The purpose of great journalism, it is often said, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
But at the New York Times, the newsroom is increasingly riven between the comfortable and the afflicted within its own ranks. And guess who’s in charge?
That rift is what lies at the heart of a blistering back-and-forth that began with a letter from some Times contributors strongly condemning negative bias in reporting about transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people.
The letter raised serious and specific concerns about disparaging coverage of gender-affirming care — concerns that every journalist at the New York Times should heed, at the risk of going down the same infamous path the Times did covering gay rights and AIDS. Jack Mirkinson did an absolutely brilliant job of reminding us of that legacy in The Nation.
But senior Times reporters and editors do not like being lectured on journalistic ethics.
They do the lecturing, thank you very much.
The response from management was to breezily dismiss those concerns as coming from “activists” — and to forcefully forbid any further “attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums.”
The News Guild of New York weighed in with a reminder that “employees are protected in collectively raising concerns that conditions of their employment constitute a hostile working environment.”
And that precipitated a ferocious, unctuous response from many of the most senior, established, and comfortable reporters in the Times newsroom.
They wrote, haughtily, that “Factual, accurate journalism that is written, edited, and published in accordance with Times standards does not create a hostile workplace.” They accused the union of trying to “undermine the ethical and professional protections that we depend on.”
What Constitutes a Hostile Workplace?
On one level, the letter (I’ll call it the smug-caucus letter, to distinguish it from the concerned-contributors letter) was a response to one very narrow issue: Whether editorial policy about trans identity amounts to a workplace matter of the sort where union involvement is merited
I think that’s a legitimate question. At what point does printing offensive or diminishing content create actual harm to newsroom employees? What raises to the level of creating a hostile work environment? In a newsroom, with its traditions of free speech, irreverence, and questioning, that’s a very high bar.
Then again, endangering some subset of the people who work there by questioning their very right to exist might well qualify.
As you may recall, that was the tenor of the argument that Black Times staffers made when they objected publicly to the publishing of an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton that called for U.S. troops to forcibly subdue what he called “rioters” engaged in Black Lives Matter protests. Back then, dozens of Times staffers risked the ire of Times management by tweeting the singular message: “Running this puts black @nytimes staff in danger.” And, in a long overdue move, James Bennet soon found himself out of a job as editorial page editor.
That issue – about how editorial positions affect the work environment – is ripe for further discussion.
What the Letter Really Means
The view that this was not a “workplace” issue, and that therefore the union shouldn’t get involved in editorial policy, is, I suspect, a big part of why the smug-caucus letter garnered so many signatures.
But the letter was not just about that narrow issue. It was a full-fledged rebuttal of the concerned contributors’ critique.
It was an arrogant attempt to delegitimize their argument. And it was a defense of the old guard — management and reporters alike — who continue to enforce a dominant but senescent white cis culture of both-sidesism and comfort with the status quo.
Their main attack line was that there is a clear distinction between journalism and activism, with the Times newsroom representing journalism and critics being activists.
Dean Baquet and Marty Baron were the ne plus ultra of this attitude when they led the Times and the Washington Post, respectively. But it continues to thrive among their successors and their elect reporting stars.
As Wesley Lowery, a Black reporter who has taken a leading role in confronting anachronistic newsroom norms, tweeted: “someone please provide me with the definitions of ‘activist’ and ‘journalists’ in this context. should be easy enough since the line is allegedly so clear.”
At the end of his thread, he concluded: “journalism is things the bosses and power brokers like. activism is things the bosses and power brokers don’t like.”
Graham Starr, an editor at Bloomberg, tweeted: “It is unfortunate to see reporters and editors respond to a letter defending trans people affected by coverage with insistence that journalists were the ones harmed.”
Journalist and activist Andrea Grimes raised a point that is wildly underappreciated: that “deliberately working to maintain the status quo *is activism* and it is wild that journalists are unable to wrap their heads around this concept.”
The people in leading positions in the newsroom – editors and senior reporters alike — are the comfortable. And they have no interest in the afflicted, other than to keep them from tweeting.
Consider the Author
The author of the letter, we are told, was Jeremy Peters. That is significant.
As regular readers of this website or my Twitter feed well know, Peters is a uniquely deceptive hack who routinely pushes right-wing tropes and has a history of finding people who perfectly illustrate those tropes who turn out to be Republican operatives.
In a newsroom that seems to enjoy baiting liberals and punching hippies, he is arguably the chief troll.
This was his work.
Insight from Susan Glasser
Just yesterday, I listened in on an event at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center featuring Susan Glasser, the New Yorker columnist who also coauthors books with her husband, the star Times White House correspondent Peter Baker, who unsurprisingly was one of the signatories of the smug-caucus letter.
She offered a view into the cozy world of elite political reporters, where it’s not unusual for senior officials to come over for a meal and chat off the record. She insisted that “the quality of reporting about Washington in many respects is far better than it ever was before” as indicated by “scoops minute to minute”.
Most relevantly, she dismissed the profession’s critics with an epic straw-man argument. “There are a lot of analysts on the left who literally it’s, I don’t know, they cannot take any criticism of President Biden, the White House,” she said. “It’s as if you know like the mere act of criticizing Biden will somehow guarantee that Donald Trump returns to the White House… It’s been fascinating to watch how they can hardly handle journalism doing what journalism does.”
Critics are addled, partisan, and biased. It’s only the elite political journalists who aren’t.
The Onion Said It Best
The Times’s cavalier dismissal of concerns about trans coverage inspired several excellent essays. Arwa Mahdawi wrote in the Guardian: “Like it or not, the Times is involved in advocacy. It just needs to step back for a moment and think about who it’s advocating for.”
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Soleil Ho wrote that the Times is “helping to manufacture a crisis and embolden those who want to legislate trans people back into the closet.”
Journalist and professor Isaac Bailey wrote for Nieman Reports:
The New York Times had a chance to earnestly grapple with a serious critique of its trans coverage by a serious group of professionals, including journalists The Times believed were credible enough to have a byline in the paper or contribute in other ways. Instead, it decided to demean them as activists who aren’t truly interested in the goal of quality journalism. It’s a tired tactic, one that is often trotted out to brush back groups who have long been left out of such discussions but are demanding a rightful place at the table.
But only satire could truly capture the odious and self-destructive nature of the Times’s response.
So, thank you to The Onion, which published a piece headlined: “It Is Journalism’s Sacred Duty To Endanger The Lives Of As Many Trans People As Possible.” They wrote:
Good journalism is about finding those stories, even when they don’t exist. It’s about asking the tough questions and ignoring the answers you don’t like, then offering misleading evidence in service of preordained editorial conclusions. In our case, endangering trans people is the lodestar that shapes our coverage. Frankly, if our work isn’t putting trans people further at risk of trauma and violence, we consider it a failure….
Is the point of reporting to illuminate the world around us, so that we may make meaning of it? Or is it to cause people in minority groups to question their humanity and persuade others to demonize them? We know where we stand, proudly dreaming of genitals.
How Do We Continue This Discussion?
Times management tried to shut down public criticism from its staff about this important issue. (Ironically, management’s favored reporters felt emboldened to attack back anyway.)
The concerned contributors were not asking the Times to do anything partisan, or unethical. They were asking their fellow staff members to recognize the humanity of trans people, which includes not considering gender-affirming care to be something dire and controversial.
A tiny percentage of a tiny percentage of people “face the type of conflict the Times is so intent on magnifying,” they wrote, adding: “There is no rapt reporting on the thousands of parents who simply love and support their children.”
Is it a workplace issue? It certainly may be. Is it a legitimate journalistic issue that demands more scrutiny? No question.
But with a ban in place on further public discussion, is there any place for healthy communication across the rift in the Times newsroom?
The old guard needs to listen to younger and more diverse staffers whose lived experiences tell them that change is necessary, that equating unequal things is deceptive, and that that what the Times writes can cause harm to vulnerable groups.
The Times used to have a public editor, who served that purpose to some extent. When publisher Arthur Sulzberger abolished that role, he reassured everyone that “our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be.”
But Dean Baquet’s last memo to staffers told them to basically stop paying attention to social media.
Concerned Times staffers need to be allowed some way to talk across the rift, to have the substance of their critiques addressed without straw men and without censorship.
The longer it takes for that to happen, the more dangerous the rift gets, and the more the Times loses its bearings.