Two years ago, Donald McNeil Jr., a longtime public health correspondent for the New York Times, repeated a racial slur back to a high school student while on a Times-organized trip to Peru. McNeil’s transgression, according to multiple accounts, took place during an informal discussion about the ethics of the use of the slur itself. Neither the student nor McNeil - nor any of the students on the trip - were Black, but several took offense at McNeil’s slip, as well as at other faux pas he had committed over the course of the trip. Complaints were filed and emails exchanged; upon returning to New York, McNeil was nearly fired by Times executive editor Dean Baquet, but was instead strongly reprimanded and permitted to return to reporting.
On January 28th, 2021, two years after the short saga had ostensibly ended, the Daily Beast published a trove of information, including internal communications within the Times and frustrated notes from parents. McNeil was told his position at the Times was untenable soon after.
An ideological battle had begun to play out: writers in the Times newsroom had drafted a letter stating that “our community is outraged and in pain,” and that McNeil’s conduct should have precluded him from covering aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, which is frequently examined by the media from the perspective of race and inequity. After McNeil negotiated his departure, Baquet and a Times managing editor sent a company-wide message explaining that “we do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” Dissidents within the media reacted: a piece in Reason magazine slammed the hastily-written message from Baquet, another from Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine argued strongly that especially in the case of the n-word, context can be ethically determinant. Bret Stephens, a conservative opinion columnist at the Times, submitted for publication a condemnation of his paper’s personnel decisions, but saw it spiked by Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger. In a further dramatic twist, the column was leaked to the New York Post, which published it in full.
If you want a more detailed play-by-play of these events, I’ll point you in the direction of this explainer from Vanity Fair. Here, I’ll instead examine more carefully the implications of this chain of events for the role of the New York Times in the greater media ecosystem. This includes the increasingly important question of what it means for the behind-the-scenes operations of a news organization to become a form of news themselves.
Ben Smith, the New York Times’s media columnist, wrote in his piece “Postcard from Peru” published last Sunday:
The Times is an object of obsession because of its unusual, perhaps unhealthy, central place in American news, culture and politics. Its actions — and those of its internal factions — carry huge symbolic weight. That’s the thing that struck me most when I got here a year ago, and wrote that “because The Times now overshadows so much of the industry, the cultural and ideological battles that used to break out between news organizations now play out inside The Times.” The Times’s media ambitions have also intensified its status as a cultural lightning rod. It is no longer just a source of information. It seeks to be the voice whispering in your ear in the morning, the curriculum in your child’s history class and the instructions on caramelizing shallots for the pasta you’re making for dinner.
Smith’s column is illuminating in several ways. First, it was tremendously scoop-heavy, providing information about the internal machinations of the Times that other columnists and publications had failed to compile. A lengthy on-the-record interview with a disconcerted high school student from McNeil’s 2019 trip serves as the thematic backdrop for Smith’s discussion of newsroom politics.
But perhaps more importantly, Smith’s column was published in the Times itself, on the “news” side of the news/opinion divide. Where Stephens had ostensibly been prevented from publishing criticism of Times management, Smith was trusted with personally-inflected news piece that ventured into eyebrows-raised skepticism of the New York Times’s corporate ambition and newsroom chaos. Smith’s piece appears carefully tailored to reflect general cultural worries about the ideological slant of reporters at mainstream media institutions. His writing is perhaps tailored enough to read as a genuine compilation of his understanding of how the Times newsroom functions, but nonetheless avoids the defiance and strife which editors foresaw in Stephens’s article from days earlier. The column itself must be taken with a degree of skepticism, and is best studied as an example of media politics at work; as another piece in the puzzle of the drama at the Times, rather than as an objective birds-eye-view roundup of the facts. Smith’s column straddles personal meditation and Columbia Journalism Review-style analysis, with a small dose of public relations work for the Times editorial staff.
Articles about internal drama at the Times have typically been written as straight news pieces - in other words, they dissociate the reporter from the story, and were it not for the banner at the top of the page, the reader would be hard pressed to determine which newspaper they were reading. Smith’s column is the Times learning how to cover itself. It is the Times grappling with the notion that everything that happens within its own reporting and editing process doesn’t just make for good headlines, but also for politically charged ones that necessitate careful yet potentially profitable coverage.
To some extent, this development is predictable. Recent trends in print journalism have led to increasing emphasis on the personalities of the writers behind news stories. No longer is the realm of identity cultivation restricted to opinion writers and audio-visual reporters - print journalists get auctioned off to television stations as recurring contributors, have profile pictures posted next to their by-lines and, most importantly, are encouraged by editors to build a robust presence on Twitter. It is not easy to imitate the intimate relationships viewers develop with television anchors and radio hosts. But papers like the Times encourage their employees to toe the boundary of personal expression everywhere but within the text of their stories. When reporters’ identities come into the fore, personnel decisions naturally become more salient to readers. The inner workings of the Times become analogous to drama on a movie set or in a professional football team’s locker room.
Another trend in journalism that perhaps holds some explanatory power is the shift toward presentation of the journalism process, of “how the sausage gets made” in high-stakes national reporting. As trust in mainstream media falls, news organizations, and especially the New York Times, have sought to develop strategies of reassuring readers that their content is comprehensive and balanced. Some strategies include a professed emphasis on fact-checking and public updates to ethics guidelines. The hiring of Ben Smith as a media columnist created a legitimate ombudsman with access to important figures in the Times hierarchy and was meant to indicate institutional transparency to readers. Reporters now saturate the podcast airwaves, explaining to audiences how the biggest headline of the day came together. The theory goes, if readers gain insight into how stories are compiled and how reporters made their decisions, they will extend greater trust to what they read. An unintended consequence is that readers have a hard time weaning themselves from this level of involvement in the processes of journalism. Used to getting the scoop on the scoop, news consumers may find it almost a given that they’ll eventually encounter a tell-all on every conflict unfolding behind closed doors. Several decades ago, print journalism personnel decisions were mundane; today they are capable of dominating news cycles.
But that is of course due in no small part to the social justice-related reasons for which these personnel decisions occur. It is without a doubt significant to the behavior of news organizations and individual journalists that McNeil resigned over a race politics-related clash of perspectives. The Times, notably, has been the epicenter of other battles with similar outcomes: in June, the decision to publish an op-ed from Senator Tom Cotton calling for military response to violent Black Lives Matter protests in Portland brought about a campaign of opposition from Times staffers. The editor of the opinion section, James Bennet, was terminated as a result, and Bari Weiss, a politically moderate op-ed writer, resigned in solidarity. Around the same time, an op-ed from the aforementioned Bret Stephens leveled criticism at the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer-winning historical volume commissioned by the Times and created by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a talented, controversial, and confrontational reporter. One colleague criticizing another within the same publication is far from standard, and accentuates Smith’s quip above that the battles which used to play out between newspapers now unfold within the Times itself. More recently, the Times’s critically acclaimed podcast Caliphate was revealed to have hinged on unverified reporting from an untrustworthy source; Andy Mills, the podcast’s producer, was doubly disgraced when allegations of misconduct around female coworkers arose.
The paper had already been a bastion of liberal political resistance to President Trump since 2015, a characteristic it earned in tandem with its “Failing New York Times” moniker. Adding the battles over social justice issues within the newsroom to the equation meant that the Times became a focal point in the culture war between the left and the right, as well as the progressive left and the mid 20th-century-style liberal left. It also raised the degree of difficulty of continuing to function as the paper of record, even as regional newspapers fold, national newspapers reduce circulation, and star columnists flow to personal blogs and newsletters. Together, the Times’s open-air newsroom discord and position in ageless partisan politics leave it on a cultural precipice. But they also might promise the future of financially viable print journalism - and this is the dilemma that your humble blog writer spends his time thinking about in the few moments when he’s not typing out columns for this page.
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