Knowing the characters involved — columnist Joan Walsh and the New York Times — this announcement last week caught my eye:
I canceled my subscription. I know a lot of folks will tell me I’m wrong. I will miss it. But I can’t keep rewarding such awful news judgment. “Trump Urges Unity Against Racism” is almost as bad as their full-page Comey letter coverage just before 2016 election. Nobody learns. https://t.co/FNUyXN9TmB
— Joan Walsh (@joanwalsh) August 6, 2019
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:
There’s this decades-old journalistic reflex that because of the importance of the office, you have to take everything a president — including this president — says seriously, no matter how demagogic Trump is.
— Steven Greenhouse (@greenhousenyt) August 7, 2019
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.