The Media Today

Unpacking The New York Times’s multitudes

August 21, 2019

It’s been a difficult few weeks for The New York Times. A little over a month ago, the paper, along with many of its rivals, was called out for its euphemistic descriptions of Trump’s racist tweets. Three weeks later, after a gunman in El Paso killed 22 people in an anti-Latino massacre, the Times became a lightning rod for criticism; it had topped its story about the president’s post-shooting speech with a headline—“Trump urges unity vs. racism”—that was sorely lacking in context and skepticism. Last Monday, Dean Baquet, the Times executive editor, convened a town-hall meeting for staff and addressed the headline, which, he conceded, had been “a fucking mess.” A simultaneous scandal around Jonathan Weisman, a deputy Washington editor, and his tweets about Democratic politicians of color, exacerbated tensions within—and external scrutiny of—the newsroom. Last Tuesday, the Times demoted Weisman. On Thursday, Slate’s Ashley Feinberg published a transcript of the town hall, further prolonging a critical Times-centric news cycle.

Ironically, while last week’s town-hall and Weisman drama played out, the Times was earning rave reviews on a related front. Last Tuesday, the Times Magazine launched its 1619 Project, a sprawling initiative that aims to reframe America’s origin story around the arrival, 400 years ago, of the first African slaves in Virginia. On Sunday, the package dropped in print; Twitter—which, 10 days earlier, had rung with subscriber threats to drop the paper over its inadequate coverage of race—suddenly filled with readers’ proud snaps of the 1619 pullout. Still, the day did not pass without complaint: critics assailed the paper for a headline, on A1 of the same edition, that they said romanticized Stephen Miller, Trump’s hardline anti-immigration adviser, by referring to him as a “young firebrand.” It all felt rather contradictory. One critic, the writer John Warner, tweeted, “The NYTimes truly contains multitudes.”

Related: The 1619 Project and the stories we tell about slavery

The Times does contain multitudes. Headlines are not stories; A1 is not the magazine is not the opinion section. Some critics on the right, however, see no such contradictions—the Times, they say, is pursuing a calculated, unified agenda to paint Trump as a racist. Several conservative commentators took remarks made by Baquet at the town hall—in particular, that the Times is pivoting from the Trump-Russia story to “a more head-on story about the president’s character”—as evidence of a shifting smear campaign. Amid a flurry of furious tweets, US Sen. Ted Cruz compared the paper to Pravda; on Monday, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, also invoked Pravda, in a Fox & Friends discussion about the 1619 Project. Also on Fox, host Greg Gutfeld said the Times is “creating a framework to shape the news, to lay out a blueprint so you can just slot in all the stories about race.” Referring to the “slave article,” Gutfeld said, “I didn’t read it, but now my assumptions are this is all part of a greater narrative to paint Donald Trump as racist.”

Contemporary racism, including from the president, and the legacies of slavery are part of a connected narrative—just not in the way such critics think. In fact, it’s the disconnect in the Times’s treatment of the two that is particularly instructive: the 1619 Project is powerful because of its unflinching truth-telling, whereas some coverage of Trump’s words, in particular, seems to pull punches. The Times, which always courts outsized attention from media critics, is not a lone offender here, and Baquet’s editorial philosophy, as articulated at length at the town hall, is nuanced and worth reading in full. The paper does seem, however, to be overly concerned with perception. Baquet told staff that words like “racist” and “lie” lose their power when they’re repeated too often. But what if the truth requires repeating them?

Similarly, Baquet has stressed repeatedly, both internally and in interviews (including with CJR), that it’s not the Times’s job to lead the “opposition,” or the “resistance.” But there’s a difference between adversarial reporting on those in power—which is the proper function of a paper like the Times—and political opposition for opposition’s sake.

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The Times attracts so much scrutiny because—arguably more than any other outlet—it sets the national news agenda. Agenda-setting power is inextricable from allegations of political bias. The best thing for a newspaper to do is wield that power with the confidence that it’s telling unvarnished truths; second-guessing public perception obscures those truths. As Feinberg wrote of the town hall, “The problem for the Times is not whether it can navigate social-media controversies or satisfy an appetite for #resistance-based outrage, both of which it can tell itself are not a newspaper’s job to do. It’s whether it has the tools to make sense of the world.”

Making sense of the present and making sense of the past are two sides of the same endeavor; as Hannah-Jones put it, the 1619 Project “is, above all, an attempt to set the record straight. To finally, in this 400th year, tell the truth about who we are as a people and who we are as a nation.” When future historians judge this moment, and our coverage of it, will they think we told the whole, difficult truth about it?

Below, more on the Times:

  • A high standard, I: At the height of The Headline furor, Gabriel Snyder, CJR’s public editor for the Times, spoke with Baquet; “People think we are an important and necessary institution and they hold us to a high standard,” Baquet said. Last week, CJR’s Alexandria Neason reported from the launch of the 1619 Project.
  • A high standard, II: Jay Rosen, a professor at NYU, responded to The Headline and the subsequent town hall. “It has always struck me that while the people at The New York Times consider it the apex of journalism, the highest the ladder of excellence goes, they have not extended that reputation for quality to the acts of listening, receiving criticism, sorting signal from noise, and changing their work,” he writes. “‘We are not the resistance’ is a crappy read on what people are trying to tell you. But this is one area where mediocrity and worse—incompetence—is tolerated at the Times.”
  • Faultlines: Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo hears that, within the Times newsroom, views on The Headline mostly differed along generational lines. Sources told Pompeo that there’s also “a growing sense of disillusionment among prominent female Times journalists who have been huddling to hash out their concerns, including a string of high-ranking women leaving the institution for other publications where they ‘could have more power.’”

Other notable stories:

  • Facebook will hire human journalists to help curate a “News Tab” that will soon appear in its app, the Times’s Mike Isaac reports. The company is asking for candidates with five years of relevant work experience, but their role will likely be limited: NBC’s Dylan Byers writes that while “the top stories and breaking news items of the day will be selected by humans… the rest of the content will be determined algorithmically based on user data and preferences. These editors will only select stories and link back to the original sources. They will not edit headlines or stories or write their own content.” Also yesterday, Facebook released a summary of an “audit,” led by Jon Kyl, a former Republican senator, of allegations that the platform is biased against conservatives.
  • NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins profile The Epoch Times, a burgeoning website that boasts one of the biggest social media followings of any news outlet, and has spent more money on pro-Trump Facebook ads than any group outside of the Trump campaign. “The Epoch Times looks like many of the conservative outlets that have gained followings in recent years. But it isn’t,” Zadrozny and Collins write. “Behind the scenes, the media outlet’s ownership and operation is closely tied to Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual community with the stated goal of taking down China’s government.”
  • For CJR, Simon Parkin writes that news outlets are using interactive games to tell the climate-crisis story. “In the case of climate change, it’s hard to tell a story about infrastructural changes, or cascading ecological effects, or nonlinear phenomena,” Paolo Perdicini, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Art, says. “Games, by virtue of being dynamic and complex systems, have the potential to make us think about complexity.”
  • Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show still draws a large audience; nonetheless, following a string of controversies, advertisers are fleeing, the Times’s Tiffany Hsu reports. Big companies pulled ads from Carlson’s show in December, after he said that immigrants make America “poorer and dirtier and more divided,” and in March, after Media Matters for America dug up incriminating past remarks by Carlson. More recently, after Carlson called white supremacy a “hoax,” smaller firms, such as Calm and SoFi, jumped ship, too. Axios’s Sara Fischer writes that the Trump era has seen a rise in “advertising activism.”
  • Recently, C-VILLE Weekly, a newspaper in Charlottesville, Virginia, axed the column of Molly Conger, an independent journalist in the city; Conger had received what she calls an “empty” legal threat after mentioning a photograph of a police officer whose arm was around a white supremacist. Now Conger writes for The Guardian that she’s “surprised the paper’s owners reacted with such incredible cowardice.” (In 2018, CJR’s Brendan Fitzgerald looked at Charlottesville’s media a year after the deadly Unite the Right rally.)
  • For this week’s New Yorker, Susan Glasser profiled Mike Pompeo, the secretary of State. The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan says the article ignored Pompeo’s “well-documented bigotry toward Islam and Muslims—in fact, neither word even makes an appearance in the piece.” Hasan asks of the liberal media: “Why doesn’t rising anti-Muslim bigotry bother them in the same way as, say, anti-Semitism, homophobia, or anti-black racism?”
  • Last week, Joi Ito, the director of MIT’s Media Lab, apologized for courting donations from Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier who killed himself in jail last week. Now The Boston Globe reports that Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, plans to resign over the organization’s Epstein ties. “I no longer feel I can continue working on issues of social justice under the banner of the Media Lab,” he said.
  • And in Canada, the government of Quebec will make a $5-million loan to help a heavily indebted French-language newspaper chain stay afloat. Per the Montreal Gazette, the money will keep the papers in business until the end of the year, in the hope that they can find buyers before then.

ICYMI: Why federal prisons like the one where Epstein was held aren’t held accountable

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.