The Media Today

The media today: Tensions at the Times boil over

February 27, 2018

Tensions within The New York Times have been simmering for some time. The direction of the paper’s op-ed pages under Opinion Editor James Bennet is a favorite topic of complaint among many of the Times’s critics, and Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo has a new piece that captures a crisis in confidence within the newsroom.

Conflict between the opinion section and hard news divisions at a newspaper isn’t unusual, but the open sniping currently going on at the Times is notable in its intensity. “People are worried. The newsroom feels embarrassed,” one senior newsroom figure told Pompeo.

The litany of controversies surrounding Bennet’s time as Opinion editor includes the hiring of columnists like Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, as well as decisions to run editorials by conspiracy theorist Louise Mensch and Blackwater founder Erik Prince. But the current contention was catalyzed by the hours-long tenure of Quinn Norton, a tech journalist whose online past included friendship with neo-Nazis and use of derogatory slurs.

Shortly after the Norton incident, HuffPost published leaked transcripts of internal conversations in which Times staffers criticized one of Weiss’s tweets about Olympian Mirai Nagasu. Bennet responded with 1500-word missive defending the role of the op-ed pages and requesting that Times employees keep any complaints about their colleagues in house.

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Bennet’s return to the Times in 2016—he had been Jerusalem bureau chief and a White House correspondent before leaving to lead The Atlantic—fueled speculation that he could be in line to succeed Executive Editor Dean Baquet. Those predictions have cooled somewhat, Pompeo reports, though he notes that it’s too early to place bets. (Bennet is also a CJR board member.)

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Newly installed Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger offered a vote of confidence for Bennet’s work, telling Pompeo, “I hear the criticism, and we take this stuff seriously, but I do believe that when you look at everything as a whole, you see a section that’s genuinely trying to wrestle with the ideas that are shaping America right now.”

Even though almost every news outlet now offers commentary on the biggest issues of the day alongside coverage, the opinion pages of the Times remain perhaps the most valuable piece of real estate in print media. Criticism of the voices published there is to be expected, but the escalated frustrations, both from within the newsroom and without—are genuine. Sure would be a nice topic for someone like a public editor to weigh in on, but alas.

Below, more on the opinions of the Times’s opinion section. 

  • Judgment in the digital age: Splinter’s Alex Pareene focuses on a line in Pompeo’s story in which Bennet says he finds it difficult to determine which criticisms of the section are legitimate. “If you don’t know how to judge the legitimacy or seriousness of the internet’s response to your work—that is, the response of people, formerly known as ‘readers’—you’re not qualified to be a top editor at a mass audience publication in 2018,” Pareene writes.
  • Nuance needed: New York’s Jonathan Chait tweets, “There needs to be more distinction between people critical of specific missteps by James Bennet and people who don’t want any conservative opinions on the New York Times op-ed page. Both are sort of lumped together.”
  • Trump problems: Last month, CJR’s Jon Allsop criticized Bennet’s decision to turn over the editorial page of the Times to letters from Trump supporters, calling it “patronizing and circular.”
  • Par for the course?: Last fall, Pompeo wrote about the “civil war” between news and editorial at The Wall Street Journal. At the time, one former editor described the Journal’s editorial stance opposing Robert Mueller as “a different level of crazy.”


Other notable stories

  • Variety’s Gene Maddaus reports that The Weinstein Company will declare bankruptcy after a deal to sell the company collapsed. The bidding group was apparently unwilling to provide immediate financing to keep the company afloat.
  • The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple recaps an interview Fire and Fury author Michael Wolff did with an Australian broadcaster in which Wolff apparently pretended he couldn’t hear a difficult question about his suggestion that Trump was having an affair. “Accountability is descending on Wolff himself, and he is crumbling in theatrical fashion,” Wemple writes.
  • White House Senior Advisor Ivanka Trump faced criticism after she told NBC’s Peter Alexander it was “inappropriate” to ask her about allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against her father.
  • CJR’s Mathew Ingram reports on The Disconnect, a new digital magazine that forces you to turn of your internet in order to read it. Ingram calls it “the ultimate paradox.” Gimmick or good idea?
  • For Pacific Standard, Lucia Graves looks at how President Trump has weaponized the term “fake news.” Trump’s “campaign to transform ‘fake news’ into an all-occasion put-down has worked, at least by some measures,” Graves writes.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.