New York Times editor Joe Kahn says defending democracy is a partisan act and he won’t do it

Joe Kahn, right, and Dean Baquet, in happier times. (NYT photo)
Joe Kahn, right, and Dean Baquet, in happier times. (NYT photo)

Joe Kahn, after two years in charge of the New York Times newsroom, has learned nothing.

He had an extraordinary opportunity, upon taking over from Dean Baquet, to right the ship: to recognize that the Times was not warning sufficiently of the threat to democracy presented by a second Trump presidency.

But to Kahn, democracy is a partisan issue and he’s not taking sides. He made that clear in an interview with obsequious former employee Ben Smith, now the editor of Semafor.

Kahn accused those of us asking the Times to do better of wanting it to be a house organ of the Democratic party:

To say that the threats of democracy are so great that the media is going to abandon its central role as a source of impartial information to help people vote — that’s essentially saying that the news media should become a propaganda arm for a single candidate, because we prefer that candidate’s agenda.

But critics like me aren’t asking the Times to abandon its independence. We’re asking the Times to recognize that it isn’t living up to its own standards of truth-telling and independence when it obfuscates the stakes of the 2024 election, covers up for Trump’s derangement, and goes out of its way to make Biden look weak.

Kahn’s position is, not coincidentally, identical to that of his boss, publisher A.G. Sulzberger, who I recently wrote about in my post, “Why is New York Times campaign coverage so bad? Because that’s what the publisher wants.”

And to the extent that Kahn has changed anything in the Times newsroom since Baquet left, it’s to double down on a form of objectivity that favors the comfortable-white-male perspective and considers anything else little more than hysteria.

Throwing Baquet under the bus, Kahn called the summer of the Black Lives Matter protests “an extreme moment” during which the Times lost its way.

“I think we’ve learned from it. I think we found our footing after that,” he said.

I translate that to mean that the old guard has reasserted total control over the rabble.

But how, exactly, the Times lost its footing, he doesn’t explain. I’d love to see him point to a few articles that he considers went too far. Best I can tell, his real complaint is that the Times under Baquet hired too many young and diverse people who — in his view — don’t understand the rules.

“I think there’s a larger number of people who we might at some point have hired, but we’ve asked the kind of questions or looked at the sort of work that they do, and wondered whether they’d be a good fit for us,” Kahn said, making it clear he won’t make that mistake again.

His example was hyperbolic and not even vaguely credible:

We’re looking more closely and asking more questions and doing more interviews. … We’ve actually asked people, “What happens if you got an assignment to go and report on some people that have said some nasty things and that you don’t like, what would you do?” And some people say, “I’d reject the assignment.” Okay, well, then you should work somewhere else.

I’d be willing to bet a large sum that no job candidate at the Times has ever said any such thing.

On Democracy

In one small paragraph, Kahn outdid himself. He:

  • Dismissed the importance of democracy as a political issue.
  • Disclosed that the Times coverage is poll driven.
  • Asserted that coverage of the economy and immigration is favorable to Trump.
  • Whined that more coverage of democracy was tantamount to becoming a partisan publication.

Here’s what he said:

It’s our job to cover the full range of issues that people have. At the moment, democracy is one of them. But it’s not the top one — immigration happens to be the top [of polls], and the economy and inflation is the second. Should we stop covering those things because they’re favorable to Trump and minimize them? I don’t even know how it’s supposed to work in the view of Dan Pfeiffer or the White House. We become an instrument of the Biden campaign?

(Smith had asked Kahn to respond to Pfeiffer, a former Obama official, who recently complained that the editors at the Times  “do not see their job as saving democracy or stopping an authoritarian from taking power.”)

That one paragraph, posted on social media by NYU professor Jay Rosen, elicited a storm of critiques.

Cartoonist Ruben Bolling was among those upset by Kahn’s dismissal of democracy as a key issue.

Hate to Godwin’s Law this, but what if the Berlin Bugle in 1931 said, Hitler may be a threat to democracy, but polls show that most Germans are most concerned about Communism and the Jewish problem. A journalist’s job is not to reflect the polls, but to cover the objectively important stories.

University College London professor Brian Klaas wrote:

It is insane to me that someone in this role doesn’t understand that democracy is the superstructure for literally everything else. Democracy isn’t an issue that matters because of public opinion. It’s *the* issue that makes free public opinion possible.

Veteran political observer Norm Ornstein wrote:

This is both cringeworthy and frightening. I can’t say it is sleepwalking to dictatorship. He is not sleeping. It is marching in that direction.

Entrepreneur and writer Anil Dash concluded:

Just so you know, NYT fully believes they have no obligation to stop the fascist attack on America. They’ve finally said so explicitly. Act accordingly.

Many objected to Kahn’s argument that democracy is a partisan issue. Extremism researcher Mark Pitcavage wrote:

This quote strongly suggests the exec editor of the NYT can’t even think of democracy as an issue other than as a Biden campaign strategy.

OG blogger Heather “Digby” Parton wrote:

This is so, so tiresome. Nobody says it’s his job to “help” Joe Biden. It would be nice if they could find it in their hearts not to sabotage him though.

Others were horrified that Kahn breezily suggested that the economy and immigration were favorable stories for Trump. Journalist and author James Surowiecki wrote:

If the NYT covers it accurately, the economy is not an issue that is “favorable to Trump.”

A Twitter user named Hank Hoffman wrote:

The Exec. Editor of @nytimes  believes immigration, the economy, & inflation are issues “favorable to Trump.”

Just to take immigration, why would a plan for militarized mass deportations & concentration camps be “favorable to Trump?” How’s a STRONG economy “favorable to Trump?”

Some took offense at the notion that the Times was so poll driven. Journalist Reed Richardson wrote:

Conceptualizing democracy as a kind of niche issue that a free press should only prioritize in coverage according to how many people rate its importance in a poll is a huge tell about why the NYTimes’s current election coverage has been so myopic, timid, and consistently unable to meet the moment.

Others thought that was just a cop-out of an excuse. University of Illinois professor Nicholas Grossman wrote:

Biden’s age isn’t among voters’ top issues in polls, but the NY Times made it a recurring top story anyway Voters sure didn’t say they care about the president of Harvard, but the Times made that the number one story for days. When NYT editors care, they don’t defer to polls.

Crushing the Woke

I found it startling that Kahn basically expressed his agreement with former opinion editor James Bennet that the Times went too woke in the wake of the summer of 2020. The only daylight between the two men appears to be that Kahn thinks that under his leadership everything has returned to normal, while Bennet believes the problem is ongoing.

Kahn said that “in the early days of Trump in particular,” the message to new hires was  “join us for the mission.”

Now, he said, “I think the big push that you’re seeing us make and reestablish our norms and emphasize independent journalism and build a more resilient culture comes out of some of the excesses of that period,” Kahn said.

Here’s the relevant part of the interview, which started when Smith asked Kahn: “Do you think the Times let the inmates run the asylum for too long?”

Joe: I wouldn’t use those words. I do think that there was a period of peak cultural angst at this organization, with the combination of the intensity of the Trump era, COVID, and then George Floyd. The summer of 2020 was a crazy period where the world felt threatened, people’s individual safety was threatened, we had a murder of an innocent Black man by police suffocation. And we have the tail end of the most divisive presidency that anyone alive today has experienced. And those things just frayed nerves everywhere.

Ben: Do you think you made mistakes, or just that it was very hard to navigate that moment?

Joe: I think it was very hard to navigate that moment. Everybody’s remote. We’re dealing with this political upheaval. We still did good journalism through that moment. But I think we’ve looked back at that and learned.

Unlike James Bennet, who sees that as emblematic of what the Times and maybe the news media in general has become, I think it was a particular moment. I think it was an extreme moment. I think we’ve learned from it. I think we found our footing after that.

Ben: You see why James takes that one particularly personally.

Joe: James has a singular take on it. I can see why it has become the single defining moment for him. But I think it is not as a single, defining moment for The New York Times [or] for journalism as he thinks it is.

Bennet was fired by the publisher in 2022 — after a newsroom revolt – for allowing a racist and deceptive op-ed column by far-right Senator Tom Cotton slide onto the home page without proper editorial supervision.

Holding a grudge, Bennet wrote a 16,000-word essay in the Economist late last year accusing the Times of becoming “illiberal” and of bowing to the stifling social-justice ideology of the newsroom’s young (and more diverse) staffers.

But beyond Bennet’s firing, I’m at a loss for anything remotely like an example of the Times going woke. Casting Dean Baquet as some sort of woke pushover is laughable. The fact is he wouldn’t even listen to those younger and more diverse staffers.

As I wrote in 2022, in one interview he contrasted the “demands” of  the “next generation of Black journalists,” on the one hand, to his duty to “make sure that the New York Times is a fair-minded institution,” on the other. In his mind, it was no contest.

So I still don’t understand what Bennet and Kahn are actually complaining about.

Thomas Zimmer, a visiting professor of history at Georgetown University, wrote on social media that he sees Kahn’s comments as representative of how centrist elites, out of aversion to wokeism, bend to the right:

What stands out about this interview with New York Times executive editor Joe Kahn is this pervasive sense among centrist elites that by the summer of 2020, “woke” radicalism had been allowed to advance too far – and people like Kahn see it as their mission to stem the tide….

The prevailing view on the center is that we need to turn the clock back, to a time before what they see as the current excesses of radical leftism, “wokeism,” identity politics, “cancel culture”… Too much “chaos,” too much “unrest” and “turmoil.” Who can stem the tide?

Centrist elites seem convinced that those young radicals must be prevented from toppling an order of, as they see it, reason, stability, and quite enough progress (no more!) by any means necessary. Even if that entails legitimizing and making common cause with the Far-Right.

Similarly, Davidson College Professor Isaac Bailey shared an observation based on the Kahn quote that Smith used as his headline: “The newsroom is not a safe space”

Something else about this Kahn response that shouldn’t go unnoticed. He used the right-wing “safe space” trope. Every time these dudes open their mouths, even during softball interviews, they reveal more of an anti-woke philosophy even while clinging to an air of “objectivity.”

The Wrath at Kahn

Pfeiffer, who was namechecked by Smith and Kahn, fired back on Tuesday in his newsletter, writing that it’s now clear that the Times doesn’t view the election as a fight for democracy and there’s not much anyone can do about it.

And he made a very important point about how his own view had been oversimplified by both men:

I haven’t argued that the New York Times or anyone stop covering negative stories about Biden or become a state-owned propaganda outlet (not that Kahn knows my argument). No one else has argued that either. What most people want is for the media to spend less time on the horserace and more time on the stakes of this election; and to specifically call out the threat that is a second Trump presidency. There have been a lot of very good stories, but there could always be more. In general — and this is a complaint I have had about the New York Times that is two decades old — I wish they would take good faith criticism from the Left with as much seriousness as they take bad faith criticism from the Right.

At the New Republic, Greg Sargent also explicated the critique that Smith and Kahn intentionally garble:

It’s that the unique danger Trump poses to democracy requires a serious reevaluation of the conventions of political reporting at big news organizations—the daily editorial choices that subtly shape how readers receive information and ideas—and the ways they unmistakably obscure the true nature of that threat.

And he asked a key question:

Does the casual reader regularly come away from most Times coverage grasping that core difference between Trump and Biden, that one fundamentally threatens the system, and the other doesn’t?

And Paul Waldman, writing in his newsletter, reached this damning conclusion:

When it suits the Times’ leaders, they insist on the centrality of their role and the vital and salutary influence they have. But when criticized, they claim they are not independent actors exercising their own power at all.

The Dishonesty

My overarching concern is about how Kahn is not being forthright or honest in responding to the legitimate critique of the Times.

As Atlantic staff writer  Adam Serwer observed:

An editorial decision has been made about the slant and direction of coverage and they’re going to defend and justify it any way they can.

Blogger Duncan Black was even more blunt:

Details change a bit but every “conversation” about general leftwing criticism of the new york times for 20+ years has been the same in that they do not engage with the substance of the criticism at all. This is not because they are stupid it’s because they are liars

Maybe the most telling element of the interview is who Kahn picked as his interlocutor: A shmoozy former Times media critic whose interview style is sycophantic.

You know what would be nice? If Kahn sat down for an interview with a truly independent journalist. Why is he avoiding that? What is he afraid of?

14 COMMENTS

  1. A recent cartoon, i am sorry i don’t have a link or recall by whom, showed two white middle-aged NYT editors arguing about how best to write « both sides » coverage of the end of democracy as they are rounded up, deposited into the Stephen Miller Detention Camp for State Enemies, and executed.

  2. “You know what would be nice? If Kahn sat down for an interview with a truly independent journalist.”

    More than a touch of irony there that the NYT is criticizing Biden for not sitting for a challenging interview.

  3. Who are they polling, and are their views already shaped by NYT? Immigration, like crime, is an issue that steers people rightward. The economy definitely favors the left if it is presented honestly. But NYT hasn’t done that either.
    When someone says “woke” to be disparaging, the standard response should be “would you rather go through life asleep?” Seems like a lot of people would.

  4. So much crying about a left wing supporting rag attempting to at least appear to be balanced shows your true stripes. We don’t need all of the so called elite journalists or observers of same to tell the masses what it’s all about. We are not children and your underestimating what the average American sees and understands is your tell. You think only you and your ilk understand the world. And you are wrong.

  5. The state of corporate journalism today is such that I often wonder, if Watergate were to happen today? Would it have even been covered? Or dismissed. I’m Cronkite years old and grew up expecting more from our journalists. Today’s crop leaves me worrying about just what they’re teaching them in journalism classed these days.

  6. The world has been turned upside down 👎. Democracy isn’t perfect but it sure beats dictatorships. Doesn’t anyone learn from the past anymore? Do history classes still talk about Communism and the results of using free speech in Russia and China? People are imprisoned and killed there if they want more freedoms from oppression. Wake up people!

  7. It’s important to note that at no point does Kahn say Trump ISN’T a threat to democracy. He just doesn’t think it’s their job to point it out. And as you said, there are many, many much less important things that Kahn and the New York Times thinks it IS their job to point out.

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