It was 2005 when Bob Sipchen, then an editor at the Los Angeles Times, said at a public forum about bloggers and journalists that he had always thought of the LA Times as “a heavy battleship under steam, regarding its critics as no more important than swimmers in the water throwing dead fish at it.”
I begin with this almost surreal image from 15 years ago — newspaper as giant battleship moving slowly out of harbor, critics so impotent they can only toss dead fish at it — because it shows how much has changed for the people formerly known as newspaper journalists, and especially for the editors who try to steer these organizations. They have suffered a massive loss in power as the media and political worlds have changed around them.
To whom has this power gone?
To the tech platforms that have a stronger hold on the audience for news; they do a better job and charge a fairer price for targeted advertising. To the internet itself, which continues to disassemble the newspaper “bundle” into specialist sites that satisfy niche audiences. To the faux-populists preaching resentment politics who have turned the “liberal media” into their always-on hate object, accelerating a loss of trust in the journalism that big city newspapers once practiced with impunity.
Power has been lost to Fox News. And to the trolls, including the one in the White House. And to sources who can find a following without playing ball with the press.
Battleship Newspaper was built for a world that has largely vanished. That means a lot of ideas have to come down that are still standing, like statues from an earlier era. This is my primary takeaway from the events at the New York Times last week that resulted in the resignation of editorial page editor James Bennet, who was thought to be one of the favorites to replace executive editor Dean Baquet when Baquet retires. (He is 63.)
Bennet left because his opinion section published “Send in the Troops” by Republican Senator Tom Cotton. It argued for intervention by the U.S. military in response to a nationwide protest movement that has taken up the Black Lives Matter cause. “Rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy, recalling the widespread violence of the 1960s,” Cotton wrote. “One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”
“Send in the Troops” went online Wednesday afternoon, June 3. It drew intense criticism that evening, including unprecedented resistance from Times journalists who took to Twitter to say, “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.” But James Bennet defended the decision to publish it. His logic: I don’t agree with it myself, but we have to be open to opposing points of view. (“Times Opinion owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments, particularly those made by people in a position to set policy.”)
Publisher A.G. Sulzberger also supported the decision in a memo he later called a “placeholder” pending further review. By Thursday night June 4 that review had come to a startling conclusion: “A rushed editorial process led to the publication of an Op-Ed that did not meet our standards.”
On Friday Bennett apologized to his colleagues in a tense staff meeting. An editor’s note was then attached to Cotton’s Op Ed:
After publication, this essay met strong criticism from many readers (and many Times colleagues), prompting editors to review the piece and the editing process. Based on that review, we have concluded that the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published… For example, the published piece presents as facts assertions about the role of “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa”; in fact, those allegations have not been substantiated and have been widely questioned.
Two days later James Bennet resigned.
Where to begin in interpreting these events? Where I begin is with the opening paragraphs of Michelle Goldberg’s outstanding column in the Times on June 4.
Before Donald Trump became president, most newspaper op-ed pages sought to present a spectrum of politically significant opinion and argument, which they could largely do while walling off extremist propaganda and incitement. The Trump presidency has undermined that model, because there’s generally no way to defend the administration without being either bigoted or dishonest.
In normal times, editors pick and choose among critics and defenders of the people in power in order to create a lively mix of plausible views. That’s what opinion journalism is at daily newspapers… in normal times. But what if times change? The Trump presidency is demagogic and mostly fact-free. What if there is no way to defend the government without practicing bigotry or demagoguery— or just making stuff up? This is the kind of question editors at the New York Times have tried to avoid. They want to declare it impossible. And by trying to avoid it, by declaring it impossible, James Bennet lost his way, then lost his job.
Michelle Goldberg again:
Opinion sections, eager to maintain ideological diversity without publishing lies or stuff that belongs in Breitbart, have therefore filled up with anti-Trump conservatives. As a result, newspapers like this one have often been criticized for elevating an intellectual clique that has little mass base or political influence.
Tom Cotton’s “Send In the Troops” was supposed to be provocative. A joint product of Cotton’s staff and Times editors, it was designed to challenge core readers with a point of view they were likely to reject, but still ought to hear. That was the idea, anyway. Rather than construct a “both sides” world out of liberals and conservatives who share a common opposition to Trump, the Times went to a Trump backer and rising star who could provide more friction than, say, Charlie Sykes.
Cotton delivered on his end. The editors could not deliver on theirs. This we learn by returning to the web address where “Send In the Troops” was first published. With the editor’s note attached that page now says, absurdly: here we bring you an essay we should never have brought you. The New York Times was unable to sustain an act of publishing that was supposed to challenge its audience. Why? Because it lacks courage and can’t stand the heat?
That’s what Cotton, Trump and their allies would say. (And this episode is a huge propaganda win for them, a successful troll.) My answer is different. Battleship Newspaper lives on, intellectually, but the costs are mounting. Ideas born in that era have refused to die, and their continuation is proving more and more costly.
Debate club democracy — where people of good will share a common world of fact but disagree on what should be done — is an expensive illusion to maintain during a presidency that tries to undermine every independent and factual check there is on the executive’s power, not just a free press and its journalism, but the intelligence community, the diplomatic corps, the civil service, government scientists, inspectors general, and Congress in its oversight function.
Stories about the Trump government undermining all of these have appeared in the New York Times. They are ably reported. But at some point the light bulb has to flick on. This isn’t debate club. It’s an attack on the institutions of American democracy. Just as police work in our cities isn’t law enforcement constrained by the Constitution. It’s systemized suspicion of Black people, free of Constitutional constraint, and it frequently ends in violence.
The idea that the New York Times can never reach conclusions like this, and build them into its core values, because it has to remain neutral in order to be trusted as a news source by the very people who reject those values — an idea I have called the view from nowhere — might have been a mistaken-but-survivable construct in the era of Battleship Newspaper. That is no longer the case.
Many decades ago, the leadership class in big league journalism accepted the argument that racial integration had to come to their newsrooms, or the journalism would suffer. Or at least, this is what they said to themselves. But what they also said (without quite realizing it) is: We can have all that, a more diverse and multi-colored newsroom, and maintain the view from nowhere. They never faced up to the contradiction: minority journalists who are supposed to simultaneously supply a missing perspective and suppress that perspective in order to establish their objectivity.
Appearing on CNN the same day that James Bennet resigned, Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is African American and a Pulitzer Prize winner, made the connection explicit: “This adherence to even-handedness, both-sidism, the ‘view from nowhere’ doesn’t actually work in the political circumstances that we’re in.”
A few days earlier it was Wesley Lowery, formerly of the Washington Post, and now at 60 Minutes:
American view-from-nowhere, “objectivity”-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity
— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) June 4, 2020
Lowery also told Ben Smith, media columnist of the Times, that the “core value needs to be the truth, not the perception of objectivity.”
Elite newsrooms badly need people like Wesley Lowery and Nikole Hannah-Jones. But these people have no need for detritus from the age of Fortress Journalism. They aren’t going to shut up. And they aren’t throwing dead fish. Their moral clarity is a rebuke and wake-up call to an older generation of journalists.
In November of 2019, Ben Smith, then at Buzzfeed, published a long article on the succession drama at the New York Times. Who will replace Dean Baquet? He also checked in with some of the arguments made in this post. Smith concludes his piece this way:
And what about the Times that Sulzberger and Baquet hear so much about from critics on Twitter, from grumbling subscribers, and from much of the young generation of their own newsroom? The one that stops trying to be perceived as fair by Trumpian critics whose beef is with journalism itself, and shakes off the old obsession with political neutrality?
Sorry. The phrase I heard to dismiss that again and again: “It’s just not in our DNA.”
Dean Baquet and his lieutenants have another phrase: We are not the resistance. But if that were entirely true, James Bennet would still have a job. The Times has evolved a lot since 2005. But now it has to update its pressthink; it has to evolve politically. That’s not in the newsroom’s DNA. But it is the call of the times.