries to disqualify Times journalism in the minds of Trump supporters before they have read it, even though Donald Trump lives and dies by what the New York Times says about him?

What kind of public actor can readers, supporters and subscribers realistically expect the Times to be? And what kind of actions — what range of proper motion — can its own journalists expect from the institution they have joined?

These are some of the problems that came to a boil this week. But as I said, only a mild boil.

There is still no public editor to push the discussion along. But “why did we get rid of the public editor?” is now a question on the floor at staff meetings, the Daily Beast reported. It was asked of Dean Baquet in one of his sorry-for-that-bad-headline interviews. A decision announced in June 2017 is being publicly doubted two years later. It’s like the case against it has been re-opened. Small changes.

According to Vanity Fair, an editor at the Times said this week:

Reporters on the front lines, particularly reporters of color, are really attuned to something happening in the country that is, to a lot of them, deeply scary, both personally and politically, and there’s a hunger to have a conversation about it. If this rhetoric continues, how is the Times covering it? What are the rules of engagement for a president who traffics in this stuff? How do we, as a newsroom, grapple with that?

Does it sound like they know what to do next? Not so much, right? That too is movement.

Check out this attitude among the editors, as reported by Vanity Fair. “There’s a clear feeling from the top that we’re not gonna be a part of the resistance, and how that gets translated day to day can frustrate people.” (My emphasis.)

That clear feeling came through when Dean Baquet spoke to CNN this week.

What Baquet is certain about is that The Times should not serve as a publication of the left. “Our role is not to be the leader of the resistance,” he said, adding that “one of the problems” that would come about if the paper took that role is that “inevitably the resistance in America wins.” Baquet further explained, “Inevitably the people outside power gain power again. And at that point, what are you? You’re just a chump of the people who won. Our role is to hold everybody who has power to account.”

As a Times loyalist, I kind of resent the implication: Come join our resistance, New York Times! As if that’s what we want from the journalism, to do our politics for us. We’re not gonna be part of the resistance says nothing about how to provide less assistance to Trump’s othering instincts. We’re not gonna be part of the resistance doesn’t tell you what to do if Trump breaks through all barriers and runs a specifically racist campaign from the pulpit of the presidency.

I asked earlier what kind of public actor can readers, supporters and subscribers realistically expect the Times to be? We got an answer this week. The kind of actor that still thinks it’s just an observer. But in August 2019 there is greater pressure on that piece of pressthink than there was in July. It’s not only coming from the people who read Joan Walsh and watch her on CNN. There’s a generational divide within the Times newsroom. The source for that claim is Dean Baquet:

Baquet himself acknowledged this tension inside his newsroom. He also acknowledged that it is playing out largely across generational lines. Younger staffers generally feel The Times should be more aggressive and explicit in its coverage of Trump. Older staffers generally prefer taking the more traditional approach espoused by Baquet.

“There is a generational divide in newsrooms right now,” Baquet said. But he flatly rejected the notion that The Times has not covered Trump boldly enough, saying, “My own view is that we are covering Donald Trump very aggressively.”

I close with something you are not hearing from other commentators on these bumpy days at the New York Times .

Anxiety about the core audience’s rising influence is interfering with the newsroom’s ability to listen to its environment. A segment of the most attached readership has been vocal about its dissatisfactions. That’s good; it means they care. The editors have been adamant about hearing this criticism as a call to abandon journalism and do politics instead: join the resistance.

But now there’s a new factor. Some of the same dissatisfactions are shared by a younger and more diverse generation of Times journalists, people the organization cannot succeed without. The restiveness of this cohort changes the equation some. Instead of “we do Times journalism” vs. “please do resistance politics,” which is Baquet’s way of framing the choices — and dumbing down the debate — the next generation have made it about different ways to stand toward the staggering reality of Trump’s racism.

That’s a small change for now. But it could turn out to be big.

Update: The Transcript, August 17, 2019

Shortly after I posted this piece, Ashley Feinberg of Slate published a lightly edited transcript of the staff meeting between Baquet with his top editors and the rank and file. “The New York Times Unites vs. Twitter” was the headline Slate put on it. Feinberg wrote:

The problem for the Times is not whether it can navigate social-media controversies or satisfy an appetite for #resistance-based outrage, both of which it can tell itself are not a newspaper’s job to do. It’s whether it has the tools to make sense of the world. On this point, Baquet was not reassuring or convincing.

Exactly! (My italics.) Here are some quotes from Times staffers that show what I meant above by a generational divide.

Unnamed staffer: “I am concerned that the Times is failing to rise to the challenge of a historical moment. What I have heard from top leadership is a conservative approach that I don’t think honors the Times’ powerful history of adversarial journalism.”

Unnamed staffer: “Wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know?”

Unnamed staffer: “A headline like that simply amplifies without critique the desired narrative of the most powerful figure in the country. If the Times’ mission is now to take at face value and simply repeat the claims of the powerful, that’s news to me.”

Unnamed staffer: “One of the reasons people have such a problem with a headline like this—or some things that the New York Times reports on— is because they care so much… They are depending on us to keep kicking down the doors.”

Meanwhile, David Roberts of Vox, who normally writes about climate change, put it this way in an exasperated thread reacting to this post:

What frustrates people is not that they want to see the word “racist” in the paper. What frustrates them is that the country’s core institutions are under assault by a radical ethnonationalist minority and the sense of crisis is not being conveyed.

It has always struck me that while the people at the New York Times consider it the apex of journalism, the highest the ladder of excellence goes, they have not extended that reputation for quality to the acts of listening, receiving criticism, sorting signal from noise, and changing their work. It’s like they know they can’t do it well, so they don’t even try. And being the best in the world at listening and evolving isn’t even an aspiration there. “We are not the resistance” is a crappy read on what people are trying to tell you. But this is one area where mediocrity and worse — incompetence — is tolerated at the Times. Responsibility for that has to flow to Dean Baquet. There is no other place it can pool.

66 Comments

Kathleen Pavelko says:

“Do journalism” vs “be the resistance “ excludes other important options, including accepting that it is journalistically and ethically sound to advocate for a select number of values: for a free press itself, against racism, in favor of economic and racial equality, in support of action against climate change. Each of these is consistent with (either) the constitution or facts or both.

It is true and inevitable that Trump supporters will conflate these with bias. But we’ve known this since Agnew. Long past time to stop letting them use our value of fairness against us.

Feckless says:

none of our elected leaders in the Democratic party are acting like this is a crisis or that the president’s illegitimate so why should the news?

Bytowner says:

I don’t think that Mr. Baquet quite understands the situation even now: Trump continues to insist upon seeing “doing Times journalism” as itself “being the resistance”. As far as Trump’s concerned, he’s already decreed which side the Times to be on. And he refuses to be stopped by anything, let alone the newspaper editorial leadership’s self-perception.

An independent cohort sponsored by Times subscribers to give voice? I don’t know, but seems like they need to know that we aren’t calling for them to “join the resistance” (just a little passive aggressive on their part) we are calling for a different approach: has journalism never experienced issues that forced change? That’s what I want them to address. They did a TV show, so small change, now what?

Luke Andrews says:

Call it “resistance” if you like, but if the foremost newspaper of the country isn’t interested in defending democracy and human rights, what, really, is the point of publishing it all? Is it the role of journalism to tell stories or is it to expose impactful truths that might otherwise be hidden? Mr. Baquet seems truly to believe in the existence of “both sides”, as if to criticize Trump too clearly puts one on the one and only opposing side by default. What utter nonsense.

John Troidl says:

Well said!

Robin Kelly says:

Exactly right. I was going to say the same thing myself, but you voiced it perfectly

Journalists should report what is happening that can disproportionately impact the public or that the public cares about, and which parts of the public may be impacted or which parts of the public care.

What is happening. Not what it means.

“President Uses Word Many Find Offensive,” and “President Urges Unity,” NOT “President Uses Racist Terms” and “President is a Hypocrite.”

If anything, the Times is erring too far on the activist/resistance side of things. Just tell me what happened in mechanical terms. Editorials are left for the op-ed page.

“United States Sees High Levels of Political Conflict in Public,” NOT “United States Faces Heated Crisis of Racism and White Supremacy.”

Sorry, but a journalists’s job is to tell me only what happened, without terms that are value-inflected. “Snow Falls for Eight Hours, Thermometer Reaches -4 Degrees.” Not “It’s Mind-Numbingly Cold.”

All the calls for the latter are evidence of intellectual laziness on the part of the public, or of a desire to hoodwink or paternalistically manipulate those parts of the public that are less literate and certain of themselves than elites.

This impulse to press journalists to tell the public what to think and how to evaluate things is insidious, and NOT good for our society, despite what is being claimed. Journalists are not the keepers of public values, nor should they be.

You have stated the fundamentalist position quite well. Dean Baquet is arguing what you are arguing. So congratulations. Your POV runs the joint.

But you have confused two things: accuracy and innocence. “President Urges Unity” is not more accurate. It’s not a better description of what was happening in that speech. But it is more innocent. Or innocent-sounding. Meaning safer. More bland. There is nothing about removing adjectives from prose that makes the writing more objective. But it does feel more innocent to publish that kind of prose.

I was going to say it’s “less controversial” to frame things that way, but one of the meanings of the episode I wrote about is that weak framing and innocent-sounding weasel words now create controversy too. So there is no refuge.

Pat McDowell says:

Exactly right. Thanks.

Robin Kelly says:

Well said. The original statement could have been made by Mr Baquet himself. And totally fails to understand that by reporting the president says certain things is to allow the president to skate by without penalty for saying racist comments. It is the job of journalists to report facts and one of the facts is that the president is being racist. Not a side. A fact.

Jay your framing is patronizing. I know you’ve abandoned the view from nowhere long ago, but please – using words like ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘innocent’ is insulting, themselves dog whistles for the church of the media savvy. All liberals know that calling someone a fundy and an innocent is the equivalent of just patting the little doggie on the head and humoring them.

If you were to be listened to, then if Trump actually tried to be decent and ‘urge unity,’ then we’d never know it, because savvy media types ‘know’ what he was REALLY intending to say and write the headline they wanted. This is epistemic closure at its finest, conducted with a twinge of self-righteousness, to boot.

This is why I no longer have a home, politically. Trump is a fool. But lefties have been so polarized by him that they have given up trying to be objective. I don’t want, and don’t need NYT activist-journalists to tell me who is a racist. Liberal readers may be frustrated that the Times doesn’t understand that core democratic institutions are in threat. Me and many others believe that seeing journalists rationalizing their insertion of themselves into the story as ALSO a threat to core democratic institutions. Trump is a fool. He has no ideas, only his own need to be an alpha. But he doesn’t pretend to have principles. What worries me are lefties who read minds and pretend to be calling it straight. They’re not.

Lynne Jackier says:

“Racist” and “white supremacist” are descriptive words. Not using them actually perverts meaning. “Words some find offensive?” That constuction makes heinous speech and behavior sound like just a choice that some don’t like rather than the ugly breach of values and norms that it is. This is why journalists are having such a hard time right now. The neutral word choices enable escalation of terrible behavior by misleading readers into not understanding the extent of the breach.

I love the conflation of the weather report with political reporting.

We are living in an age where reality is being willingly distorted and our shared sense of truth is at risk. The press should challenge this and play a role in helping establish common ground irrespective of the source of the mis- and disinformation. Otherwise, what is “objectivity” worth in the first place?

And this is just one example where as the rules change so must the player adapt. If the press cares about informing the public than they need to know how to use the medium of the day to reach them. Using language like “falsehoods” rather than “lies” is a great example of missing the mark on conveying what’s going on and what needs to be understood.

Cathie Fornssler says:

Can we Godwin this comment and see if it sounds sufficiently mechanical and objective? “Hitler Uses Word Many Find Offensive” “Hitler Urges Unity” “Germany Sees High Levels of Political Conflict in Public” These statements were definitely the safe point of view in 1933. People seeking safety in today’s United States are becoming complicit in what Trump and his ilk are trying to do.

Bob Berwyn says:

And indeed, the NYT did normalize the nazis in the 1930s, and they have learned nothing.

Chuck Karish says:

Mike Godwin noted recently that serious, meaningful comparisons to Hitler don’t trigger his Law. And he made a comparison like this one.

Mark J. McPherson says:

AH, even a weatherman does more than report the temperature and measure precipitation. The weather report includes context that helps readers better understand “what is happening” and what is likely to happen next. A midsummer temperate blizzard is unusual even though it can be reported in a mechanical, mundane way. I can look out the window and see the snow; there’s no getting away from the rudimentary, unrefined information you would limit journalists to.

The hoodwinking and manipulation is already coming from the “newsmakers” and their mouthpieces who have reasonably (from their p. O. V.) know they can rely on the timidity and formalism of the Times to drive the agenda. The dominant agenda is not necessarily the same thing as “what is happening”. Not if we had a high-functioning press.

“Sorry, but a journalists job is to tell me only what happened, without terms that are value-inflected.” Exactly!! The editorializing by journalists is destroying the press. Front page headlines read now as op-ed titles. The Washington Post became unreadable for this very reason. It is very disheartening to see people talking about the “power” of the reader so shape press reporting as if it is a good thing. It is one thing to declare a bias and a position and report accordingly (that is the beauty of a free press/Bill of Rights) but to claim to be unbiased while bending to readings ideologies or editorializing reports is what has destroyed credibility of news agencies [Times, WP, CNN.]

Well, the Post and the Times both have more readers and subscribers than they have ever had. CNN.com has the most visitors of any US news site on the web: 120 million a month. So when you say they have all destroyed their credibility, what exactly do you mean? That the users of these sites don’t care about credibility?

Yet the NYT apparently did think it was the Times’ job to be the resistance to Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton from 2016-2018.

Alan Stamm says:

“It’s almost funny when I read all of the attacks on The New York Times for not having a public editor,” Dean Baquet is quoted as saying in Slate’s transcript of the Aug. 12 staff meeting. “Nobody has a public editor! We’re not the only ones that made the decision to not have a public editor.” [https://bit.ly/2HdhDZM]

It’s almost funny, really? Not to many of us.

Chris Rauber says:

The Times needs a public editor. There was no good reason to stop having one. Many NY Times readers would agree with me on this.

Many newspapers don’t have the resources for a public editor. The Times does.

David Boardman says:

I don’t understand why so many fetishize the position of public editor. Margaret Sullivan performed the job as well as anyone ever could, yet had minimal impact on the product or organization. The occupants before and after her had none at all. Dean’s right on this — there is no shortage of self-appointed “public editors” who can, and do, call The Times to task.

I’m surprised you’re so dismissive, David. No said there is a dearth of criticism aimed at the New York Times, so reminding us how much criticism comes to the Times is not responsive to anything.

As to why some of us place importance on the public editor (fetishize sounds like we’re perverts…) it’s because the public editor is empowered to find the person responsible and get answers to why things happen at the Times. Random Twitter users are not. The Times would not appoint to the position anyone it thinks does not have standing to comment on and criticize the Times; the voice of the public editor matters to readers in that sense too. The public editor sits between Times readers and journalists, helping each understand the other better. That kind of mutuality is more needed than ever.

When Dean Baquet has a hearing problem — as when he describes dissatisfaction with coverage of Trump as a call to “join the resistance” — the public editor has both standing and space in the newspaper to correct for that. Maybe the most important function the public editor provides is to let readers know that when there is one of these firestorms the public editor will look into it if there is something there. In other words, someone is responsible. Someone is authorized to do this. That makes people feel less powerless.

Please note that none of these points apply to critics of the Times who are airing their complaints on social media.

Then there’s the reason I point to in my post. The readers have more power now. Giving them more voice without permitting them to become a veto group is just enlightened business practice. Finally, why wouldn’t the Times, as a global leader in public service journalism, want to excel at this part of the job? Accountability, self-criticism, listening to dissatisfactions, hearing and sorting them well. The Times should be the best in the world at these things.

Instead it’s, “Hey, Twitter can do that, and remember: Twitter isn’t representative!”

George Colvin says:

The frustration of many readers with the TIMES arises at least in part because they are simultaneously more powerful (as you observe) and utterly powerless (because they have no point of contact within the system). They can complain on social media; those complaints will likely be dismissed. They can put in comments on articles, as they did on the first article by Bret Stephens; they will be personally attacked by Baquet and Bennet as narrow-minded.

The TIMES has created a situation where the only real recourse readers have is subscription cancellation. That is not, as you put it, “enlightened business practice.”

Herb Sim says:

Nothing that Donald Trump has done is more existentially destructive to future life here in the United States and throughout the globe then his determined systematic and largely successful dismantling of Climate programs and assistance. It is utterly inadequate for the paperwork to criticize his record without literally every single day in bold type point out that Donald Trump more than any human being on the planet is destroying the slim chance we have of rolling back the worst effects of climate change.

Jeannette Smyth says:

I concur. That is the story.

William Ockham says:

“Inevitably the resistance in America wins.” Baquet further explained, “Inevitably the people outside power gain power again.”

This is Baquet doing his best version of the “This is fine” meme. Nothing to see here, everything is totally normal. The underlying mindset is terrifying. In Baquet’s world, political actors only matter if they are part of the current administration or part of a group that has been in power before (gain power *again*). When he says “inevitably”, he’s making a commitment to the legitimacy of the status quo and all possible states that result from it. The only people who matter are the people vying for power. The NYT’s neutral relationship to the people who matter is the value proposition. Readers don’t matter. Subscribers don’t matter. That “inevitably” filters them out of the equation. “Inevitably” marks the generational divide within the newsroom. Nothing seems inevitable to the younger generation.

Yeah, this was the Baquet comment that infuriated me the most. “The resistance always wins”?!! What country does he live in?! The “resistance” never wins. The two political parties trade power, but the planet continues to burn and the poor continue to struggle to survive. The fundamentals of the system remain the same, even as the players change. That Baquet misunderstands this demonstrates that he (and the Times) are not ready to produce the kind of journalism that this moment requires.

Mitchell says:

Reporting honestly on Trump — that he’s a serial liar who rarely says but asserts without proof, that his policies cater to an extreme minority and enriches an obscenely wealthy minority, who creates foreign policy problems just for effect and TV coverage, a POTUS who is wrecking the economy for no good reason; a man historically unfit and unqualified for office — anyone who thinks the requisite honesty is being part of the resistance as opposed to reporting on problems instead of being complicit in growing them, well those people are part of the problem.

And given the Times’ failure on national security and national affairs, why should anyone opposed to that (or wants honest reporting) financially support that?

The Times isn’t just engaged in crappy journalism. They’re doing real harm to the nation.

Jeannette Smyth says:

I’d like to know where this meme comes from that all [Maggie Haberman et al] want is to maintain their access to Trump. It has the stink of Bernie broz on it.

I was a reporter on the Hill and in the WH in Watergate days. You can’t beat these animals off with sticks. Drunken John Tower asked me to dance (as well as a vast club of girl reporters). I saw George HW Bush go through the receiving line twice to shake the newly sworn-in president Jerry Ford’s hand. Ford had to pull him along to his right to get him off the receiving line. You don’t want to get between these people and a camera, either.

Trump is worse, don’t forget the John Barron episodes and his rallies, fascist spectacle at its most revolting. (Leni Riefenstahl was an artist compared to these people.)

Manipulating the press is the other piece of it, back to the famous 1971 Powell Memo in which the future Supreme Court justice laid out an agenda, including co-optation of the press, for the next 50 years.

https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/democracy/the-lewis-powell-memo-a-corporate-blueprint-to-dominate-democracy/
I remember John Mitchell harassing WaPo reporters with subpoenas which Bradlee got quashed by calling Mitchell up and telling him he was an asshole.

It’s way beyond access to the WH. The big lesson of Watergate was that the real story is far from the WH press room. I remember standing by the Coke machine and squinting at the 1943 press corps photo framed on the wall; white men in fedoras, on bleachers in front of the Capitol, not one of whose names I recognized, except Merriman Smith’s. He had just committed suicide. I got out of there as fast as I could.

What my minimal time there taught me what that’s it’s about face time on the nightly news, or page A1 — access to exposure. The President — they come and go — is incidental. It’s stardom, lucrative TV and speech appearances and hefty book contracts.

Except for Maggie Haberman. Her book contract was cancelled after co-writer Glenn Thrush was disciplined by the NYT for serial sexual harassment. He got to keep his advance. She didn’t.

Send the interns.

Richard Hoefer says:

Sorry Jay but despite your weighty analysis, the overarching view I get is your melting into some kind of wise senatorial apologist for a paper you used to know and love.

(( The Times is not great at that. ))

What ARE they great at? You say they have the best overall news org but can’t seem to manage the national political framing? I’m no longer interested in what Dean Baquet has to say. He has proven himself, in my view, time and again to be a pretty pathetic steward of the ship, with excuses and bandaids vs strong leadership.

At a time when Americans are feeling so battered and let down by a domino succession of government and media institutions we’ve relied upon for decades for clear-sighted execution, now so systematically hollowed out, politicized, and manipulated, and at a time when veracity itself has lost its ballast, your reaction to Joan’s finally reaching the threshold of “I’m done” seems to me just a tad bit both-siderist, as though hitting a pause button to ask “but wait, IS it really all that bad?”

Yes we can move on.

So I’ve become a Times apologist and retreated to a “both sides make good points” point of view, huh? Thanks. I will take that under advisement.

Anthony Ter;izzi says:

Been pondering the importance (and lately impotence) of the Times at influencing history, as everyone here seems to want it to, and wondering whether it is or isn’t its moral function or duty. My only question is whether, given the circumstances surrounding the Pentagon Papers, how much influence the decision to offend or not offend one side or the other had on Ben Bradlee’s and Katharine Graham’s decision to publish them.

It seems a simple proposition to me that the motto “All the news that’s fit to print,” needs to govern here, and while the news headline should not be biased to the point of reading, “Trump is a Treasonous Racist Tyrant,” neither should it be buffered to read, “Trump Urges Unity Against Racism.”

T1gerlilly says:

If this is framed as generational, I suppose I can speak as a member of the often-forgotten GenX. The Times lost our trust with their reporting in the lead up to the Iraq war. Anyone who also read the work by the L.A Times knew it was possible not to have engaged in jingoistic gung ho pro-war coverage and instead provided responsible journalism that could have saved the nation twenty years of war.

Those of us that saw that debacle of poor editorial decisions unwind over decades of American blood and treasure being wasted, see the same thing today in the Times. An utter failure to appreciate how they are being manipulated politically, an alignment with the current power structure and ruling class so strong that they are entirely captured by their concerns, and a truly deplorable inability to learn either from their well-documented past mistakes or their current critics.

I don’t see the Times as a premier journalistic institution anymore, simply a well-funded one, living off their cooking and crossword business. The pieces most touted have been too little, too late – as their 2016 election and Trump coverage proves – and often prompted by competitive pressures, as other news organizations broke stories they were sitting on.

Quite honestly, I have been so genuinely worried by their work this past year, I didn’t just boycott them. I subscribed to the Post and other organizations. The way in which they have been promoting and normalizing the forces of white supremacy, nationalism, and kleptocratic incompetence is dangerous. Anyone who cares about civic engagement and the future of our society should see that it’s not enough to recognize that the Times has become a bad actor, we need to actively fund journalism that can challenge their coverage.

Tigerlilly, from one Gen Xer to another, I could not agree more with your comment. The lost faith in the NYTimes over their pre-Iraq invasion coverage – particularly the “aluminum tubes’ debacle – though my anger at them had been growing for a decade. But that was the proverbial last straw.

The “generational divide” observed at the Times is likely the result of winnowing out critical voices within the organization. The young reporters who criticized the paper’s Iraq coverage, or their decision to publish the misogyny of John Tierney’s columns, or the ceaseless anti-Gore vitriol of Maureen Dowd, no longer work there. The young reporters voicing their concerns today are unlikely to advance and will either be pushed out or leave in frustration. Those who remain will become the next older generation of company yes-men.

The Times is a steadfast ally to the powerful. They identify with the establishment in any given situation; what they call adversarial journalism is actually punching-down. They’ve always treated critics, advocates, and outsiders with disdain. Thus they credulously give Trump the benefit of the doubt while sneering at those they deem “the resistance.”

This is likely the origin of the NYTimes’ epic disdain for the Clintons, who came to DC as agents of change and usurped the patrician Bush family’s “rightful” place in the echelons of power. My hunch is that the dislodging of American aristocracy by working class/ middle class strivers is, in the eyes of the Times, the Clintons’ unforgivable sin. On the most basic level, the Times values “place” over fact or merit.

Like you, I went further than not-subscribing to the Times; I subscribed to the Washington Post as a counter-measure.

Anthony Ter;izzi says:

As a member of Generation V-and-a-half (The Boomers) I can tell you that i wonder why, your generation (at least a thick slice of it) views the NYT as a corporate organ of the establishment, while the right views it as the liberal bastion of snowflakery. Although I realize my age is no excuse, I’m confused.

That’s why I subscribe to the best newspaper in the US: the Washington Post. The NYTimes is living off past glories and hasn’t deserved that title in a long time.

Anthony Terlizzi says:

With you there.

Keith Ammann says:

It seems to me that, at least as far back as the 1990s, the New York Times has held a quintessentially New York set of values, one that appreciates intellectual, religious and cultural diversity and freedom, but NOT political or economic diversity or freedom, and this sense that the People in Charge are always the people who deserve to be in charge informs both what it reports on and what it obstinately refuses to report on, such as outsider political candidates (until well after their viability can no longer be ignored). When the People in Charge are actively abusing and accelerating their abuse of the public trust, and becoming more and more shameless about it, to the extent that it threatens not just the general welfare of the nation but the entire press as an institution, it’s baffling that the Times still clings to this set of values. Whatever it may think, there’s nothing noble about extending the benefit of the doubt to a man who’s pointing a cocked gun at your head.

Anthony Terlizzi says:

I think the problem with The Grey Lady is that she’s gotten perhaps a little too grey. Along with a whole lot of the media, the mission statement seems to start: 1) Offend no one.

The soul of journalism used to be, “Be careful of what you say about people who buy ink by the 55 g drum,” but now it’s like, “If we’re not sufficiently obsequious they’ll refuse us access.”

I, too, haven’t canceled my subscription, but am appalled at what seems like a misreading of this moment in history. The utterings of Baquet only confirm it. It is not so hard! Just think of how your paper should have covered Hitler’s rise and take over – now report in Trump in that way. While the details differ, the seriousness of the situation is the same (maybe worse, if you take the Republicans’ complete unwillingness to do anything to prevent or lessen the climate catastrophe on our doorstep).

Anthony Terlizzi says:

It is not a Republican unwillingness to do something so much as their complicity in the conspiracy to thwart majority control. The founders placing checks on tyranny by the majority has allowed for the exact opposite; tyranny by the minority or pluralistic oligarchy.

Jeremy Gerard says:

I noted, in my own response to the headline fiasco, that the most illuminating fact for me, as both a lifelong Times reader and former staff member, was how disconnected Baquet is from the front page of the newspaper he leads. The Times is so fragmented that it’s no wonder it can be impossible to discern a voice, let alone sense of purpose. I feel foolish for shelling out the full freight for print every month.

George Colvin says:

The controversy over the hiring of Bret Stephens is a classic example of exactly the faults Jay Rosen identifies here. Hundreds of readers wrote in to ask TIMES editors a simple question: how can you advertise your publication as a vehicle for truth while giving such valuable op-ed space to a climate-change denier? Baquet and editorial-page editor James Bennet apparently couldn’t comprehend the question. Instead of responding to it, they castigated their own readers as narrow-minded partisans. And Stephens rewarded their support with an initial column rehearsing his climate denialism as a way to give the finger to his critics.

ThresherK says:

“Credit to Baquet for not wanting to be the paper of the resistance.”

No, no credit at all. People don’t want the NYT for that. Baquet is framing this to fool people who should know better.

I still need the NYT for breadth of coverage in the wide world we ignore. No one else quite does this, even perhaps BBC. I don’t read their Washington coverage til I’ve read the Wapo and other outlets. But I’m retired; I have time to be selective. If the Wapo and the LAT could equal NYT’s reach, I’d drop this self-absorbed legacy outift.

Byl Strother says:

If we imagine that “the resistance” is largely pointing out factual items about Trump’s presidency and Bacquet is reluctant to join with that then what good is their journalism. Sort out the factual from the hyperbole and report it for what it is. It the President is clearly lying about something, say so. If he is undermining the country by trafficking with dictators, say so. After reading about all of this for some weeks now my sense is that the Times has backed themselves into a corner because they can’t see relatively plain facts for what they are because “the resistance” is pointing these things out.

Their streamlined editing process was mentioned in an aside once or twice and that’s something I would like to know about. If I’ve had one thing that I’ve said consistently about the times it’s been to wonder how certain stories made it to print in the shape that they did.

Excellent, Jay.

What also struck me from the transcript of the newsroom meeting was how scared Times people are of talking with each other. By all accounts, that has been the culture of the institution forever and it is a killing feature of it now.

I used to write headlines. If I couldn’t have done justice to a story in the space allotted, I would have whined or worse to the page editor. At The Times, one wouldn’t do that, apparently.

Baquet kept talking about how his door is there, ready to be opened, but people don’t knock.

The most eloquent moment in the transcript comes from an anonymous staffer who was afraid to be wise by name.

The Times is scared of itself. How then can it ever expect to have the courage to protect a frightened nation and face those would frighten it? How can it innovate and face this radically new challenge when they can’t talk with each other? Is this the price of being an Institution? (And is that what makes The Washington Post more nimble and creative in the face of the same challenge?) Or is this a peculiarity of this institution and its history?

That was the most hopeless thing I read about The Times in ages. It is like a family therapy session that goes by an hour with not a word said, with everything simmering — boiling — only under the surface. There is no way to fix things, I fear.

Re: “everything simmering — boiling — only under the surface.”

Take a look at this exchange I had with Jim Dwyer, a career journalist who writes the “About New York” column for the Times.

Dwyer: People are wetting the bed over one headline (that ran in one print edition before it was corrected) rather than engage the 4 incisive stories that ran that day, and 1000s before. The pieties.

Jay: People are wetting the bed over one headline. That your best read, Jim?

Dwyer: Yep.

Jay: Got it. Thanks.

Dwyer: I’m glad to read critiques of actual coverage.

Now notice that in dismissing the entire episode as ‘people wetting the bed over one headline,’ Dwyer has not only shown a few of the common folk and Times readers how silly and childish they are being, but he also erased the comments of his fellow journalists, who voiced in the transcript their concern about things much more serious than bedwetting, such as…

* taking Trump’s words at face value when there is no reason to give him the benefit of the doubt;

* whether the Times should make racism and white supremacy more foundational to its framing and reporting;

* whether the Times is failing to rise to the challenge of a historic moment because it is not adversarial enough in response to a novel threat;

* “whether we think it’s OK to use euphemisms instead of direct, clear speech in a headline…”

Or as Ashley Feinberg put it, “whether it has the tools to make sense of the world.” That is what you can hear the questioners trying to say in the transcript.

Dwyer aimed his comment about wetting the bed at me and my readers. We’re hysterics, he thinks. Buffoons, really. But some his Times colleagues are making the same points. Are they hysterical too? Dwyer’s posture is that he can’t make any sense of the bullet points above, but he would be delighted to read “critiques of actual coverage.”

He must be baffled by some of the questions in the transcript, then. Like, do we in this newsroom have the courage to speak without euphemisms? Imagine voicing that observation at an all-hands meeting and being told. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, could you give an example?” when the reality is that speaking in euphemism is a basic feature of the Times institutional voice, especially in headlines about national politics. The staffers concerned about this are trying to raise a delicate question: can this institution find a new voice for a new time?

To call that bedwetting over a bum headline, wow. Your words, “everything simmering — boiling — only under the surface” are therefore quite apt.

George Colvin says:

Dwyer is speaking in the authentic voice of the senior editors of the TIMES. This is the same voice they used in attacking readers who criticized the Stephens hire, as I pointed out in my own comment. And that’s a large part of the problem.

Interesting that both he and Baquet talked about the demands of the print edition in explaining away what happened. There’s a real tension producing an analog product — print has physical limitations and hard deadlines — side by side with a growing digital audience. The physical and temporal limitations of analog media have been an ethical escape hatch for most of journalism’s history. “Had to make it fit!”

In my field, I see this at play as broadcast radio is challenged by podcast aesthetics. “But we have to cut these 2-ways to 3:30” means nothing to listeners who are growing new expectations for follow-up questions and better context. This divide is going to get worse, and the sooner leaders of formerly analog-first institutions understand the escape hatch days are over, the better off we all will be.

There’s a middle road and it seems the Times cannot even be bothered to explore that. Let’s call this what it is: Institutional Failure

Jay, there’s so much conflated here that it feels like an airy cake that anyone can take a bite out of.

Certainly, such missteps as “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism” are an easy target. And worthy ones. Yet, in the course of 24/7 reporting, editing and presentation, the Times news apparatus certainly will err from time to time. If in accuracy, it reports its mistakes. If in judgment or in its institutionalist view of the word, far gnarlier areas, it invites, and deserves, the intense scrutiny that it gets. If its newsroom is a contentious place, fed by the tensions of this time as well as generational divides, that’s no surprise. The Times, as a growing institution, will continue to excel, and to blunder, its blunders, we would hope, fewer and less consequential than, say, Judith Miller’s Iraq reporting.

Consider, in part, this too-little-grokked context: The Times has hired almost 400 additional journalists over the last several years, bringing its newsroom to 1600. That’s a mind-boggling number in a press world in which we all chronicle unending shrinkage. That hiring –not just of “reporters”, but of those multi-talented journalists of the day who bring to life such accountability reporting as today’s incisive multimedia, “How Hong Kong’s Police Have Deployed 1,800 Rounds of Tear Gas” – only adds to the whirlwind of real-time decision-making Times editors must do.

To judge Times journalism on the exceptions to its excellence is myopic. To cancel a subscription to one of the handful of institutions that has pointedly and courageously held this lawless Administration to account is beyond belief.

The Times should be called to task, externally and internally, for the judgments that it makes. And, yes, its elimination of the public editor position, as uneven as the performance of that position was over the years, was short-sighted.

In this age of majority reader revenue – in which the Times leads the pack of modern transformers, with almost two-thirds of revenue driven by us, the readers – we can grouse about the responsibility of the Times to those who now pay for the bulk of its expenses. Yet, that’s nonsensical, if we follow it logically. Of course, the Times as an institution, its editors and its reporters are responsible to the readers. However, we no more want them bending to the majority of current reader opinion, or understandable Trump blood lust, than we would have wanted them to bend to advertisers, who until recently, contributed the majority of revenue.

Lost in the crisis of journalism has been the power of the paying reader in this digital age. The fact that about four million people pay the Times for news subscriptions, digital and print, eclipsing the height of print subscriptions at about 1.6 million, is a cause for celebration. As powerful readers, we should exercise our newfound power of the purse smartly and judiciously. Hold the Times to account, as it holds others, but don’t let that accountability get in the way of its vital 21st century mission.

raju narisetti says:

Good to see this logical contrarianism from Ken. Some of the journalism criticism also overlooks the history of news industry paying lip service to paying customers who in recent years are both paying customers and with digital voices/sometimes megaphones of their own. “Customer service” is a lot about listening that news organizations culturally are still equipped to do.

William Ockham says:

You make Baquet’s case far better than he does. And yet, it still comes down to insisting that everything is fine. The NYT “old guard” mindset is out of sync with reality. Their customers are telling them that the house is on fire and you say they just knocked over one candle. There’s a big space between belittling reader feedback and bending to every whim. Right in the middle is asking the question “What are they seeing that I’m missing?”

You rightly bring up the fact that the NYT has hired 400 new journalists. Listen to what they are saying. They are the ones inside the NYT who see the house burning down. The problem inside the newsroom is not that it’s contentious. It’s that the leadership is blinding itself to the current reality. Here’s how you can tell. The mistakes are already more frequent and more consequential than in the Judy Miller era. The mistakes will only get worse and worse until the NYT leadership wakes up or the paper goes under.

Alan Levy says:

I know that the NYT is more of a “Manhattan paper” than a New York one. But for God’s sake, can’t someone do a darn article about Trump’s world view coming from a neighborhood in the southern 107th Police Precinct, adjacent to the 103rd?
It explains a lot.

R. Marion says:

Aside from this being demonstrably untrue, it remains stuck in the clearly-false notion that some thunderbolt from a news outlet will stop Trump. The last four years have OBVIOUSLY proven this not to be the case. The great NYT tax story? Irrelevant.

This debate is just another round of the progressives doing their typical circular firing squad demanding 100% lockstep conformity on any given issue.

Virtually everyone who reads the NYT is anti-Trump and no doubt 90% or more of its reporters are mainstream left to Bernie-style socialists. And none of the people who are for Trump will be influenced by anything the NYT writes or likely any set of facts. It will not impact the outcome of the 2020 election in any way. The Times does nothing more than preach to the converted.

That’s the sad reality of the USA in 2019.

“So the basic tenor of this thread is that the NYT is not anti-Trump enough.”

On a ten-point “accuracy of paraphrase” scale I would rate that a 1.3

Chuck Karish says:

People I respect are freely using the word “racist” these days without paying enough attention to how it’s heard. The meaning they have in mind is that someone who says or does racist things is being a racist. When Trump says he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body he’s claiming that he harbors no deep racial hatred in his heart. What’s in his heart is unknowable, so this is a perfect rebuttal.

It’s more work to write about racist words and actions than to characterize someone as a racist. It’s necessary.

John Whisler says:

I’ve maintained my digital NYT subscription solely for the occasional, brilliant investigative piece, such as the deep dive into Trump’s financial/tax history. That was journalism at its finest.

Otherwise, when I read the paper for day-to-day coverage, I feel as if I’ve entered a different world than the one I live in; a world where everyone is nice and polite and where equal credence is given to every utterance. It’s a world drained of context and judgement, where the Very Important People are given every benefit of the doubt, and the rest of the country is worthy only of a parachuted-in diner visit during a campaign.

The NYT is worth consulting – if only to see how they fail to cover things – but is getting greyer an greyer by the day. Making judgements and having a point of view is essential to a newspaper – as is letting readers know what that point of view is. But to pretend to not have a point of view, to act as if you have some magisterial, above-it-all wisdom leads to a denatured product.

Mayhill Fowler says:

Every once in awhile, curious about what he is up to, I launch PressThink to get a taste of Jay. Both his August 15 column and the responses have given me much to ponder. Thank you all. Here is my perspective. As a woman who spends a lot of time in Texas, Tennessee and Florida among working class folk—although I live in Silicon Valley where my husband at Apple has taken my family from the struggling middle class to considerable wealth and incidentally given me many delicious Apple stories that I can never share—if you remember my name you appreciate the irony—I have a few caveats with the other perspectives above.

1. Most of my conservative friends read the NYT and, if sometimes grudgingly, respect it. Batting about generalizations about liberals and conservatives do disservice to the complexity and nuance of opinion in many an American reader brain and his/her community. Disciplined writers try to avoid generalizations—and as well—

2. Epithets like racist. Is Trump a racist? I am not sure. In the way that Woodrow Wilson was a racist—no. Jefferson, no. Lincoln, no. But in the way all we white people every one of us are sometimes racist—yes. Moreover, is he a mean-spirited, unstable narcissist who makes comments that many people receive as racist? Yes. But media generally are too quick now to brand a Trump comment “racist” that is merely dreadful and tactless, often false. So the NYT, it seems to me, has taken the more disciplined approach: chronicle Trump’s actions that say racism. Undoubtedly, a fascinating book or two will be written about the epistemology of racism in the Age of Trump.

3. Conflicting opinion within the ranks is a good thing for the NYT.

4. But Worrisome for the NYT and indeed all media now is the symbiotic relationship with Donald Trump. Paradoxically, media has become Trump’s enabler. That is the role media now plays for most of us Americans (if not the fewer people who think about press). So Trump utters another whopper? Don’t have to think about that. Because the NYT and the Washington Post will call him out on it. By now, summer 2019, the seesaw of Trump v. press is so predictable that this rhythm has infused us the American public with a (false) confidence in the motion itself.

5. Leading me to my last serious thought. We are now living the limits inherent in a free press to say truth to power. Another paradox—given that we are saturated with media, some of it the best ever. But because there is no risk, no sacrifice demanded in exchange for news, we consumers take for granted the fourth estate. If we lived almost anywhere else in the world, news would be precious to us, and we would thank God for a NYT, clamoring as often as we were able to read it.

6. Last. Unserious. Joan Walsh should keep a daily record over the next year of her effort to avoid the reporting in the NYT.

Former executive editor Jill Abramson went on Fox News Aug. 21:

“Let’s face it, he is criticized all the time by you at Fox News and by conservatives for being way too hard on Trump and being biased against them. And yet it’s a readership which is quite liberal that wants a paper to be even tougher on President Trump,” Abramson said. “I thought he had it exactly right and was explaining to the staff that the job of The New York Times is first and foremost to be independent and to hold power accountable.”

I find it crazy, but this is what leadership (and past leadership) thinks it should be doing. Push off from the people who despise you and poison their audiences against you on one side, and push off from the people who support you, subscribe to you, and want to see you do better journalism on the other side. Then you have space to proclaim your independence.

David Carty says:

Actually, what has disappointed me the most about the Times coverage is the near non-existent defense of the Constitution, the source of their independent existence. For example, they’ve given him a pass on emoluments when they could be brutal if they wanted to, with the depths of their investigative reporting. They also seem to be reporting on the spectacle; reporting the observations of voting blocs (Trump voters) rather than truth and fact, no matter how many times it slants against Trump. But to do so risks access, and here is where all of the MSM has failed, by acquiescing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.