Kathleen Kingsbury: Endorsing two candidates confused Times readers

Kathleen Kingsbury. Photo via The New York Times.

The Nieman Journalism Lab’s Sarah Scire last week spoke with The New York Times’ recently named opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury. It’s an interesting conversation that defies easy summary, but I was struck that Kingsbury now says she and the Times “ended up confusing people” when they endorsed two presidential candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, in last year’s Democratic primaries.

More than anything, I think Kingsbury represents steady leadership after the tumultuous James Bennet era, often caricatured as coming to an abrupt end over the infamous op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton but that was in fact — as Scire points out — punctuated by numerous lapses in judgment. Kingsbury demonstrated that steadiness last week when she killed a piece by columnist Bret Stephens. If the commentary, an n-word-filled defense of Don McNeil, had run, critics would be wondering if Kingsbury were up to the position. (Stephens’ point, such as it was, is that it ought to be considered acceptable to quote others using the n-word as long as there was no racist intent.)

I was also interested to see that Kingsbury and publisher A.G. Sulzberger “tend to talk daily.” The rule of thumb for good publishers is that they should stay out of the newsroom but that involvement in the opinion section is appropriate. John and Linda Henry are certainly involved in The Boston Globe’s opinion operation. On the other hand, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is known to be as hands-off with opinion as he is with news coverage. Sulzberger is entitled to have his say, but maybe he ought to back off and let Kingsbury do her job.

I had a long interview with Kingsbury several years ago, when she was the Globe’s managing editor for digital. She struck me then as capable and creative. The Times’ gain was definitely the Globe’s loss.

Correction: Kingsbury objected to my original characterization that she had said the Times made a mistake by not endorsing just one of the Democratic candidates. “I still believe choosing the two candidates was the right thing to do,” she says. I’ve updated this post to reflect that.

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Yes, Bret Stephens really did write that there might be something to eugenics

Over the weekend, media Twitter was aflame over a column by Bret Stephens of The New York Times in which he appeared to endorse the notion that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically more intelligent than other people. You can read the original here.

Stephens, who should have already been on probation for past offenses, appears to have gotten away with it again. After the column appeared in print, it was appended with an Editor’s Note saying that Stephens intended to say no such thing. The column was edited after the fact to remove the offending reference as well as a link to a study he was citing. You can see the new version with the Editor’s Note here.

I had intended to write a full post. But this piece by Jack Shafer in Politico is so comprehensive and spot-on that I’m going to suggest that you read it in full. I’ll just offer a few points that I think deserve emphasis, especially among those who’ve been inclined to give Stephens the benefit of the doubt.

  • Stephens’ original column links to a 2005 study whose executive summary claims, over and over, that the Ashkenazi may well have certain genetic advantages with regard to intelligence. For instance: “In particular we propose that the well-known clusters of Ashkenazi genetic diseases, the sphingolipid cluster and the DNA repair cluster in particular, increase intelligence in heterozygotes. Other Ashkenazi disorders are known to increase intelligence.”
  • One of the co-authors of that paper, Henry Harpending, has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “white nationalist” and a longtime advocate of eugenics — that is, discredited science that argues for the genetic superiority (and inferiority) of certain races and ethnic groups.
  • Stephens did not dismiss the study. Rather, he glossed over it, writing that whether it’s true or not, it’s less important in explaining Ashkenazi intelligence and achievements than their environment. Thus Stephens piously claims that the genetic theory matters less than other factors, but that there might nevertheless be something to it. Here is the key quote from Stephens: “Aside from the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher I.Q.s, there is the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose.”
  • The Times’ re-editing of Stephens’ column goes far beyond correcting errors or clarifying ambiguities and raises ethical concerns of its own. Moreover, it signals that publisher A.G. Sulzberger and editorial-page editor James Bennet are once again prepared to walk away rather than deal with the mess they created when they hired Stephens away from The Wall Street Journal in 2017. Stephens is not just a Pulitzer Prize-winning #NeverTrump conservative; he is also someone who regularly engages in trollish behavior seemed mainly designed to call attention to himself at the expense of the Times’ reputation.

At a moment when Jews are under attack both in New York and nationally, it was unconscionable for Stephens, who is himself Jewish, to add fuel to pernicious, discredited theories about race and intelligence. I hope we learn in the days ahead that Stephens didn’t walk away quite as unscathed as it would appear.

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Media roundup: Sulzberger sends a message; tech and layoffs; and the return of Woodward and Bernstein

The patriarch: Adolph Ochs

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A.G. Sulzberger passed the audition.

Two Fridays ago the 37-year-old New York Times publisher met with President Trump at the White House for what he thought was an off-the-record discussion. Trump, as is his wont, later tweeted out his own dubious version of what had happened. “Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People,’” the president wrote. “Sad!”

Which created a dilemma for Sulzberger. Should he act as though their off-the-record agreement was still in effect? Or should he push back at what he regarded as the president’s false characterization of their conversation? He chose the latter.

“I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” Sulzberger said in a statement he issued this past Sunday, which the Times itself reported on. “I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people,’ I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

Sulzberger’s reaction set exactly the right tone. By disclosing what he had said but not what Trump had said, he took the high road. But the Times also reported that Sulzberger and editorial-page editor James Bennet, who was also at the meeting, took “extensive notes” — a clear warning to Trump in the event that he decides to extend his Twitter war with the paper.

Sulzberger became publisher on Jan. 1. He was the latest member of Sulzberger-Ochs family to ascend to the top of the masthead, an unbroken chain that extends back to Adolph Ochs’ purchase of the Times in 1896. His father and predecessor, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., presided over the paper to mixed reviews. As Ken Auletta put it in a tough New Yorker profile in 2005, “Although he occupies perhaps the most august position in the nation’s press establishment, he seems to lack the weighty seriousness of his predecessors.”

A.G., by contrast, has struck observers as both serious and wise beyond his years. “The publisher of the Times sits in direct contrast to the president of the United States: demure, private, vegetarian, self-effacing, and reliant on proving himself through hard work rather than trading on his famous surname,” according to The Washington Post.

The lead author of the Times’ celebrated 2014 innovation report, A.G. is perhaps the ideal publisher to continue the paper’s metamorphosis into a primarily digital news organization. And unlike virtually all of his predecessors, he has a significant background in journalism, having worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal, The Oregonian, and the Times itself.

The Times is far from perfect. Though its coverage of the Trump White House has been admirably tough, the paper still lapses — as I wrote last January — into episodes of normalizing this abnormal president and of succumbing too readily to the temptations of access journalism. For instance, a substance-free story about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner that appeared over the weekend was widely derided, with New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen writing that “it feels like a report smuggled out of the summer castle after the ladies in waiting started talking.”

But the continued health of the Times is crucial to democracy. So far, A.G. Sulzberger seems like the right person at the right time to stand up to the Trump White House as well as for journalistic values.

Squint really hard and you can almost see a silver lining

A report issued Monday by the Pew Research Center documents the horrifying drop in newsroom employment over the past 10 years, with newspapers having by far the worst of it. The number of full-time newspaper journalists fell from 71,000 in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017, a decline of 45 percent. A modest increase in the number of journalists at digital-only outlets did not come close to making up the difference.

I’m not going to try to sugarcoat what’s happening. And we should always keep in mind that greedy corporate owners like Digital First and tronc are at least as responsible for the drop as the collapse of newspaper advertising. But I do want to offer a small countervailing data point: Because of technology, reporters today are far more efficient and can produce more useful work in the same amount of time than was previously possible.

A couple of examples from my own career will suffice. When I was a community newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I had to drive to Beacon Hill for campaign-finance reports. Once I had them, my options were to take notes by hand or, if I had enough quarters, make copies, assuming the copy machine was working. (And imagine if you worked in Western Massachusetts rather than 12 miles from Boston, as I did.) Now you can just look them up. Later, as the media columnist for The Boston Phoenix, I once spent an entire afternoon searching through unindexed microfilm for a half-remembered article that I wanted to write about. Today, I would have it in a few minutes.

Again, I’m not trying to argue that the collapse of newsrooms doesn’t matter. It matters a lot, and of course there’s no substitute for having actual human beings to sit through municipal meetings and develop sources. What I am saying is that the effects of this collapse would be even worse without the digital tools that have become available over the past 20 years.

Woodward and Bernstein back on the beat

How cosmically appropriate is it that just as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and related issues nears its conclusion (or not), the two legendary Washington Post reporters who did more than anyone to bring down the Nixon presidency are back on the beat?

Carl Bernstein was one of three CNN reporters whose byline appeared on a devastating report that, according to former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the then-candidate knew in advance about a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower at which Russians had promised to reveal “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And this week we learned that Bob Woodward is wrapping up a book called “Fear: Trump in the White House,” scheduled to be released on Sept. 11.

As I always tell my students: Everything — everything — can be traced back to Richard Nixon.

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The timid Times: What’s wrong with political coverage at our leading newspaper

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I’ve been trying for a while to think through a column on what’s wrong with The New York Times’ political coverage. The topic is so broad that it defies easy analysis. The Times is too big and too good to disparage in categorical terms. For every example I could come up with of a story that should have been framed differently, a defender of the Times could point to several that were pitch perfect. And yet something is off. Sometimes it’s a matter of tone and emphasis. Sometimes it’s more serious.

A couple of years ago I made The Washington Post my first read, along with The Boston Globe. Partly it was because I was starting to research my forthcoming book, “The Return of the Moguls,” much of which is about how the Post and the Globe have fared under the ownership of billionaires Jeff Bezos and John Henry. But partly it was because I simply found the Post more compelling than the Times.

I read the Post because of its fierce and authoritative coverage of national politics, especially of President Trump. It was, after all, the Post that broke the two most important Trump stories of the 2016 campaign: the fraudulent nature of his charitable foundation and the existence of the “Access Hollywood” tape, on which he is heard crudely boasting about sexual assault. And it has continued. Without the Post’s reporting, a credibly accused child molester, Roy Moore, would be taking his place in the Senate this month.

When I make the Times my first read, it’s because the writing is better, it offers a broader range of topics, and it carries greater social currency. For all the Post’s success under Bezos and executive editor Marty Baron, it just hasn’t become part of the national conversation to the same extent as the Times. But there is a timidity to some of the Times’ political coverage — a deep institutional need to offer balance when the truth is overwhelmingly on one side, to cover Trump as though he is an undisciplined, falsehood-spewing, but essentially normal president.

In the Times, Trump’s awfulness is too often portrayed as a matter of degree rather than of evidence that our media and political system is fundamentally broken. The picture that emerges is of a news organization often out of sync with its mostly liberal audience and that is way too concerned about what conservatives might say. The media observer Jay Rosen recently criticized executive editor Dean Baquet’s quest for balance in his reporters’ use of social media. Although I largely agreed with Baquet’s order that straight-news reporters refrain from opinionated tweets, Rosen’s assessment of the Times’ and the Post’s use of social media spoke to deeper truths about both news organizations:

The New York Times and the Washington Post are known to keep a close watch on each other. Dean Baquet should be asking himself: why isn’t the Post choking and wheezing on its social media policy? Why is he spending entire days trying to discipline his troops? Is Marty Baron investing his time that way? I doubt it. Baron and the Post exude confidence — in their reporting and the voices that bring it to life on other platforms.

Let me offer an example that gets at some of what I’m talking about: Times reporter Michael Schmidt’s remarkable interview with Trump last week at the president’s golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida. On the one hand, their conversation produced all sorts of news, the most important of which was Trump’s apparent signal that he would not fire special counsel Robert Mueller (but who knows?). On the other hand, the interview was an exercise in pure access journalism at a paper that has come to overvalue access (see: Maggie Haberman). Schmidt contented himself with asking questions and recording Trump’s answers rather than challenging his numerous falsehoods. It certainly didn’t help that Schmidt, with Emily Cochrane, followed up with a story on Trump’s New Year’s Eve gala at Mar-a-Lago that read like a fanzine report on who was wearing what at the Oscars.

Schmidt’s passivity in his interview with Trump sparked outrage among liberals on Twitter, and Schmidt defended himself in a separate article. “I believed it was more important to continue to allow the president to speak and let people make their own judgments about his statements,” he wrote. As for the falsehoods, the Times dealt with those in yet another story. Personally, I thought Schmidt’s interview with Trump was valuable. Access journalism has its uses as long as it is supplemented with investigative reporting, and there has been no shortage of that in the Times. Yet it’s hard to forget that Schmidt was the lead reporter on a story in July 2015 that falsely claimed Hillary Clinton was under criminal investigation for her use of a private email server, leading to two corrections, an editor’s note, and a tough column by then-public editor Margaret Sullivan, now a media columnist at The Washington Post. Then again, the Times’ quarter-century obsession with mostly nonexistent wrongdoing by the Clintons is worthy of a separate column — or a book.

Even great journalism by the Times calls to mind past problems. On Saturday the paper published a devastating report that the FBI began its Russia inquiry in July 2016 after a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, drunkenly bragged to an Australian diplomat that the Russians had “political dirt” on Clinton. But as Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple noted, the Times had dismissed the idea that the FBI was investigating Trump just days before the 2016 election. Granted, there was much that was unknown then. But Wemple argued that the earlier story drew “relatively sweeping conclusions” about the FBI’s alleged non-involvement when a more open-ended approach was called for. Sullivan’s successor as public editor, Liz Spayd, followed up with a highly critical column that reportedly enraged Baquet. The public editor’s position was later eliminated.

On New Year’s Day the Times’ new publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, greeted his audience with a message paying tribute to his family’s heritage dating back to Adolph Ochs, who bought the paper in 1896. Sulzberger said all the right things, including this:

The Times will continue to resist polarization and groupthink by giving voice to the breadth of ideas and experiences — because we believe journalism should help people think for themselves. The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.

This is a restatement of New York Times journalism at its best: truth over balance, independence over access, courage over fear of criticism. Even now, these values characterize much of what the Times publishes. But the lapses are frustrating and unnecessary.

I don’t mean to make too much of the Times’ shortcomings. If there’s a smoking gun with regard to Trump and the Russia investigation, I think the “failing New York Times” is as likely to expose it as the “Amazon Washington Post.” Both are indispensable news organizations and both are producing great work. But journalists at the Post give the impression of knowing who they are, why they’re here, and what they’re doing. I wish I could say the same about the Times — and I hope the day will come when I can.

Friday updates

1. Shortly after my column was published, Washington Post media columnist (and former New York Times public editor) Margaret Sullivan weighed in with some similar observations. In her case as well as mine, the trigger was Times reporter Michael Schmidt’s recent interview with President Trump in which Schmidt was content to take dictation rather than challenge Trump over any of the numerous falsehoods that came tumbling out of his mouth. I particularly liked this Sullivan soundbite:

The Times is distinctively defensive. Often great and sometimes wrong, it mostly likes to talk about that first part, and has trouble acknowledging the second, which may be one reason its public-editor position lasted less than 14 years.

Like me, Sullivan was impressed with new publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s introductory message. I hope Sulzberger translates his rhetoric into action.

2. Give Schmidt his due. On Thursday the Times published his latest, which may prove to be among the most significant of the Russia investigation: a report that Trump told White House counsel Don McGahn to order Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the government’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Sessions, who really had no choice, recused himself anyway. The story is full of choice details, such as Trump angrily asking “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” and an underling’s trying to mislead Trump into believing that he did not have the authority to fire FBI director James Comey. As Blake Hounshell, editor-in-chief of Politico Magazine, put it:

3. Good Times, bad Times. A story about Steve Bannon’s swift fall after he got caught telling Michael Wolff what he really thinks about the Trumps mentions a project co-founded by Bannon called the Government Accountability Institute. Among other things, the institute published a 2015 book called “Clinton Cash,” which the Times describes as having “damaged Hillary Clinton’s then-nascent presidential campaign.” The book was written by Peter Schweizer, who also writes for Breitbart News. What the Times does not mention is that is that both the Times and the Post partnered with Bannon’s institute in obtaining early access to the book, described as riddled with errors by the liberal advocacy group ThinkProgress. Aaron Rupar of ThinkProgress wrote shortly after the 2016 election:

Instead of fact-checking, the Times and Post ignored Clinton Cash’s errors Schweizer’s history of inaccuracy and amplified the book’s anti-Clinton innuendos — material Trump himself used to attack Hillary, win the presidency, and empower white nationalists like Bannon. Now, in the wake of a campaign where fake news outperformed legitimate reporting, the country’s two largest papers are left penning editorials condemning Trump for elevating a man whose flawed work they amplified.

Rupar did not claim that the Times or the Post passed along any false information from Schweizer’s book. Nevertheless, if the Times is going to bring up “Clinton Cash” in a story about Bannon, it ought to mention its own involvement.

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