It has been an extraordinary few weeks for The New York Times.
From an outcry over a headline that blandly reported President Trump’s denunciation of racism in El Paso without acknowledging his own history of racist comments, to the demotion of an editor for several racially clueless tweets, to a fraught meeting with the staff called by executive editor Dean Baquet, the Times has found itself in an unaccustomed position: under fire from its core audience of liberal readers.
Amid the carnage in El Paso and Dayton, a smaller story played out this week. It’s worth recounting because it has much to tell us about where we are at as a nation — and about the challenges facing journalism as we try to figure out how to cover this awful moment in our history.
It looks like this front-page New York Times story that has drawn so much attention is almost a complete botch. Headlined “Mexico Agreed to Take Border Actions Months Before Trump Announced Tariff Deal,” the premise is that President Trump got nothing out of his tariff standoff and subsequent agreement with Mexico to increase border security. Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman write:
The deal to avert tariffs that President Trump announced with great fanfare on Friday night consists largely of actions that Mexico had already promised to take in prior discussions with the United States over the past several months, according to officials from both countries who are familiar with the negotiations.
The story goes into considerable detail in an attempt to show that there’s nothing new about the U.S.-Mexico agreement, and that Trump is boasting about it solely as face-saving gesture.
But wait! Inside the paper, under the headline “Mexico Sets Domestic Priorities Aside to Meet Terms of U.S. Trade Deal,” Azam Ahmed reports that Mexico is going to considerable lengths to meet the terms of Trump’s demands in an effort to head off those tariffs. Ahmed writes:
Under an agreement hammered out in marathon negotiations with American officials over the last few days, Mexico agreed to send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to its southern border with Guatemala. It also agreed to allow more asylum applicants to wait in Mexico while their cases are pending in the United States.
Further down in the story, there’s this:
But as Mr. Trump’s hectoring of Mexico on migration has increased, so, too, has the willingness of the López Obrador administration to take measures to calm its northern neighbor.
After initially saying the Remain in Mexico program was a pilot, Mexican officials quickly expanded it to new cities. Now, as part of the deal on Friday, they have agreed to expand it across the entire border.
Hat tip to Daniel Radosh of “The Daily Show,” who tweeted this out on Saturday:
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.
What does that coherent whole look like? Essentially this: For decades, Rupert Murdoch has built his media conglomerate in order to enhance his political power for the sole benefit of himself and his children. His method is based on synergy — that is, his control of more and more media entities wouldn’t be possible unless government officials bestowed deregulatory favors upon him, and those favors become easier for him to extract as his ever-growing control of the media makes those officials fear the consequences of saying no. His support for political figures who’ll give him what he wants has helped fuel the rise of right-wing xenophobic populism in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, all of which are suffering the consequences of the chaos that Murdoch unleashed.
There must be something in the air, as this is the third major Murdoch investigation to be published in recent weeks. Last month The New Yorker gave us Jane Mayer’s examination of the Fox-Trump mind meld, which I wrote about in an earlier column. More recently, The Intercept’s Peter Maass weighed in with a profile of Lachlan Murdoch, the heir apparent, and how he devolved from an idealistic Princeton student into one of the world’s most influential white nationalists. The Times’ contribution is to make an attempt at tying it all together.
The Times has gone all out to signal that “Planet Fox” is A Major Event. The reporters, Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg, are said to have interviewed 150 people on three continents. The story takes up most of the print magazine and has been tricked out with a vibrant digital presentation, a 14-minute video, and a “6 Takeaways” sidebar.
Will it matter? Eight years ago, it actually looked for one brief moment as if Murdoch’s world might come crashing down. The phone-hacking scandal perpetrated by his tabloids threatened his U.K. holdings and seemed like it might make the leap to the U.S. In the end, though, it fizzled, as Guardian reporter Nick Davies wrote in his book “Hack Attack.” The actual effect of “Planet Fox” is likely to be even more modest. You can be sure that Fox News’ marquee hosts, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham, will simply dismiss the whole thing as “fake news” — that is, if they mention it at all.
There is, by the way, a delightful anecdote about Hannity buried in the Times article. It seems that Hannity is too much of a toady even for President Trump’s tastes. Mahler and Rutenberg write: “Trump was also spending a lot of time on the phone with Hannity, who regularly called the president after his show. Trump had often found him to be too much of a supplicant for his purposes: He preferred his more combative interviews with Bill O’Reilly, which he felt better showcased his pugnaciousness, according to a former White House official. But Trump appreciated Hannity’s loyalty.” You can just imagine Hannity wincing as he reads those words.
The story of how Murdoch initially spurned Trump and then embraced him when it became clear that Trump was going to win the Republican presidential nomination is fascinating. That episode also traces the arc of Fox News’ transformation from a combative, conservative network at least occasionally tethered to the facts, as conceived by the late Republican operative Roger Ailes, into what it is today: a propaganda arm of the Trump administration that spews lies and conspiracy theories without regard for the public good.
Writing in The Conversation, Michael Socolow of the University of Maine argues that Murdoch’s influence has been exaggerated. Fox News’ 2.4 million prime-time viewers, Socolow observes, “means that 99.3 percent of Americans weren’t watching Fox News on any given night.” But surely the Fox effect is at least partly responsible for Trump’s enduring popularity with Republican base voters. And even if the Murdoch-controlled media are not quite as influential as they are often portrayed, it is well worth exploring the nexus of racism, corruption, and political machinations that define how the “rotten old bastard,” as the media critic Jack Shafer semi-affectionally calls Murdoch, does business.
One especially chilling detail in “Planet Fox” involves Murdoch’s seemingly endless quest to acquire Britain’s Sky network. It turns out that several of Fox’s rare acts of decency — getting rid of Bill O’Reilly over sexual-harassment accusations and ordering Hannity to stop peddling wild conspiracy theories over the death of former Democratic operative Seth Rich — were rooted solely in Murdoch’s need to impress British regulatory officials that he was sufficiently ethical to run Sky.
It gets worse. We learn that Murdoch may have used his influence to pass Brexit because, as he allegedly told one interviewer, “When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say; when I go to Brussels, they take no notice.” The Sun, a Murdoch-owned tabloid, was instrumental in the Brexit victory and all the tumult that has resulted. Regulatory actions taken by the Trump administration all went Murdoch’s way, as Jane Mayer reported in her New Yorker piece. We learn, too, that Murdoch’s son Lachlan took the family’s Australian cable station in a Fox-like right-wing direction, and that its relentless anti-Muslim rants may have been a factor in the recent massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. Two high-profile Muslim employees, one in Australia and one in the U.S., quit — one of them in 2017, although he’s speaking out now.
“Planet Fox” is not perfect. There’s a minor error involving Murdoch’s ownership of the Boston Herald. I’d have liked to hear at least a theory as to why Murdoch has maintained The Wall Street Journal as one of our great newspapers. Mahler and Rutenberg also note without comment the rise of right-wing populism in Murdoch-free zones such as Hungary, Austria, and the Philippines. In fact, many observers believe Facebook, not Fox, is the force that’s driving much of the world toward intolerance and authoritarianism — yet the Zuckerborg receives not a mention. Still, the Times has produced a comprehensive and convincing account of the carnage wrought by Murdoch and his family.
Is there hope? Murdoch is 88, so it’s hardly ghoulish to observe that he will probably not live forever. Indeed, “Planet Fox” opens and closes with a description of how he nearly departed this vale of tears in early 2018. Unfortunately, it seems that Lachlan, the more insular and right-wing of his two sons, has gained ascendancy while James, more liberal and cosmopolitan, has been pushed out. As befits a patriarchal monarchy, Murdoch’s two daughters, Prudence and Elisabeth, don’t factor into any of this.
As the story ends, we see Rupert and Lachlan riding herd over a smaller company, shorn of its entertainment assets following the sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney, waging endless war on three continents. Nothing lasts forever, of course. But it appears that we still have a few chapters to slog through before the end of the Murdoch story at long last comes into view.
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.”
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.
“If your mother says she loves you, check it out” has to be the most ignored of all journalistic truisms. I recently ran across this gem from Nat Hentoff’s 1992 book “Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee”:
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.
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:
1. All right, this controversy over conservative columnists in @nytopinion is bugging me. Everyone is dancing around the central point! (The same central point everyone dances around in *numerous* contemporary controversies.) So I'ma lay it out.