The Media Today

New editor at the Times faces the same old questions

April 20, 2022
Celeste Sloman for the New York Times

On Tuesday morning, A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, announced that Joseph Kahn would succeed Dean Baquet as the paper’s executive editor in June. Kahn, fifty-seven, is a former international and managing editor of the paper, and also a Pulitzer Prize–winning former China correspondent. A profile in New York magazine describes Kahn as “the ultimate inside man” at the Times, someone for whom being named to the top job was almost a foregone conclusion. But some believe his status as a longtime company man could make it difficult for him to navigate the political and cultural challenges the paper faces.

Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of CJR, wrote in a piece about Kahn’s appointment that the choice of a new executive editor has drawn even more scrutiny than usual. “The residue of the Trump years, and fears that the former president will return for another campaign, have put the Times in the bull’s-eye of the journalistic debates over objectivity and both-sides coverage,” Pope wrote. In picking Kahn, he argued, the paper has sent a clear message that it “has no plans to rethink its approach.” Sulzberger described the paper’s approach to its coverage of Trump and other related topics in 2018, saying: “We won’t be baited into becoming ‘the opposition.’ And we won’t be applauded into becoming ‘the opposition.'”

What those within the paper see as a commitment to independence is seen by some outside the Times as a failure to address reality. Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, responded to that Sulzberger comment in 2018, writing that some longtime Times readers “want Times journalists to see what they see—an assault on democratic institutions, the corruption of the American Republic.” Inside the Times, however, Rosen says, these kinds of people “are perceived as a threat.” The paper’s own piece on Kahn’s appointment says the Times is “grappling with shifting views about the role of independent journalism in a society divided by harsh debates over political ideology and cultural identity.” Rosen suggested this passage should instead read: “The Times is struggling with a model of political coverage that assumes a rough symmetry between the two parties at a time when one of the two has turned anti-democratic.”

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Dan Froomkin, editor of Press Watch, likened Kahn’s take on the objectivity question to Baquet’s, based on a speech Kahn gave in 2017, when he was assistant managing editor. At the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s annual gala, Kahn said some of the paper’s readers “want us to more forcefully confront a president they see as a threat to democracy and American power,” but that the managers of the Times “have decided it is not in our journalistic or business interest to do that.” For those kinds of decisions, Dan Gillmor, who runs a journalism lab at Arizona State University, said the Times “will be remembered as a great news organization that willingly served the people who hated the American republic.”

Prior to Kahn’s appointment, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the Times’ award-winning 1619 Project, said on Twitter, “I’ve been thinking more and more that newsrooms need to hold an all-staff meeting where they invite democracy experts & historians in & really do a massive reset of how we are covering what’s happening in our country right now. It’s not about partisanship but covering reality.” She added that she believes “we will look back and be appalled at the failures of journalism in this period of clear and, in my lifetime, unprecedented, attacks on freedom of speech and our democratic institutions.”

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The commitment of the Times and other newspapers to the principle of objectivity has come under fire in recent years, including from Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer-winning Times reporter, in a widely shared opinion piece published in 2020. “Since American journalism’s pivot many decades ago from an openly partisan press to a model of professed objectivity,” Lowery wrote, “the mainstream has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses.” The contours of acceptable debate, he said, “have largely been determined through the gaze of white editors. The views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral.”

In his piece on Kahn’s appointment, Pope noted that recent decisions by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post “to fill their own open executive-editor positions with people from outside their organizations (and outside a succession of white men)” led some to hope that the New York Times might also look to break with tradition in that regard, but it clearly chose not to do that. One reason for this decision, Pope argued, could be that things seem to be going so well for the paper of late, at least from a business perspective: “Ultimately, it was the Times’ financial and editorial successes under Baquet, Kahn, and their colleagues that mitigated the need for a leadership gambit.”

Sulzberger acknowledged as much in his note to Times staff on Tuesday, when he said that “some will interpret this promotion as a sign of confidence in our current path,” and then added emphatically, “That’s true. Under Dean and Joe, the Times has grown stronger in virtually every way.” Whether those strengths include the ability to put aside a doctrinaire approach to objectivity and consider the threats to democracy on its doorstep remains to be seen.

Here’s more on the Times:

  • Sturdy: In New York magazine, Shawn McCreesh describes how two former executive editors of the Times—Howell Raines and Jill Abramson—”self-destructed spectacularly in public after losing the faith of the Sulzberger family,” but says that this fate seems unlikely for Kahn. “He is the ultimate inside man, so sturdy, disciplined, and reverential to the mission of the Times that the very notion of him self-destructing seems improbable.” Kahn, writes McCreesh, is “a fabulously wealthy Bostonian” who, superficially at least, “seems more akin to Bill Keller, the son of a Chevron CEO.”
  • Steel: After returning to New York in 2008 from China, Kahn helped launch the Times’ Chinese-language website, a large financial investment at a difficult time for the company. In 2012, the site published an investigation into the hidden wealth of China’s ruling class, and the Chinese government blocked access to the site from within the country. (It remains blocked today.) Sulzberger told the Times the episode was an illustration of Kahn’s commitment to journalistic independence. “It was a really remarkable moment where you learned a lot about the steel in that guy’s spine,” the publisher said.
  • History: In 2019, Amber A’Lee Frost wrote for CJR about “Why the Left Can’t Stand the New York Times.” The paper, she said, 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.”


Other notable stories:

  • CNN+, the news network’s new streaming digital service, appears to be doomed, according to a report from Axios. “Warner Bros. Discovery has suspended all external marketing spend for CNN+ and has laid off CNN’s longtime chief financial officer as it weighs what to do with the subscription streaming service moving forward,” Sara Fischer reported, based on interviews with five unnamed sources. Executives at the news network are said to be frustrated that new leadership “is moving quickly to dismantle what they see as an eventual lifeline for the cable network.”
  • Taylor Lorenz, who covers digital culture for the Washington Post, revealed the identity of the woman behind a far-reaching right-wing account called Libs of TikTok, which, she writes, has “emerged as a powerful force on the Internet, shaping right-wing media, impacting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and influencing millions by posting viral videos aimed at inciting outrage among the right.” Following her story’s publication, Lorenz was criticized by a number of commentators, including Glenn Greenwald and Ben Shapiro, for “doxing,” or revealing the identity of, the woman without her permission.
  • The media “still haven’t learned how to cover the GOP threat to democracy,” Jennifer Rubin, a columnist for the Washington Post, argues in a recent column. “Multiple news outlets have dedicated themselves to covering democracy, yet coverage has not changed much. Days can go by without national newspapers or cable TV programming mentioning the coup attempt or voting suppression.” By way of an example, Rubin notes that “not one of the five major Sunday talk shows mentioned the revelation that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) had supported efforts to overturn the 2020 election despite no evidence of fraud.” 
  • Latvian Public Broadcasting interviewed Kirill Martynov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta Europe, an independent publisher that was forced to leave Russia and now publishes on a site based partially in Latvia. “A ban on the professional activity of journalists has been introduced in Russia,” Martynov told the Latvian news outlet. “Therefore, although we in Russia have not closed but suspended our work, we thought it would be helpful to set up a parallel platform in which we could now talk freely about important and worrying topics.”
  • Mike Chinoy writes for CJR about how former president Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 changed both the political and the media landscape. “The coverage was arguably almost as important as the details of the diplomacy,” he writes. “It transformed American and international perceptions of China, generated the public support Nixon needed to change US policy, and laid the groundwork for the Chinese government’s gradual moves to open the country to greater coverage by American media. But while the outlines of the Nixon trip are familiar, the story of how that momentous event was covered is much less well-known.”
  • A US appeals court has ruled that “scraping” of websites—copying publicly available data, something often done by journalists and other researchers—is not a breach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, TechCrunch reported. The ruling came in a long-running case launched by LinkedIn, which wanted to stop a rival company from pulling information from public profiles on LinkedIn. The case reached the US Supreme Court last year but was sent back to the original appeals court. TechCrunch called the ruling “a major win for archivists, academics, researchers and journalists.”
  • Nieman Journalism Lab writes about the first investigative report from the newly formed Redacción Regional collaborative project in Central America. The project, whose name means “regional newsroom” in Spanish, was formed to produce journalism that examines how Central American governments are “attacking their own democracies,” Nieman says. It’s made up of four newsrooms: La Prensa Gráfica in El Salvador, Contracorriente in Honduras, No-Ficción in Guatemala, and Divergentes in Nicaragua, along with Dromómanos, a production company that works with newsrooms.
  • Letizia Battaglia, a photographer who chronicled years of Sicilian Mafia bloodshed in Palermo, Italy, died on Wednesday at her home in Palermo, the New York Times reported. She was eighty-seven. “Ms. Battaglia went to work for the Palermo newspaper L’Ora in the 1970s, during the turbulent years known as the second Mafia Wars, when mobsters from the town of Corleone muscled in on Palermo crime gangs,” the Times wrote. “The gangland war felled hundreds of Mafiosi but also law enforcement officers, prosecutors and politicians. Ms. Battaglia and the photographer Franco Zecchin, her companion in life, were often first on the scene because they had an illegal police scanner.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.