Why the Left Can’t Stand The New York Times

Illustration by Sara Wong

Every morning that I’m not hungover, I wake up around 8am, because that is when my two cats start howling for breakfast. I feed them, make coffee, and walk barefoot and unwashed (mug in hand) through my apartment building’s common hallway to the front door, where I pick up my New York Times and my Financial Times.

I then walk back to my apartment, look at the front page of the New York Times for approximately five to eight seconds, and throw the whole thing in the garbage with contempt. I drink my coffee and proceed to read the entirety of the Financial Times, excluding the particularly dense bits of the Companies & Markets section. If it’s the weekend edition, I even read most of House & Home, whose editors seem to have an incredibly generous definition of “real estate,” making room for topics like homelessness and wildlife conservation. I take care to read the kidding-not-kidding op-eds from wealthy people demanding that children be banned from restaurants and art museums.

As a “big S” Socialist, my reading habits often surprise liberals. I’m a writer, though my biggest audience comes from the listenership of Chapo Trap House, a popular leftist comedy podcast. This makes me something of a curiosity among my colleagues at traditional media institutions—staffed largely by liberals—so I often find myself explaining my preference for the pink paper of liberal capitalism over the Gray Lady of cultural liberalism. The answer is simple: by literally any measure, the Financial Times is just a better paper. It covers the world as it is—a global battle not of ideas or values, but of economic and political interests. 

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Compared to the Times, the reporting is usually more in-depth; the reporters generally have more expertise; the coverage is more comprehensive both geographically and substantively; even the op-eds are better (likely because they are far fewer, and they’re not used to pad the paper with “content”—confessionals, puff pieces, listicles—rather than reporting). Most refreshing, the FT does not lose itself in the mire of myopic American culture wars, which very rarely breach the surface of material politics and/or economics. When it does run soft news, it’s higher quality (Rana Foroohar’s “Lunch with the FT” with Rebecca Solnit, for example, transcends the genre of fawning celebrity profile into an understated but scathing critique).

Conversely, the New York Times is the flagship publication for liberal triumphalism; it holds the line of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”—the notion that all serious ideological conflict crashed to a halt with the suspension of the Cold War, with very little at stake in future political disputes beyond regional trade accords and fine-tuning of currency regimes.

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Recently, however, Fukuyamism has taken a serious blow. The past presidential election was a shock to nearly everyone whose job it was to predict its outcome, and both the Bernie and Trump upsets prove that we have not, as Fukuyama predicted, reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.” The idea of the “End of History” lost credibility with anyone paying attention to skyrocketing wealth inequality and political unrest, and it’s pretty clear that the world remains a raging battle between the haves and have-nots. Karl Marx knew it, your average Detroit autoworker certainly knows it, and Edward Luce of FT knows it. Even Fukuyama himself acknowledges the instability of the American liberal political trajectory, proclaiming, “Socialism ought to come back.” David Brooks, on the other hand. . .

Adding insult to injury, the Gray Lady is suddenly the object of constant scorn from the nation’s highest office. Having spent eight years in the comfortable favor of Barack Obama, a position so secure that they faced zero consequences for such glaring moral and journalistic failings as the endorsement of the Iraq War, the “Failing New York Times” and its fellows now thrash in fury at their sudden irrelevance to these crude new political elites. The Times is unable to conceive of a world in which it was so very wrong, and unable to cope with a political administration that speaks of it with utter contempt. Not only has it lost the king’s ear, it is finding itself entirely incapable of appealing to the peasants; the cynical and transparent hit pieces on Bernie Sanders betray the paper’s general contempt for mass politics.

Were the American media machine accountable to the public, a more self-reflective, penitent assembly of institutions, or at least capable of shame, the Times might have spent a little effort reconsidering its “house style” ideology. And yet it stays the course. But why?

 

There are psychological factors at play: denial, certainly, which we see in the constant reassurance of the Times’s #resistance readership that this was all a big mistake and that Daddy is coming to save them any day now. But as a good Marxist, I must point out that ideology and its attendant publishing philosophies are largely the product of market forces. Public broadcasting institutions like the BBC can remain dull and informative. FT’s reportage serves a readership that gambles on world events. The New York Times compulsively analyzes and scrutinizes everything Trump ad nauseam because it pays the bills by cultivating an audience, flattering them, and keeping them stimulated. Just look at the “Trump Bump,” the 66 percent increase in profits the paper enjoyed from exhausting every possible iteration of commentary, speculation, or tirade about The Donald. 

Looking further back, the decline of newspaper publishing as an industry has left much of “flyover country” nearly totally ignored by the coastal elites (yes, it’s a fair descriptor) for years now. Smaller papers have far smaller budgets for travel and long-term investigative reporting, and many local papers have been gutted or scrapped for parts entirely. Local coverage has its own weaknesses, of course, and national news is essential to avoid the parochial politics of a highly provincial federalist United States, but if we still had good local papers, might the Times have seen more of the misery and disaffection that paved the way for Donald Trump? Might serious local coverage of the immiserating results of NAFTA and welfare reform—both enacted by Bill Clinton—have made it obvious that Hillary would be less than inspiring for the majority of working-class Americans? 

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The slight increase in news employment at “digital native” outlets (about 6,000 jobs between 2008 and 2017) has not only failed to replace the lost jobs at news desks, it has also produced less substantive writing. With the rise of internet “content,” major news outlets have now expanded their op-ed and opinion sections into a stupefying ne plus ultra of BuzzFeed-style clickbait. The result is a vast pool of pseudopolitical content, wide as an ocean, shallow as a puddle. (Not only is the Times bloated with opinion pieces and op-eds, you will notice they are positioned very prominently, at the very top of the website. Meanwhile, FT sticks them at the bottom.)

If you want your small town to get some ink in the Times, you should do something that would infuriate Sarah Lawrence students.

Just for example, last spring I noticed not one but two pieces in the Times dedicated to a Twitter tempest in a teapot about whether it was “cultural appropriation” for a white Utah high school student to wear a cheongsam, a dress of Chinese origin, to prom. This is not journalism, cultural commentary, or even, really, a trend piece—it’s an attempt to appear relevant. (But I suppose if you want your small town to get some ink in the Times, you should do something that would infuriate Sarah Lawrence students.) In an effort to survive the internet age, the Times has stooped to tracking tweets, chasing the sound and fury of never-ending online spectacles that rarely mean anything to anyone, save for an online microculture dedicated to “the discourse.” 

Some fluff could almost be confused for reportage, such as the bizarre amount of space the paper of record devoted to Alan Dershowitz’s alleged travails as a social pariah on Martha’s Vineyard for his support of Trump, but if I wanted gossip I’d read the society pages. The paper’s collective decision to dedicate space—even in the infinite arena of Web content—and resources to such utterly meaningless and unnewsworthy trivialities indicates an editorial commitment not to journalism, but to educated-middle-class dinner party talking points.

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The greatest factor in the decline of liberal journalism, however, is the decline of the Left itself. In the absence of labor desks at local papers and a vibrant trade union movement to fund working-class publications, the labor beat goes largely unreported, or merely reported within the confines of an egregiously bourgeois myopia. Take #MeToo, a “movement” to combat the scourge of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. The media obsessively focused on wealthy movie stars and high-profile women in (you guessed it) the media. If readers had zero knowledge of the US and they picked up the Times, they might assume these rich, famous women are the most vulnerable women in the world, and not, as it is, the exact opposite. (FT is no Studs Terkel, but as a paper of capitalism its editors at least keep the focus on policy and women at work, without trying to pass endless lurid celebrity gossip off as feminist journalism.) 

A strong labor press would have expanded the conversation about #MeToo to include women who pick tomatoes, work assembly lines, wait tables, and clean hotel rooms. A strong labor press would have politicized the problem with serious policy and labor law demands. “Progressive” publications are no substitute for a labor Left, either. At this point The Nation appears to be largely a brochure for the magazine’s woke travel agency (that’s a real business). Unmoored from any working-class institution, they skew liberal, and of course suffer from the same funding woes as any other publication. 

And so the media landscape is dominated by the liberal publications and their clickbait #resistance outrage, their Fukuyama worldview still preserved in jiggling aspic. It’s a difficult spell to break, especially when the ideologues are doubling down in a manic panic. 

In the 1976 Sidney Lumet classic Network, Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) is an anchorman turned “mad prophet of the airwaves” after he is fired for low ratings and suffering a psychotic break. Mounting a popular resistance of its own, his sensationalist TV show captivates a disaffected viewership, who are “mad as hell, and not gonna take this anymore.” After Beale demands on air that the president of the United States stop a deal to sell the network’s conglomerate to an even larger Saudi conglomerate, the chairman of the American conglomerate (played by Ned Beatty) calls him into a meeting and roars:

You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no Third Worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petrodollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reichsmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today.

It’s a perfect scene: the ruthless capitalist bellowing the reality of the world to a hysterical showbiz crusader who heretofore imagined himself a virtuous evangelist, never once considering his own insignificance in the face of market forces. And when it comes to journalism, committed capitalists are always better materialists than the liberals. And that’s why I read FT. Sure, they’re rooting for the other team, but at least they know the game.

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Amber A’Lee Frost is a freelance writer, columnist for the Baffler, and co-host of the Chapo Trap House podcast. She lives in Brooklyn.