The New York Times Magazine’s massive 20,000-word takeout on the Murdoch media empire is what you might call a conceptual scoop. There is little in the way of new information, although the sheer accumulation of insider details and tantalizing tidbits is fascinating in its own way. But the real accomplishment of “Planet Fox” is that it helps us understand the Murdoch project as a coherent whole in all of its cynical, transnational, intrafamilial awfulness.
Behold your liberal media: Twice — in this article about concerns moderate Democrats have regarding their more progressive colleagues and in the accompanying photo caption — The New York Times, on its own authority, refers to left-wing freshman members of Congress as “bomb throwers.”
This is phenomenally bad journalism.
It’s easy to imagine how Jill Abramson’s new book might have turned out differently. In “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” the veteran journalist follows the fortunes of four media organizations. BuzzFeed and Vice are young, energetic, willing to break rules and try new things. The New York Times and The Washington Post are stodgy, sclerotic giants trying to grope their way toward a digital future. We all know how that’s going to turn out. Right?
Well, something unexpected happened on the way to the old-media boneyard.
Joe Pompeo has a new piece in Vanity Fair about all the unhappy people inside The New York Times. It’s deeply reported and interesting, but it also strikes me as a diversion from the main problem with the Times these days.
Pompeo’s thesis is that the Times is riven by factionalism that can largely (though not exclusively) be defined as younger “woke” staff members who would like to see the paper pursue a more explicitly liberal and anti-Trump path versus older, more traditional journalists who value balance and neutrality. The money quote is from Times manager editor Joe Kahn:
We do not see ourselves, and we do not wish to be seen, as partisan media. That means that the news and opinion divide, and things like social-media guidelines and some of our traditional restrictions on political activity by employees, may feel cumbersome to some people at this point in our evolution.
Pompeo did the reporting and I didn’t. So he may well be right about what people talk about inside the Times. Outside, though, the Times’ loyal and largely liberal readership is talking about other issues — such as the paper’s equally negative coverage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign in the face of mountainous evidence that their transgressions were not remotely equal; the Times’ harsh but ultimately normalizing coverage of the Trump presidency (in contrast to The Washington Post, which has been relentless); and its weirdly gentle treatment of people on the far right, such as the notorious profile of the Nazi next door.
I wrote about these issues for WGBH News in January. I don’t think things have gotten better at the Times since then.
The news cycle on Tuesday began in the frenetic manner we’ve become accustomed to in the Age of Trump. No sooner had I finished my snowbound perusal of newspaper websites than the president took to Twitter and announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was out. My phone began buzzing with breaking-news alerts. Twitter filled up with quick hits, some serious and some snarky, as to what it all meant. And, at least for a little while, our collective attention was diverted from Stormy Daniels, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, and the rest of the Trumpian mishegas that has preoccupied us for the past 14 months.
Many of us sense that we’ve become overwhelmed by the rush of news and that we don’t know what to do about it. The quantity if not the quality of news has been growing exponentially in the decades since we relied mainly on the morning newspapers and the evening newscasts. But we seem to have reached a tipping point with the endless obsession over Trump, especially on cable news and social media.
Which is why, I think, New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo struck such a chord last week. Manjoo wrote that he had conducted an experiment: for almost two months, he had relied almost entirely on print for his news, unplugging from cable and from the constant stream of electronic updates that come our way. He put it this way:
Now I am not just less anxious and less addicted to the news, I am more widely informed (though there are some blind spots). And I’m embarrassed about how much free time I have — in two months, I managed to read half a dozen books, took up pottery and (I think) became a more attentive husband and father.
As Dan Mitchell found in the Columbia Journalism Review, Manjoo’s Twitter stream during his alleged digital exile remained as prolific as those of all but the most addicted (who, me?) users. So yes, there was a bit of Henry David Thoreau’s bringing his laundry to his mother’s house in Manjoo’s manifesto. But imperfect though Manjoo’s experiment may have been, it spoke deeply to the need to filter out all the flotsam and jetsam of our continuous news cycle so that we can concentrate on what’s really important. What better way to do that than to rely on a few trustworthy sources of information while trying to ignore everything else?
I’m not saying that we should seek to emulate Erik Hagerman, “The Man Who Knew Too Little,” who was the subject of a long profile in the Times over the weekend. As described by reporter Sam Dolnick, Hagerman, who lives in rural Ohio, has aggressively ignored the news — all news — since the 2016 election, to the point where he listens to white noise through headphones at his local coffee shop to make sure that no dispatches from the outside world penetrate his increasingly empty head.
Instead, to put it in New Age terms, we should seek to be conscious and mindful about our news-consumption habits. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, reacting to Manjoo, stressed the importance of looking at the headlines of a newspaper’s front page, turning off breaking-news alerts at least occasionally, and taking hours-long breaks from social media. Most important, she wrote, “find two or three sources of serious news — a well-curated newsletter, an evening news broadcast, a top-of-the-hour briefing on public radio, or the news app of a respected newspaper — and make it a daily habit, preferably consumed at a regular time and then set aside.” She added: “The alternative is downright dangerous to your mental and emotional well-being.”
My own education in how to be a better news consumer began a couple of years ago when I read Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book “The Shallows.” Carr argues that digital technology has changed not just the way that we interact with text but that it has rewired our brains, favoring the rapid perusal of disjointed tidbits over long, sustained concentration. (And consider that Carr was writing before Facebook and Twitter were as ubiquitous as they are now.) In an essay for Nieman Reports, Carr issued a challenge to news organizations:
If serious journalism is going to survive as something more than a product for a small and shrinking elite, news organizations will need to do more than simply adapt to the Net. They’re going to have to be a counterweight to the Net. They’re going to have to find creative ways to encourage and reward readers for slowing down and engaging in deep, undistracted modes of reading and thinking. They’re going to have to teach people to pay attention again.
I’m not going back to print. It’s too expensive, and my miserable eyesight is better suited to reading on a screen with its own illumination than to dealing with tiny type under less than optimum lighting conditions. But ever since reading Carr, I try to remind myself to slow down, to engage with my preferred digital news sources as I would a print newspaper, scanning their home pages not just for news I’m looking for but for news I’m not looking for as well. Still, skimming and tweeting are behaviors that quickly become ingrained, and I have as hard a time breaking away as anyone.
Thus Farhad Manjoo’s column is a good reminder of what it means to be a responsible news consumer. He cites the food writer Michael Pollan’s famous advice— “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — and repurposes it for our jittery relationship with digital media: “Get news. Not too quickly. Avoid social.”
And if you can get someone else to do your laundry for you, so much the better.
Important thread by David Roberts of Vox on how President Trump has exposed the right for what we knew in our hearts it was all along: an inchoate collection of grievances uninterested in policy or ideas. He’s also got some smart things to say about what’s wrong with The New York Times’ conservative columnists, who are monolithically anti-Trump. Start here:
Roberts’ views are somewhat related to my recent WGBH News column on the irrelevance of the anti-Trump right, although I hold them in higher regard than he does.
Movies about historical events are often meant to tell us more about the present than the past, especially in the hands of an overly earnest director like Steven Spielberg. His 2012 film “Lincoln,” for instance, depicted a president who didn’t let his high principles get in the way of some down-and-dirty dealmaking with recalcitrant members of Congress. You know, just like Obama should have been doing.
Spielberg’s latest, “The Post,” is more deft and subtle than “Lincoln.” Still, it serves as much as a commentary on current-day events as it does as a drama about the press and the Pentagon Papers. Then as now, The New York Times and The Washington Post were competing to expose high-level government wrongdoing. Then as now, their nemesis was a vindictive president who hated the press. The message, at least for the anti-Trump audience that is most likely to be enthralled by “The Post,” is that journalism will save us. Help is on the way.
The Pentagon Papers were the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. The documents showed that President Lyndon Johnson and other administration officials were aware that the war was going badly even as they publicly professed optimism — and thus allowed American soldiers to be killed for what they knew was a lost cause. This was especially galling to Richard Nixon, who was president in 1971, when the documents were leaked, and who was prosecuting the war with cruel gusto. The Times got and published the papers first, and Times partisans are grousing that Spielberg should have made a movie about that instead. For instance, Roy Harris wrote for Poynter that “the overall story of the Pentagon Papers as journalism seems somehow twisted by the Post-centric focus of the movie.”
Critics are missing the point. The Times gets its full due in “The Post” for breaking the story. But Post executive editor Ben Bradlee’s fierce attempt to play catch-up, and publisher Katharine Graham’s courageous decision to publish the documents against the advice of her lawyers and advisers, was a signal moment in American journalism, establishing the Post as the near-equal of the mighty Times.
The script for “The Post” reads like it was ripped from the pages of Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History,” and from David Halberstam’s magnum opus about The Washington Post and several other media institutions, “The Powers That Be.” The Post of 1971 was a financially marginal regional paper with more in common with The Boston Globe or The Philadelphia Inquirer than with the Times. Graham decided to raise much-needed cash by reorganizing the paper as a publicly traded company. The crisis over the Pentagon Papers blew up at exactly the same moment, putting the Post in real danger: if it published the documents and was found to have broken the law, its initial public offering could go down the tubes and the company could go out of business.
Graham made her decision after being called away from a social event, a sequence that is depicted faithfully in the movie. “Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish,’” Graham wrote in “Personal History.” And she quotes Bradlee as saying later:
That was a key moment in the life of this paper. It was just sort of the graduation of the Post into the highest ranks. One of our unspoken goals was to get the world to refer to the Post and The New York Times in the same breath, which they previously hadn’t done. After the Pentagon Papers, they did.
The U.S. Supreme Court ended up vindicating both the Times and the Post by ruling, 6-3, that the Nixon administration’s attempts to prevent publication were an unconstitutional abridgement of the First Amendment. As my WGBH News fellow contributor Harvey Silverglate wrote in The Boston Phoenix some years ago, that didn’t stop Nixon from attempting to prosecute the newspapers under the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I that is still with us. But Nixon’s efforts went nowhere.
“The Post” is not an eat-your-broccoli movie. It’s highly entertaining. Tom Hanks is terrific as Bradlee, and Meryl Streep turns in an accurate Graham, though it sometimes feels more like an elaborate impersonation than a fully realized role.
Streep’s Graham is the center of a subplot that, again, has as much to do with 2018 as it does with 1971. Although Graham had been leading the Post since 1963, when her husband, Phil Graham, shot himself in an apparent suicide, in “The Post” we see her grow and, finally, embrace her leadership role in a way that she hadn’t before. It’s a tale of female empowerment that is especially relevant right now. As my Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman wrote for USA Today:
In a refreshing departure from the shallow, oversexualized way Hollywood typically depicts women in journalism, Meryl Streep portrays Graham as a serious newspaperwoman navigating complex social and political challenges. Her role should be a blueprint for a new kind of popular culture, one that helps repair a climate where, as the #MeToo movement has revealed, media companies routinely get away with allowing sexual harassment and assault to fester.
One of my favorite characters in “The Post” is Nixon himself, whom we see back-to through a White House window, talking on the phone and threatening his enemies in the press. (We hear actual tapes of the Trickster.) And that brings me back to what “The Post” is really about.
In Donald Trump we have a president who hates the media and threatens his enemies like none since Nixon. Like Nixon, Trump is being investigated on multiple fronts — by House and Senate committees, by a special counsel, and by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Spielberg, in effect, is offering us a soothing message: Our institutions work. Look at what happened the last time.
But the past is not always prologue. The world of the 1970s was one without Fox, without alternative facts, and without a president who denounced press coverage he didn’t like as “fake news.” This time around, not only is it unclear whether the truth will be revealed — it’s even more unclear whether it will even matter.
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.
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.
The New York Times’ profile of an Ohio Nazi is generating an enormous amount of outrage on Twitter among critics who think the paper is normalizing a dangerous hate-monger. I largely agree, though I would disagree with anyone who thinks it never should have seen the light of day in any form.
The problem is in the execution — in the course of showing how well Tony Hovater blends in (a useful insight), reporter Richard Fausset makes it appear that he believes Hovater is normal in some way. For instance, here is a paragraph that teeters on the brink:
In Ohio, amid the row crops and rolling hills, the Olive Gardens and Steak ’n Shakes, Mr. Hovater’s presence can make hardly a ripple. He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate. But his tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show “Twin Peaks.” He says he prefers to spread the gospel of white nationalism with satire. He is a big “Seinfeld” fan.
As Susieus Maximus put it on Twitter: “It’s like the writer either never heard the phrase, ‘the banality of evil,’ or else thought that all they had to show was the banality.”
The Times is performing badly in so many ways lately. It’s a shame that it can’t produce a straightforward profile of a Nazi without doing better than this.
Some updates. The antidote to the Times story is The Boston Globe’s series on York, Pennsylvania, by Matt Viser. Rather than simply mailing in postcards from Trump country, Viser has been balancing the views of Trump supporters with those who are horrified by what is going on. The latest installment was published today.
The Times has published a commentary by Fausset in which he admits that he didn’t come back with quite what he wanted. And the Times itself has posted a reaction to the feedback it’s received. “Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article,” writes national editor Marc Lacey. “The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.”
Finally, Mangy Jay has posted a very smart thread on Twitter outlining how the Times could have — should have — approached a story that clearly went off the rails.
The last word. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post nails it: “The best way to avoid normalizing white nationalists is to report about their deeds, their friends, their families and their beliefs, and to not give up after an unsatisfactory phone call.”