The pathologies of the New York Times newsroom have rarely been laid out as clearly as they were on Saturday, when it published an article by Jeremy Peters headlined “Critics Say Musk Has Revealed Himself as a Conservative. It’s Not So Simple.”
What Elon Musk stands for, Peters wrote, “remains largely unclear.”
And it wasn’t just Peters adopting this ridiculous argument. His editor, and their editor, and a whole slew of other editors either actively approved of the article or chose not to say anything and let it get published.
How, you might well ask, could the nation’s most influential and celebrated newsroom bring forth something so laughably, ludicrously wrong?
I think I know:
- By valuing contrarianism over common sense.
- By valuing smugness over humility.
- By valuing savviness over wisdom.
- By valuing unflappability over sounding the alarm.
- By valuing trolling the libs over sounding like one.
- By valuing “balance” even where there is none.
In short, by valuing reporters like Jeremy Peters.
In the article, Peters himself acknowledged that “to many of his critics,” Musk’s “relentless flurry of tweets in the six weeks since he took over Twitter has exposed his true conservative bent, and intensified their fears that he would make the social network more susceptible to right-wing misinformation.”
Peters even admitted: “And at times, he’s made it hard to argue with that.” (italics mine.)
He has indeed!
And yet Peters proceeded to double down on the argument he previously made in April, that Musk has “long made his politics tricky to pin down.”
Musk “continues to defy easy political categorization,” Peters wrote.
Musk has – as you know, as everyone knows – been relentlessly hawking right-wing tropes and candidates, replatforming bigots, and spewing hatred at minorities and the “woke” ever since he bought and started to demolish Twitter.
He is not hard to read.
Consider, for instance, this reality-based assessment by Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall:
Musk is now in near constant dialogue with the most rabid conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites in the digital space. He’s jumped head first into the “globalist”/pedophile vortex which was at the heart of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory and later the entire QAnon movement. He now accuses former Twitter management of intentionally allowing the platform to become a breeding ground of pedophilia and child sex trafficking.
That’s the Musk we all know.
Courtiers and Cowards
That Jeremy Peters imagines Musk some other way wouldn’t be a problem if he weren’t operating in a very important newsroom where no one is brave enough or allowed close enough to power to call out people like him for being just plain wrong.
It’s a newsroom where views that go against the liberal consensus zip through editing, while anything that sounds too liberal is suspect.
The words “It’s not so simple,” from Peters’s headline, is Timesian doctrine — even as the rise of Trump and white Christian totalitarianism have made many formerly complex social and political issues considerably more cut and dried.
And like everyone else in the news business, the Times has become addicted to getting attention on social media. Reliably restating and exploring obvious truths may be the best way to build and maintain a loyal audience – but it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as a hot, contrarian take, either on social media or with the top brass.
Nobody has been better at pointing out the ridiculous contortions the Times engages in to get attention (while sticking to approved narratives and both-sidesing) than the parody Twitter account known as the NYT Pitchbot.
But with Peters’s Musk story, as one Twitter wag put it: “The New York Times/ New York Times Pitchbot singularity has been achieved.”
Indeed, the Twitter reaction to the Musk story – it was a punchline for much of Saturday and Sunday — is a reminder of the platform’s continued centrality to media criticism.
Some New York Times articles about outrageous things the right-wing is doing are obviously written with the expectation that the readers will understand how outrageous those things are, without the authors having to actually express their own outrage.
For example, see today’s article by Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter about book-banning. I have no doubt the authors are outraged — that’s why they chose to write about it. But their emotionless stenography actually normalized this assault on tolerance and freedom.
Peters’s Musk story, by contrast, was not like that. It did not assume that readers would fill in the blanks because they are smart.
It was trying to prove that the readers are stupid, and he’s the smart one.
But when you do that, and you’re wrong, that’s called gaslighting. (Which reminds me of the time several months ago when Annie Karni wrote that Republicans “have been intent on rehabilitating themselves in the eyes of voters after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol last year.”)
It didn’t take long for Musk to provide yet more undeniable evidence of just how ludicrous Peters’s story was. On Sunday, Musk tweeted “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci.” As Charlie Warzel wrote in the Atlantic:
In five words, Musk manages to mock transgender and nonbinary people, signal his disdain for public-health officials, and send up a flare to far-right shitposters and trolls.
Warzel called out Peters, writing:
The nuance Peters is looking for does not exist: Musk’s actions and associations make a clear case that he is a right-wing reactionary.
The Thing About Jeremy Peters
Jeremy Peters is a serial offender of common sense and core journalistic values. He is a frequent target here on Press Watch because so much of what he writes is deceptive. And every time, that deception favors the right.
I wrote about him at length in November 2021, when he was covering the Virginia gubernatorial election. He didn’t just accept the lies and dog-whistles that now-Va. Gov. Glenn Youngkin used to get elected, he amplified them.
Most notably, it turned out that the “Hillary-Biden voter” who Peters wrote had recently reached a “tipping point” that led him to attend a Youngkin rally was, in fact, a prolific Republican donor and active foe of the (nonexistent) teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools.
Peters had, somewhat famously, done something very similar in 2018 — although, in an interview, he blamed a “handful of Democratic activists and liberal journalists” who “pushed out” the “major misconception” that his lead anecdote was a complete fraud.
“What comes through in Peters’ stories, time and again, is that he has arrived at his answers before setting out to report,” Substacker Jonathan M. Katz concluded. And as an observer on Twitter noted, “that always seems to work to white nationalists’ benefit.”
Again, similarly, Peters was the lead author of an article in 2017, after Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, in which he identified a woman named Michelle Piercy as “a night shift worker at a Wichita, Kan., retirement home, who drove all night with a conservative group that opposed the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.”
Piercy was actually affiliated with a right-wing militia group called the American Warrior Revolution that marched through the streets of Charlottesville, armed and dressed in military-style clothing.
My Twitter timeline is full of Peters foibles, including the time he wrote that the death of Herman Cain from Covid in July 2020 “has made Republicans and President Trump face the reality of the pandemic as it hit closer to home than ever before.” Yeah right.
Peters was ceremoniously taken off the national desk and given a plum assignment covering the media and culture in April, and has continued to produce takes that damage democracy.
He has repeatedly demonstrated willful ignorance about Fox News, which any responsible journalist should recognize as a singular disease vector that traffics in propaganda and misinformation.
But by Peters’s account, Fox is just “sparing conservative viewers what they don’t want to hear,” and is a place where “misinformation has spread”.
When a Fox “insider” wrote in a book that the network’s rightist tilt is less about ideology and more about making money, Peters seemed surprised, calling it “a counterintuitive take.” His intuition is evidently not so good.
He is a fabulist and a dupe, always for the right, and the fact that he is thriving– that he can publish an article like the one about Musk without consequences — is as serious an indictment of the New York Times newsroom as I can imagine.
Please see more of my writings about the New York Times on Press Watch. Please see my article for The Nation: The New York Times Has Badly Lost Its Bearings. And please consider that the New York Times will never hire another public editor and your generous (tax deductible) donations are what keeps me going.