The New York Times

Bad times at the Grey Lady

Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Did you see what happened at the New York Times?” To be a journalist working in North America today is to ask or be asked that question approximately once every 72 hours. 2020 was a bumper year for firings, resignations and other newsroom drama at America’s most influential newspaper. Thus far, 2021 promises to be a similarly memorable vintage. So unrelenting are the micro-controversies that it has been possible to while away large chunks of lockdown speculating about the latest ruckus at the Grey Lady; just as one fizzles out, another seems to bubble up. 

If the New York Times were writing a story about all this tumult, the headline would be something characteristically ponderous and oblique, something like “Inside the Times, a reckoning”. In ideological terms, that reckoning is a clash between the liberal and the very liberal. But there are other dividing lines too. There’s a generational showdown between woke young employees enforcing the latest speech codes and colleagues their parents’ age sometimes failing to keep up. And, perhaps most importantly, there’s a philosophical split over where the line between journalism and activism should be drawn.

All three fissures were identifiable in the latest major controversy, involving the departure of one of the newspaper’s most respected reporters. Until February, Donald McNeil, a long-standing Times journalist, was leading the paper’s coronavirus coverage. Then the details of a 2019 trip to Peru with a group of teenagers emerged. McNeil, it was alleged after an internal investigation, “exercised poor judgment and a profound lack of sensitivity in a number of his interactions with the students”. The central offence was his use of the N-word in a conversation with the group. (One of the most revealing parts of the saga is that the Times is in the business of sponsoring expensive trips for hyper-privileged teenagers looking for things to boast about on their college applications.) 

“Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom,” Baquet reportedly said to McNeil in an email

McNeil did not use the slur to cause offence, but repeated it as part of a conversation about racist language and whether a classmate of one of the students on the trip deserved to be suspended after video footage emerged of her using the word as a 12-year-old. However, McNeil’s intention didn’t appear to matter. Initially, the Times’s editor, Dean Baquet (who is black), accepted his apology. But the woke contingent at the paper smelt blood: 150 Times staffers wrote to the publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, demanding further action. “Our community is outraged and in pain,” they claimed. 

“Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom,” Baquet reportedly said to McNeil in an email. Never mind the absurdity of the idea that intent doesn’t matter when it comes to language. Or the fact that the Times continues to publish the word on its own pages. Or McNeil’s award-winning reporting. Or that he was an example of big newspapers at their meritocratic best, rising from copyboy to the pinnacle of his trade. McNeil had been identified as a dinosaur — stale, male, pale and in the way. He had to go.

You don’t have to look hard to find other examples of ideologically driven double standards at play at the Times. Last summer, the paper was at the centre of the national conversation after it ran an opinion article by the Republican Senator Tom Cotton. “Send in the military” ran the headline of a column in which Cotton called for a more robust response to the violence that followed the death of George Floyd.

Cotton’s article is still on the Times website, though neutered by a lengthy editorial note

An eruption of internal complaints followed: reporters and editors claimed that the article “put black New York Times staffers in danger”. A few days later, the section’s editor was fired. (The paper recently posted a job advertisement for a job on the comment desk. The ideal candidate, it read, would need “a sense of humour and a spine of steel”.)

Cotton’s article is still on the Times website, though neutered by a lengthy editorial note which states that “the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published”. The note implies factual mistakes in the piece — and yet no corrections have been made.

A few months later, the same section of the paper (under new management) published an egregious piece of Chinese Communist Party apologia. “Hong Kong is China, like it or not” ran the headline of an article by a pro-Beijing member of Hong Kong’s legislative council. Too busy play-acting a fight between fascism and democracy in America, the paper’s staff didn’t seem to mind much about it providing cover for a genuinely dictatorial regime. 

Meanwhile, more ideologically convenient work is widely feted, no matter its shortcomings. Two years ago, the Times launched the 1619 Project, a paper-wide effort to, in their own words, “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very centre of our national narrative”.

Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for spearheading the initiative. (Last year she embraced the suggestion that the summer’s violent disorder be named the “1619 Riots”.) Even if one agrees with the argument being advanced by the Times, the important thing is that it was advancing any kind of argument at all. Only the faintest pretence of sober neutrality remains. “All the news that’s fit to print” is still the paper’s motto, but it is has less and less to do with the work done in its newsroom. 

It was Donald Trump’s rise, more than anything else, that set the paper on its current, more ideologically-driven path

In a sign of the Times’s influence, school syllabuses are being rewritten to fit the 1619 version of US history, even though experts from across the political spectrum have taken issue with the project’s core claims.

A group of some of the most highly regarded historians in America, including Gordon Wood and James McPherson, dispute as “incorrect” the idea that America’s founders declared independence from Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue” and say the project’s mistakes “suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology”. A historian recruited to fact-check the project claims her reservations were simply ignored. The Times gives every impression of being as proud of the 1619 project as it was before any complaints were lodged — no matter the seriousness of the charge or the credibility of the source. 

Trouble at the Times had been brewing for a while. It was Donald Trump’s rise, more than anything else, that set the paper on its current, more ideologically-driven path.

The paper responded to Trump’s rise by suspending some of its rather staid newsroom rules, referring to his “lies” in the headline of a news story, for example; a first, and a perfectly reasonable move.

But behind this relaxation of standards was a deeper shift. As one of the newspaper’s reporters put it in 2016, “If you view a Trump presidency as something that is potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that.” As the Trump era wore on, liberal journalists became convinced of their central role in the great twenty-first century morality play. Sure, journalistic standards still mattered, but they came second to the fight against the president. The Times was no different. Trump may be gone, but the mindset remains.

For all that the Times appears to be eating itself, business is booming. According to the latest numbers, the paper has 7.5 million digital subscribers (2.3 million of whom signed up last year), more than the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the Gannett group of 250 local newspapers combined. In subscription revenue alone, the paper rakes in more than $1 billion a year. That success is increasingly built on outrage not information. A satisfied customer is not one who feels informed, but one who feels angry: fired up and ready to renew their subscription. 

Those who miss what has been lost in the Times’s transformation shouldn’t waste time raging about every newsroom controversy. Instead, they should simply see the paper for what it is: not a sober source of objective reporting but a publication with an agenda. And there’s nothing wrong with that. 

The issue is the self-regarding “paper of record” pretence. American readers would be well-served by a more British approach. Our scrappier, less pompous press is far from perfect, but it means we are well attuned to the biases and blind spots of the various outlets available to them. That is how the Times should be treated. The sooner its editors and defenders admit as much, the better.

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