Quick question. Who would you rather share a foxhole with, William Lewis, the former publisher of the Wall Street Journal or Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times?
Lewis in February received a letter from four dozen angry WSJ journalists demanding the newspaper’s opinion editors remove a headline that so deeply offended Communist China’s leadership they booted three Journal reporters from the country a day earlier. The WSJ reporters said the headline was “derogatory” and urged Lewis “to consider correcting the headline and apologizing to our readers, sources, colleagues and anyone else who was offended by it.”
Lewis responded with a deft statement saying the headline “clearly caused upset and concern amongst the Chinese people, which we regret.” The offending headline remains, as do the people responsible for it.
Sulzberger also faced a newsroom uprising last week from newsroom staffers outraged over editorial page editor James Bennet’s decision to publish a controversial op-ed by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. Sulzberger initially defended the Cotton op-ed declaring, “I believe in the principle of openness to a range of opinions, even those we may disagree with, and this piece was published in that spirit.” Unable to quell staff anger he reversed himself and said the Cotton op-ed didn’t meet the Times’ “standards” and represented a significant breakdown in our editing processes, not the first we’ve experienced in recent years.” Bennet was forced to resign.
Historical context is needed to understand why Sulzberger and executive editor Dean Baquet should be the ones getting the boot. These are very challenging times in the media industry, but the Times faced equally, if not more, perilous straits in the early 70s when New York City was – to borrow a phrase from Donald Trump – a real shithole. The newspaper’s revenues were falling, its circulation was moribund, and its profits marginable. There were predictions that television would make most newspapers obsolete.
Abe Rosenthal, The Times’ editor at the time, staunched the decline by making the newspaper four sections instead of two. Although two of the sections were local news and business, others contained softer features focusing on lifestyle, food, and culture. The newsroom staff was epileptic because the Times historically was a ponderous newspaper focusing on weighty world issues. They accused Rosenthal of ruining the newspaper.
Rosenthal by all accounts was a mega a-hole, a good thing because he wasn’t easily intimidated and he ignored the protests questioning his judgment. Good thing, too. Those sections mocked by the newsroom staff are why the Times is still in business today. They brought in millions in advertising revenues and tens of thousands of new readers.
Arthur O. Sulzberger, grandfather of the Times’ current publisher, also didn’t allow the newspaper’s journalists dictate how to run the place. In 1973 the elder Sulzberger sparked a near newsroom riot when he hired former Nixon speech writer William Safire as a columnist because he wanted the newspaper to have a strong conservative voice. The visceral disdain for Safire when he joined was such that years later he recalled that no one would talk to him at a company picnic. He went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
What distinguished Times journalists from years past and the current crop of millennial know-it-alls was a collective commitment and respect for the institution they worked for. Bellyaching about management was an internal matter, and no one would think to publicly air the newspaper’s dirty laundry. That’s commonplace now, and so is publicly maligning and mocking the work of colleagues.
Under Baquet’s leadership the Times’ standards for excellence and integrity have declined. Its coverage of Donald Trump drools with disdain and the institutional hatred is so deep rooted and pervasive the publication was still assuring its readers on 2016 election night that Hillary Clinton would win until about an hour or two before she conceded. The Times’ extensive reporting on Trump’s alleged Russian collusion, for which it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, has been discredited by the recent release of previously classified documents and the findings of the Justice Department’s inspector general.
The Times’ contempt for Fox News also has gotten it into trouble. The publicationin April ran an article implying that a man died of the Covid-19 virus because he went on a cruise after listening to anchor Sean Hannity saying warnings about the virus were exaggerated. Turned out the segment the Times referred to aired eight days after the man left on the cruise. Rather than retract the story, the Times stealth edited it hoping readers wouldn’t notice. Stealth editing, which involves changing stories without admitting they were false, is increasingly common at the Times, including in its coverage of James Bennet’s departure.
The Times’ opinion section has had numerous controversies since Bennet took over the department in 2016. The media unanimously focuses on derided commentaries by conservative columnists Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, but in my mind editorial board member Mara Gay was responsible for the biggest and most reputation damaging.
Gay in March went on MSNBC and noted that Michael Bloomberg, who spent $500 million on campaign ads, could have given every American one million dollars and still had money left over because the U.S. population is 327 million. The mistaken math, which Gay said she gleamed from Twitter, wasn’t caught by anchor Brian Williams or his producers.
The Times increasingly has become brazen in its denial of facts and creating alternative realities. An example was Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay for the Times’ “1619 Project” focusing on the toxic impact of slavery in America. The commentary was maligned by several prominent historians, including black civil rights veteran Robert Woodson. Nevertheless, the Times submitted and received a Pulitzer Prize for the discredited commentary.
Paul Krugman, the Times’ Nobel Prize winning columnist, last week suggested, without a scintilla of evidence, that positive employment numbers issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics were manipulated to make Trump look good. Krugman backed off the allegation after several authorities in his field called him out for his reckless allegation. It wasn’t the first time Krugman has misrepresented facts.
It’s a wonder why Cotton bothered with the Times in the first place. In February, the newspaper accused him of spreading a “fringe theory” that the coronavirus was a bioweapon manufactured in a high-security biochemical Wuhan lab. In fact, Cotton said the virus possibly escaped from a Wuhan lab, a view also held by Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist frequently quoted by the media. In denouncing Cotton’s op-ed, the Times said his assertions about “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa,” are unsubstantiated and widely questioned. The Times previously published the allegations.
National Review’s Andrew McCarthy has done an excellent job articulating the Times’ dishonesty and its false commitment to “facts.” One has to be in denial to continue believing the publication is staffed by journalists who strive to objectively report or that its newsroom is comprised of people with diverse views and perspectives inconsistent with Ivy League indoctrination. The Bennet execution makes clear that Times journalists want anyone who raises challenges to their groupthink destroyed.
Publications with the best reputations exist today because of strong willed leaders who strived to keep their publications as honest and objective as possible. The Washington Post had Ben Bradlee, the Wall Street Journal Frederick Taylor, Forbes Jim Michaels, and the Times Abe Rosenthal.
It’s clear the Times’ newsroom staff doesn’t respect the publication’s leadership or boundaries that long have been in place. Historically, newspapers maintained a strict separation between newsroom staff and editorial writers, including separate workspaces. Times reporters can no longer claim they have no influence on the commentary section. Baquet’s charges broke down what was once known as a Chinese Wall. The Wall Street Journal maintained theirs.
The Sulzberger and other trust fund families who control the Times would be wise to promptly get together and appoint new leadership to protect their cash flows. The Times can’t forever coast on a reputation predicated on standards that are no longer upheld.
Those seismic rumblings felt around New York City last week? It was Sulzberger’s grandfather and Rosenthal spinning in their graves.
Addendum: Bennet on Monday received an impressive endorsement from Dan Okrent, the former and first ombudsman for the New York Times. Okrent in May 2004 wrote a scathing column about the “flawed” journalism the Times employed that resulted in the “fake news” stories that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. More than 30,000 American soldiers died because of the Times’ false stories.
Shout out to Bennet deputy Jim Dao: At the height of the uproar he went public and defended the junior staffer who had the misfortune of being assigned the Cotton commentary. I’d be honored to share a foxhole with Dao.