NEWYORK, TIMES CHANGES
New York magazine|November 09, 2020
For the sake of the country—and the business model—the New York Times evolved during the Trump years: less dispassionate, more crusading. This has sparked a raw internal debate over the paper’s mission and future.
Reeves Wiedeman

ON OCTOBER 23, ELEVEN DAYS BEFORE the presidential election, Manohla Dargis, one of the movie critics at the New York Times, popped in to the #newsroom-feedback channel on the company’s Slack to pose an existential query. “Friendly question,” Dargis wrote to more than 2,000 of her colleagues. “What is this channel now?”

The #newsroom-feedback channel had been created in June, after the Times published an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas arguing for the deployment of the military to quell nationwide protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd. The column was quickly lambasted: for factual errors, an inflammatory headline—“Send in the Troops”—and a feeling that the Times should not be in the business of publishing arguments for the use of American troops to crack down on American citizens. In response, dozens of the paper’s employees took to Twitter, writing in unison, “Running this puts Black @nytimes staffers in danger.”

This was a break from Timesian tradition, which prohibited employees from expressing their anger at the paper to the broader world. So the staff turned to Slack, taking aim first at the column (“It’s very Bolsonaro of Op-Ed to run this”); then at the op-ed section’s editor, James Bennet (“We’re tiptoeing around the elephant in the room, trying not to notice the stink of the huge pile of crap it’s just dumped. Should JB be replaced?”); and, eventually, at the Times itself. Employees of color felt unheard—“We love this institution, even though sometimes it feels like it doesn’t love us back”—while tech reporters worried the Times’ defense of the column, in the name of an open consideration of a wide range of opinion, was making the paper look like the companies its reporting was taking to task: “It is frustrating to hear some of the same excuses (we’re just a platform for ideas!) that our journalists and columnists have criticized tech CEOs for making.”

In the weeks after the Cotton op-ed, #newsroom-feedback served as a very heated pandemic-era office watercooler. This was healthy enough—albeit a distinctly un-Timesian way of handling dissent. The Times had always been a place where employees grumbled in the cafeteria, and complaints might slowly wind their way to the editorial cabal atop the newsroom known as “the masthead,” at which point any decisions would be handed down quietly. Now, Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, was in #newsroom-feedback, answering critiques about the Times’ journalism from not only his reporters but also the paper’s software developers and data scientists.

The conversations could become tense. Employees would paste tweets criticizing the paper into the channel; the journalists would get defensive; someone would leak the argument to friends with Twitter accounts; and the ouroboros of selfcriticism would take another bite out of its tail and everyone’s time. “Gang, it would be great to shift the tone of this discussion,” Baquet jumped in to say during a fight about whether “Opinion”-section provocateur Bari Weiss’s description of a “civil war inside The New York Times between the (mostly young) wokes the (mostly 40+) liberals” was a reductive argument, a mischaracterization—or perhaps an unwelcome assessment with a modicum of truth.

The dustup laid bare a divide that had become increasingly tricky for the Times: a large portion of the paper’s audience, a number of its employees, and the president himself saw it as aligned with the #resistance. This demarcation horrified the Old Guard, but it seemed to make for good business. “The truth can change how we see the world,” the Times declared in an advertisement broadcast at last year’s Academy Awards, positioning itself as a bulwark in an era of misinformation.

On Election Night, as the Times’ polling appeared to have overestimated Democratic response, subscribers experienced a partial repeat of 2016’s anguish about whether they were living in a bubble. Four years of upheaval and a summer of unrest, followed by the looming end of the Trump administration, had some inside the paper wondering the same thing. Was whatever might have been lost in the course of the Trump era gone for good— and good riddance?

“There’s still this huge gap between what the staff and audience and management want. The audience is Resistance Moms.”

THE TIMES HAS A FITFUL relationship to self-examination. After the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal of the early aughts, it created a public-editor position to answer questions and critiques from readers, only to discard it in 2017, partly with the idea that Twitter could do the same job. The paper also created a standards department responsible for making sure the hundreds of pieces of journalism it publishes every day, in an increasing range of mediums, remain appropriately Timesian. The department now has its own Slack channel, where editors and reporters can ask whether it’s acceptable to use the word poop in a story about feces being tested for covid-19 (verdict: “Best to avoid”) and how to decorously describe a recent Zoom incident at The New Yorker (“Less is more in display type”).

The Trump era forced a rushed period of reflection. “I was part of the discussion with Dean when we first described Trump as lying on the front page,” Carolyn Ryan, one of 14 masthead editors at the Times, told me recently. “It took 45 minutes.” The incident happened in September 2016, when Trump renounced his own birtherism, then falsely accused Hillary Clinton of starting the conspiracy theory. “It feels kind of quaint,” Ryan said of the decision. “But at the time, it was a shattering departure.”

It was also a shattering departure for Times journalists to walk into the newsroom after Trump’s 2016 victory and find their colleagues in tears. A neutral objectivity had long been core to the way the paper saw itself, its public mission, and its business interests (Abe Rosenthal, a legendary Timesman, had the words he kept the paper straight carved on his tombstone), even if it was an open secret that the Times was published by and for coastal liberals. In 2004, the paper’s first public editor, Daniel Okrent, answered the headline above one of his columns—“Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?”—in the first sentence of his story: “Of course it is.”

At an all-staff meeting shortly after the 2016 election, Baquet told the paper’s staff that it could not become part of the “loyal opposition” to Trump. The Times would report on Trump aggressively—the paper earmarked an extra $5 million to cover the administration in 2017—but fairly, so that the paper could maintain its “journalistic weapon,” as one of its star writers put it to me, meaning the ability to publish something like Trump’s tax returns and have them be viewed as unbiased truth. “Some read it and like it. Some read it and don’t like it,” Richard Nixon said of the Times. “But everybody reads it.”

Trump presented the newsroom with a series of unprecedented questions. Do you point out his racism in a headline? The masthead’s answer was, in short: Yes, albeit sparingly and with purpose.

But the paper’s claim to holding the independent center was already slipping, as the staff came to grips with an increasingly polarized audience. Journalists were caught between the desire to appear objective to right-leaning readers and sources—while avoiding backlash from left-leaning ones— and wishing they could get back to the job they thought they had signed up for. Most of the pressure to serve as the loyal opposition was coming from the outside: A Pew poll found that 91 percent of people who consider the Times their primary news source identify as Democrats, roughly the same as the percentage of Fox News viewers who identify as Republicans. In August 2019, the paper ran a front-page headline—“Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism”—that caused enough uproar on the left about reputation laundering on the president’s behalf that it was eventually changed to “Assailing Hate But Not Guns,” at which point the president himself joined the fray. “‘Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism,’ was the correct description in the first headline by the Failing New York Times,” he tweeted. “Fake News - That’s what we’re up against.”

“I think James Bennet’s firing was as meaningful for the paper’s existence and how it’s perceived as Jayson Blair was.”

But the Timesian impulse toward some kind of objectivity ignored the fact that the view from nowhere was actually too often a view from the Upper West Side and Montclair, New Jersey. “The whiteness of the paper has sometimes been a problem because it makes a bunch of nonwhite people run around like Cassandras—that’s what 2015 and 2016 felt like,” Wesley Morris, the paper’s criticat-large, told me recently, noting that many employees of color were perplexed by the paper’s initial reluctance to call out Trump for his most brazen expressions of authoritarianism and racism. “Watching that awareness change in four years has been really interesting,” said Morris.

WHEN THE COTTON OP-ED was published in June, the Times was already “a tinderbox,” as one Black employee said to me. Everyone had been stuck inside for three months, and Black Lives Matter protests were now rolling across the country. White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist were surging toward the top of the Times’ best-seller list. More than 500 Times employees signed up for what one of the organizers called “Brave Space” events—a recasting of the phrase “safe space”—set up by the Black@NYT employee-resource group to talk about equity, allyship, and self-care in an incredibly stressful time for many.

Cotton’s column lit a match. During a company town hall two days later, while Bennet got teary answering questions, employees took to Slack again to express their frustration at the company’s seeming lack of action to rectify the situation. Bennet had joined the Times in 2016 with an explicit mandate to expand the voices in the op-ed pages beyond the center-left consensus in which most of its columnists fit. The “Opinion” section had suffered a number of controversies, and the newsroom had become frustrated with what seemed to be an alternate set of standards. Employees were galled to find out that Bennet had not read the column before it was published—while a Black photo editor had done so and objected to no avail. A development editor connected Cotton’s op-ed with a profile of Adolf Hitler from 1922, while an employee in brand marketing asked why Alison Roman, the food writer who had recently been suspended for disparaging comments she made about Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo, was seemingly being treated more severely than Bennet.

The conversation turned into what more than one Times employee described to me as a “food fight.” During the mêlée, “Opinion” columnist Elizabeth Bruenig uploaded a PDF of John Rawls’s treatise on public reason, in an attempt to elevate the discussion. “What we’re having is really a philosophical conversation, and it concerns the unfinished business of liberalism,” Bruenig wrote. “I think that all human beings are born philosophers, that is, that we all have an innate desire to understand what our world means and what we owe to one another and how to live good lives.”

“Philosophy schmosiphy,” wrote a researcher at the Times whose Slack avatar was the logo for the hamburger chain Jack in the Box. “We’re at a barricades moment in our history. You decide: which side are you on?”

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