If an armed gunman were to storm The New York Times' newsroom looking for a politically conservative journalist to attack, it would be a horrific event, but it also might qualify as a victimless crime.
Last week, The Times dismissed its executive editor, Jill Abramson, and replaced her with Dean Baquet, who had been Abramson’s managing editor before his promotion. Abramson and the paper entered a settlement that precluded either party from discussing the details of her firing.
In the absence of such discussion, many have speculated that Abramson was let go over compensation disputes (a point The Times strongly denied), disagreement over her hiring decisions, or her eagerness to do interviews and panel appearances. From the outside, it seems most likely that personality clashes were what forced her departure - with Baquet, and more importantly, with the paper’s publisher and chairman, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and its CEO, Mark Thompson.
Abramson is a very good reporter who, from a distance, appears to have been a not-so-good manager. Yet the same could be said about Baquet, whose tenure as editor of the Los Angeles Times ended when he was fired for refusing to accept the necessity of further newsroom staff and budget cuts at a time when circulation was plunging and the paper’s survival was at stake.
Ultimately, the shakeup at the top of The Times’ news staff is about personalities, not management or policies. So it will be a change that makes no difference at all to readers, advertisers or shareholders.
The Times prides itself on being an outstanding news organization and on having a diverse newsroom. In truth it is not and it does not. The diversity that The Times celebrates among its staff is one in which everybody looks different but thinks the same. On issues ranging from income inequality to Keynesian economics to the causes of and appropriate responses to climate change, The Times newsroom is a monoculture that mirrors the constrained views that are common on many American college campuses. At The Times, however, there is not even tenure to protect the occasional dissenter.
I am not talking about the editorial page, which has not seen fit to endorse a Republican presidential candidate since Eisenhower but continues to proclaim its independence. I am talking about news columns in which, for example, matters of business and government policy are routinely presented with scant reference to the perspectives of professionals or businesses that actually operate under those policies.
This bias is reflected throughout The Times’ journalism. In a generation the paper has moved away from a philosophy that recognized that there are multiple legitimate points of view surrounding most issues, and that those points of view should be presented fairly to the readership. Instead, it has embraced a philosophy that frequently presupposes which point of view has merit and denigrates others accordingly.
Here is an example fresh from the column written by The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, about Baquet’s elevation to the top newsroom job. “I fervently hope that he will be an editor who pushes back hard against powerful interests, including the highest levels of the U.S. government, and who encourages journalism that champions the least fortunate - and the survival of the planet,” Sullivan wrote.
On one level, her sentiments are unobjectionable. Only the most heartless or suicidal are opposed to Earth’s survival or wish to add to the misery of whomever qualifies as our “least fortunate.”
Any regular Times reader, however, can decode Sullivan’s comments as follows: “I fervently hope that he will be an editor who pushes back hard against powerful interests such as the Koch brothers, including the highest levels of the U.S. government when it follows policies I find objectionable, and who encourages journalism that champions the transient redistribution of wealth toward the least fortunate - and who believes the survival of the planet requires that climate change be treated as its most critical issue, and certainly more important than the provision of food, medical care, water, sanitation, education and transportation needed to make these things available to 7 billion human beings.”
For argument’s sake, let us grant that this is a widely shared position, especially in Manhattan, where The Times is based. It is still hardly the only legitimate point of view. Consider Sullivan’s opposition to “powerful interests.” Are powerful interests, whoever they may be, always wrong? Do they always deserve to be pushed back merely because someone believes they are powerful?
We don’t want our news organizations to be mindless civic boosters. Are we any better served if they simply see their mission as being to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?” I see the merits of dispensing comfort to those lacking it, but why gratuitously afflict someone who isn’t suffering? (The quote, which I learned in journalism school in the 1970s, came from a column by Finley Peter Dunne. He was actually cautioning against the power of newspapers in the early 20th century. Dunne’s phrasing was later co-opted by the political left, and later still absorbed as an article of faith by some journalists themselves.)
And how, exactly, should we go about championing the “least fortunate?” With a minimum wage that may help some while leaving others with no employment at all? That is a debatable point. But in an intellectual assembly line like The Times, it draws little debate, and none from the public editor.
Baquet said, in his speech to staff members as their new executive editor, “It’s humbling to be asked to lead the only newsroom in the country that’s actually a lot better than it was a generation ago.” It isn’t better, though; it is merely different. In fact, the paper has moved backward two or three generations, to a style of journalism that was common in this country in the age of Hearst and Pulitzer.
That style was discredited and later resurrected - at least here. It has remained common in places like the U.K., where the Guardian’s left-wing alignment mirrors the current stance of The New York Times. So it is not especially surprising Abramson sought to hire the Guardian’s U.S. editor-in-chief, Janine Gibson, as another managing editor to ostensibly support, but likely to undermine, Baquet.
From a journalistic perspective, however, Abramson, Gibson and Baquet are all the same. Readers are unlikely to notice any difference, no matter which of them is steering The Times.
With its crabbed perspective on the world, The New York Times is not currently a topflight news organization, at least in my view. I consider it a large, influential news organization that often produces topflight journalism, but dilutes it with biased, intellectually lazy filler frequently labeled as news analysis or commentary, often written and bylined by the same journalists who otherwise purport to provide what we used to call “straight news.”
The Times is proud that Abramson and Baquet are symbols of journalism’s rising diversity. In its institutional blindness, the company’s management cannot recognize that, rather than demonstrating a commitment to diversity, these choices display an increasingly rigid homogeneity of thought that is driving away some readers, and disserves all of them.