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Artillery Row

Why Brits should care about what’s happening at the New York Times

The increasingly partisan ways of the New York Times is setting an agenda that UK media outlets like the BBC appear unable to resist

The newsroom at the New York Times doesn’t sound like such a great place to work.

When I went to journalism graduate school in 2010 to escape the fallout of my military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, I positively swooned with admiration for the so-called Old Grey Lady, long regarded within the industry as the national “newspaper of record”. To my dewy eyes, the NYT represented the pinnacle of journalistic excellence — certainly in America — with access to its hallowed ranks the goal of almost all aspiring journalists.

Lately, however, media coverage of the New York Times’s inner workings suggests all is not well, with the level of internal frictions well beyond the natural amount you are bound to get at such a powerhouse of ideas, opinions and breaking news. Last year the warning signs came thick and fast, as detailed in Oliver Wiseman’s “Bad times at the Grey Lady”, about the journalistic machinations resulting from a younger, more progressive section of the staff clashing with older editors who subscribe to a more old-fashioned type of liberalism.

The bar for an opinion piece at the NYT used to be pretty high — not anymore

One of the most notable moments during a tumultuous year in its newsroom was the departure of columnist Bari Weiss, who delivered a detailed and damning parting shot: “Twitter is not on the masthead of the New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor,” Weiss wrote in her resignation letter to Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times. “As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.”

All this was on my mind when I read a recent NYT opinion piece commenting on the fallout of the Oprah Winfrey interview of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle titled “Down With the British Monarchy”. It’s not the title or the angle that is the problem — after all, America should have its issues with monarchies given its history — but the lack of any appreciation of the constructive role a constitutional monarchy can serve in a democracy, and the number of cheap punches throughout the article, is jarring.

The bar for an opinion piece at the NYT used to be pretty high. I should know: I have had one NYT opinion piece published out of about 10 submissions. That bar seems to have shifted, though, and keeps shifting given the level of poor and simply nasty writing in the anti-monarchy op-ed about the Harry and Meghan interview: “A just and proper response to what we have learned would be for the entire United Kingdom to come together, join hands in a great circle around the institution of the monarchy and burn it to the ground, while singing ‘Sweet Caroline,’ to maintain a positive spirit,” the author writes.

Our presidents may be national embarrassments, but at least Americans are not required to scrape and bow before some utterly random rich wastrel whose claim to legitimacy is being the child of the child of the child of someone who was, centuries ago, the nation’s biggest gangster. Yes, we have our own hypnotic capitalist addiction to celebrity, but monarchy is something altogether more twisted.

Uplifting and enlightening stuff, as well as, given the high-calibre writers the NYT typically features and can draw on, somewhat puzzling. It isn’t hard to source or write a strong, erudite article that is effectively critical of the Royal Family and monarchical rule.

At the same time as reading that op-ed, I found myself getting personally involved with the NYT’s journalistic practises as a result of the efforts of both parties to cover the terrible conflict ravaging Ethiopia’s Tigray region. On 26 February the NYT ran an article titled “Ethiopia’s War Leads to Ethnic Cleansing in Tigray Region, U.S. Report Says” containing harrowing details and claims, primarily how systematic ethnic cleansing was all but confirmed by the government “report”.

The article was picked up on and featured by numerous other significant media like the Washington Post and CNN as it went pinging around the media echo chamber. I too referenced it in an article I did about the Tigray conflict for Quillette. But it then turned out that the “internal United States government report” that is the linchpin of the NYT’s claims appears to have been far less official and substantial than the paper suggests. Instead, based on various sources I spoke to afterwards, it was an unclassified, routine situation report based on impressions and part of a leaked embassy cable (in other words: an email).

I subsequently wrote an article for The American Conservative arguing that the NYT had committed journalistic overreach as well as contributing to the ongoing social media information war being waged by the Ethiopian government and its opponents online. Having received some criticism for my article, I admit I placed myself on a sticky wicket and potentially committed a flip-side error to the NYT’s journalistic overreach by writing an article that could be interpreted as downplaying the likelihood of ethnic cleansing.

Journalism isn’t meant to be activism

That was not my intention. There is plenty of evidence, although a lot of it is unsubstantiated, to indicate systematic cleansing is indeed happening, especially in Western Tigray, which was the area the NYT focused on. During interviews for The American Conservative article, I was told the cable may well have been leaked to the NYT because of frustration on the US side about the lack of direct response from the US government given the grave situation on the ground — the UK government has been even quieter, of course — and so the NYT article’s lack of transparency about the true nature of the report could be considered justified.

But then where does one draw the line on journalistic overreach and misrepresentation, especially given the sorts of consequences that can arise in a world of social media and internet-based bating and hate speech? During my experiences as a journalist, editors don’t tend to let this sort of misrepresentation or ambiguity slip, and for good reason: journalism isn’t meant to be activism.

Brits should care about the inner machinations at the NYT because where the US and its media go, the UK usually follows.

“A battle is under way for the future of the BBC News,” Roger Mosey, former head of BBC TV News, wrote in The Sunday Times last year. “The question is whether the corporation sticks with its traditional values of impartiality and fairness to all sides, or whether it becomes more of a campaigning organisation in which journalists shape the agenda to harmonise with their personal views.”

That sounds mightily like what is happening at the NYT. The BBC’s famous America correspondent Alistair Cooke perceptively observed that the trends and habits embraced by the US almost inevitably migrate over the water to the UK. Admittedly he gave a time lag of about 10 years, but he can be forgiven for not foreseeing how the Internet age would wipe out that interval as well as cause the fabled institution to which he devoted much of his life to succumb to that migratory rule in the worst way possible by aping the ills that plague the modern American media landscape.

Both the NYT and BBC are in danger of fatally undermining themselves

Mosey warns that the BBC risks being drawn into the culture wars that are being fought in UK national life with, if not quite the same degree of angry partisanship as in the US, an increasing and deleterious level of shrillness and bombast. Mosey notes a 2020 appearance by the BBC’s director of editorial policy and standards before a governmental committee, during which the director discussed the risks of too many BBC staff enthusiastically adopting a work culture that succumbs to the darker side of Twitter and hence is “adversarial, more argumentative, more combative, more polarised and sometimes toxic”.

In this the director describes a BBC work culture mimicking the American model in which media are throwing off any semblance of being objective and non-partisan, instead embracing righteous fury and indoctrination — as increasingly evidenced in both the NYT news and op-ed pages. Mosey sees the crux of the matter being “whether the corporation sticks with its traditional values of impartiality and fairness to all sides, or whether it becomes more of a campaigning organisation in which journalists shape the agenda to harmonise with their personal views.”

The subsequent fallout at the BBC is similarly unpleasant to the hostile work environment that Weiss described in her resignation letter — “My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist.” Mosley also notes how BBC editorial staff are reporting that work is becoming “unbearable” due to “pressure groups both internal and external.”

The promotion of Groupthink is not to be taken lightly

There is a key difference, though, between what is happening at the NYT and at the BBC, which creates an additional problem where the latter’s future is concerned. The clue is in the geographic modifier of each media’s nomenclature. The NYT, while a national paper, is ultimately a New York paper that is privately owned and speaks for New York. The BBC, of course, is the British Broadcasting Corporation, officially speaking for the country as a public service, and being paid to do so by British taxpayers — many of whom are losing patience with it, hence an online movement to Defund the BBC.

The striking parallel with the Defund the Police movement in America is perhaps no coincidence. While Brits on the whole have far less concerns about the behaviour of British police compared to their brethren in America — though the British attitude is shifting toward a more cynical view of policing given recent events — they are increasingly concerned about the way the BBC invariably polices the news through its decisions about what gets reported on and in how much detail.

Regardless of one’s political leanings, both the US and UK need the NYT and BBC

Much of the increasing consternation about the BBC results from the perception it is adopting an unnecessarily negative stance in its reporting, especially when it comes to hot-button national issues, similar to the perception some Americans have about unnecessary America bashing by the likes of the NYT with its controversial 1619 Project (an historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social and economic institutions). Many Brits feel a similar approach is being taken by the BBC, exemplified by its parsing of Britain’s colonial past during its coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement and the state of racism in the UK.

Regardless of one’s political leanings and media-induced exacerbations, both the US and UK need the NYT and BBC. We need their their decades of accrued institutional knowledge and skill to be applied to the vital task of covering domestic affairs and what is happening elsewhere in the world in the likes of Ethiopia, Yemen, Syria, and China’s Xinjiang province.

This cat’s cradle of issues and conflicts needs good journalism in overwatch if we are not to become confused and overwhelmed into anxious paralysis — or cynical denial and avoidance. As Jaron Lanier discusses in his 2018 book, Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, regarding the negative impact of social media news feeds on more traditional journalism in the US: “Our huge nation is only a few organisations away from having no independent newsrooms without resources and clout.”

But both the NYT and BBC are in danger of fatally undermining themselves if they continue, as Mosey identifies, narrowing the range of permissible thought while “edging toward groupthink”. Groupthink is not to be taken lightly, especially given that it is currently having a field day due to the consequences of Covid-19 and lockdowns. All of this collectively appears to bring us ever closer to the sorts of totalitarian conditions warned about by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, which the possibilities of their actualisation we downplay at our peril.

“If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinised,” Weiss wrote in her resignation letter. “Everyone else lives in fear of the digital Thunderdome. Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets.”

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