Media matters


I cancelled my New York Times subscription a few days ago. I remember struggling to articulate to the customer service agent why I wanted to cancel. “I was disgusted with the Times’s coverage of the fake Clinton email scandal”, I eventually blurted out. She seemed to sympathize, but replied, “We’re doing our best to improve our politics coverage”, and referenced this rather remarkable letter from the publisher of the Times to its readers.

In it, the Times explains, in its own inimitable and oblique way, that it fucked up. It promises to “rededicate [itself] to the fundamental mission of Times journalism” (having strayed, apparently), and to “hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly.” Strangely, though, the letter also contains this bit of self-congratulation (later scrubbed): “We believe we reported on both candidates fairly during the presidential campaign”, as well as the statement that “You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.” (In an internal statement to staffers, this point was reiterated: “But we also approach the incoming Trump administration without bias. We will cover his policies and his agenda fairly.”)

Of course, many on the right-wing view the direction of bias as pointing in the exact opposite direction as I do. The New York Post whined that “The “fairly” line [in the letter] stood out because many readers felt news stories in the newspaper run by Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Publisher Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr. were decidedly favorable to Hillary Clinton and biased against Donald Trump.”, and Trump himself lied that “The @nytimes sent a letter to their subscribers apologizing for their BAD coverage of me.”

The level of disconnect between the way (some) liberals and (most) conservatives view the Times’s coverage points to the real concern for the Times. It’s difficult to be a paper with national reach, especially one that needs to attract more digital subscribers and digital revenue to be viable, while also pissing off a sizable fraction of the country. In other words, becoming a truly a left-wing paper, by hammering Trump every chance it gets (and perhaps also firing David Brooks and Ross Douthat), is something the Times will never do. Instead, it will publish breathless articles about Trump’s efforts to promote diversity in his cabinet (including giving him credit for simply thinking about nominating Ben Carson, whose close advisor openly admitted that he’s not qualified to serve); get suckered by Trump on his position on climate change; and repeatedly wring its hands over how mean it and other liberals were to Trump and Trump supporters (apparently, it’s uncouth to criticize deplorable people for being deplorable). If all of this constitutes “rededication,” what preceded it makes a lot more sense.

There’s an inherent conflict between practicing actual journalism and making gobs of money. It’s the same tension between letter E (Entertainment) in ESPN’s acronym and the journalism it’s ostensibly devoted to. To be specific, the conflict is that it is much more lucrative to simple convey entertaining news to an audience than it is to analyze it, parse it, fact-check it, and provide context, thereby risking actually offending someone. (I’m reminded of a comment made by the CEO of CBS, Les Moonves, that Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” That was back in February, when one could laugh at such things.)

And the conflict mentioned above will invariably undermine the Times’ effort to achieve its goal of “hold[ing] power to account”. In fact, the conflict enters the clause immediately following it: is it really possible to “hold power to account” while doing so “impartially”? It’s as if the Times is saying, “We’re picking a side but trying to appear as if we’re not”. In the age of Trump, it’s time to pick a side. Impartiality (whatever that means in the context of journalism) is entirely inadequate.

I suppose my real disgust with the New York Times, and my true reason for cancelling my subscription, is this: they have revealed that they fail to grasp the gravity of the current political situation, and of how tenuous our democracy and civilized norms may be. Once these norms have been broken, they can’t be patched together again.

We have a president who views discussion of sexual assault as mere “locker room talk”. We have a president who countenances violence against political opponents. We have a president who mocks the disabled and pens up the media. We have a president who attributes his popular vote loss to illegal voting, and warned before the election that he wouldn’t accept the results if he lost. We have a president who plans to conduct a “victory tour” only in the states he won. We have a president who blithely tweets racist and anti-Semitic fabrications. We have a president whose top advisors are bigots of various and sundry forms. In short, we have a president who has so thoroughly otherized his opponents that we might as well not exist, except as gross caricatures to motivate his base every four years.

This is new, I think. Obama may have insulted rural voters by claiming they cling to their guns and religion, but he also gave them access to health insurance and federal stimulus money. And even George W. Bush told Muslims that he “respected their faith” after the 9/11 attacks. But now, for the first time ever, we have a president who doesn’t actually care about the well-being of the 54% (!) of the country who voted against him.

The one writer from the Times whom I will miss is Charles Blow. I think he put the situation well (while not-so-subtly lashing out at his employer) in a recent OpEd on the Times’s much-hyped meeting with Trump:

I will say proudly and happily that I was not present at this meeting. The very idea of sitting across the table from a demagogue who preyed on racial, ethnic and religious hostilities and treating him with decorum and social grace fills me with disgust, to the point of overflowing. Let me tell you here where I stand on your “I hope we can all get along” plea: Never.

Amen. And I hope that our dollars for journalism, which will be indispensable in the next four years, are devoted to media organizations that say “Never” too.


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