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James Bennet: Sign Of The Times

James Bennet, until today, opinion editor of The New York Times (WGBH screenshot)

Well, you knew this was coming:

The New York Times announced today that James Bennet, Editorial Page Editor since May, 2016, is resigning effective immediately. The Times also announced that the deputy editorial page editor Jim Dao is stepping off the masthead and being reassigned to the newsroom.

Bennet has said that he didn’t read the Cotton op-ed before he published it, which really is an unthinkable mistake. When I worked on the Dallas Morning News editorial page, our boss, the editorial page editor, read everything before signing off on it. Granted, the Times publishes a lot more online than in the paper, but when the column is written by a US Senator, surely attention must be paid by the section editor.

That said, had Bennet read it and approved it, he would still have been forced out — this, for publishing the opinion of a Republican US Senator, a view shared by over half of all Americans. It is hard to fathom this. It is hard to fathom that the staff of the most important newspaper in America, one based in the most cosmopolitan city in the world, cannot bear to see in print an opinion that offends them. But this is where we are. The New York Times is choosing to cut itself off even more from the nation. In so doing, it makes itself more parochial, more dogmatic, more ignorant of the world as it is. It would be funny if it weren’t truly a tragedy. Gone is the old-school liberalism, replaced by a left-wing fundamentalism that cannot bear too much reality.

Think about it: the section run by James Bennet has a trans columnist who made this lasting contribution to the American public conversation

… but publishing an opinion by a Republican senator causes the newsroom to go into spasm, and forces the editorial page editor to resign.

This is a newspaper whose Book Review published a novelist’s fantasy about assassinating President Trump. 

But the staff goes to pieces over a Republican senator’s op-ed, and the publisher defenestrates the editorial page editor.

Here is the lie publisher A.G. Sulzberger tells himself to justify having capitulated to the newsroom mob now running his newspaper — this, from a note to staff:

 

What total horses*it. The Times will now publish a much narrower range of opinion. It will do nothing to help its core readers wrestle with history. It is downright Orwellian to pretend that the Times will engage, fearlessly or otherwise, with ideas from across the political spectrum, particularly those we disagree with. Bennet made a dull and predictable op-ed section a bit less so, but now it will swing even more sharply to wokeness. Sulzberger is not a an idiot. He knows what he’s doing. He has to know that this is a capitulation to ideological madness.

This is quite a moment for American journalism. The top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer was just forced out over a three-word headline — “Buildings also matter” — that offended journalists of color and others. His twenty years of service to the paper did not save him. The publisher said in a note to the newsroom:

“We will use this moment to evaluate the organizational structure and processes of the newsroom, assess what we need, and look both internally and externally for a seasoned leader who embodies our values, embraces our shared strategy, and understands the diversity of the communities we serve.”

The paper has long been in a death spiral. Last year, its management said that it could be dead within five years. You think people will now want to subscribe to a newspaper run by the rigid progressivism of the newsroom? You think the paralyzing timidity that will now overtake that newsroom is going to help it do better journalism — the kind of journalism people will pay for?

As regular readers know, I have been concerned over the awokening at the Times for awhile. The Times has always been a liberal paper. Fine; conservative griping about the Times‘s liberalism has been a long-standing habit. But the paper has been quickly moving over the past few years to embrace illiberal leftism.

I’ve written here many times about the newsroom’s town hall meeting last year, in which an unnamed staffer voiced the opinion that because racism is in “everything,” it ought to be in all the paper’s coverage across disciplines. Executive editor Dean Baquet did not challenge that clear challenge to journalistic principle. If someone had said to him that they believe God is in “everything,” so God ought to be in the paper’s coverage across disciplines, or that “class conflict” is in everything, etc., it would have been perfectly clear how radical an ask this was — and how no newspaper could possibly agree to that. But then the paper turned around and published The 1619 Project, which openly and proudly claimed to racialize American history.

If, like me, you are a subscriber and a regular reader of the Times, the strong tack towards identity politics of the paper in both its news and opinion coverage has been clear. Last year, political scientist Zach Goldberg did a Lexis/Nexis search of the Times archives, to see how common the use of social justice concepts, including jargon, has become. Look what he found:

And:

It’s not your imagination. The awokening of the Times is real, and documentable. What has happened to Bennet is another sign of the Times‘ decline. I read a couple of days ago that something like 800 of the paper’s 1,200 employees signed a petition demanding, among other things, this:

A commitment to the thorough vetting, fact-checking, and real-time rebuttal of Opinion pieces, including seeking perspective and debate from across the desk’s diverse staff.

I realized that two-thirds of the newspaper’s employees are essentially asking for a progressive veto over opinion pieces — and seeing that as a normal part of publishing a newspaper. Since then, I have been reading the Times‘s stories (not opinion pieces, but news stories) not knowing what I can trust. That petition said that the Cotton op-ed “promotes hate” — which is what the wokesters say about any opinion with which they disagree! How can I be confident that the stories the Times reports in its news pages is fair and accurate?

All this put me in mind of a conversation I had maybe 15 years ago, when I was a columnist and editorial writer at The Dallas Morning News, with a Millennial writer there. He knew that I was a conservative, and I knew that he wasn’t, but none of that mattered. I mentioned to him one day that I thought the paper’s coverage of the gay marriage issue was one-sided, and had become a matter of pro-LGBT advocacy journalism. He agreed that it was one-sided, but told me that he didn’t think there was a legitimate other side. I pointed out that we lived in a rather conservative part of the country, and that most of our readers took the opposite position on gay marriage (this was around 2005, I think). Were they all bigots who didn’t deserve to be consulted in our reporting? Yes, he said. If the paper was reporting on the Civil Rights movement, he said, would we feel morally and professionally obligated to seek the views of local KKK leaders?

He really did see the issue that way: that to oppose gay marriage rights was to be the moral equivalent of a Klansman. I told him that was an outrageous position to take, but even if it were true, if half our readers held racially bigoted views, wouldn’t the newspaper have a professional obligation to be fair and accurate in our representation of our readership in our reporting. No, he said, we wouldn’t. 

Last I heard, that former colleague left the paper years ago in one of the buyouts. But that conversation came to mind this weekend, thinking about the generational changes that have overtaken professional journalism over the past two decades. I was taught that journalism was about searching for the most complete available version of the truth at that moment, recognizing that we were only writing the first draft of history — that the story would change as more information became available. But over the years, it has seemed to me that a younger generation of journalists have come to see the craft as more about creating and managing a narrative.

I want to make sure that I’m not being misunderstood here. I don’t care that The New York Times is becoming even more militantly progressive on its op-ed pages. I appreciate it when a good piece appears there, but I don’t subscribe to the Times for its op-ed coverage. What I care about is that the politicization of the newsroom has become so extreme, and so accepted, that they don’t even try to hide it. And now Sulzberger has surrendered to the mob, breaking faith with readers. Or at least with this reader.

I can’t trust the paper anymore. Its authority is gone. Oh, not with institutional elites, who will still read it and hang on its words, and regard it as an imprimatur-granter. But anyone who pays money to stay informed about what’s really happening in the nation and the world will now never be sure if they are getting something close to the truth, or something that has part of the truth in it, except for the parts that trigger its woke staff.

I expect this will become general in what’s left of US journalism. Last fall, Gallup found that 41 percent of Americans trust mainstream journalism — a rebound from 32 percent in 2016, but still close to an historic low. The bottom is going to fall out before too long. Here’s a true story, though I’m concealing identifying details: within the past couple of decades, there was a meeting of editors at a major metropolitan daily. The newspaper’s publisher, alarmed by collapsing circulation numbers, had hired a consultant to poll its readership, as well as the demographics it sought to entice into subscribing, in an effort to see what might be done to turn things around. Among the findings: nearly 70 percent of the readers and potential readers said they had no trust — none — in that particular publication.

There was a gasp in the room. Then one of the top editors tsk-tsk’d, saying, “Isn’t it a shame that people will only believe what they want to believe?”

This really happened. The blindness inside the news business is deep. The Times has always been an industry leader. Its new militant wokeness will be the blind leading the blind off the cliff. The Times is going to do what it’s going to do, but I’m not going to participate in it. I’ve just cancelled my subscription — not out of anger, but over a total loss of trust.

Wokeness poisons everything.

UPDATE:Ben Smith, the media columnist at the NYT, writes about the Bennet affair in the broader context of the shift in American journalism towards subjectively engaged reporters. Excerpts:

How long Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Baquet will put up with public pressure from their staff is not clear. In an earlier moment of social turmoil, A.M. Rosenthal, who led the newsroom from 1969 to 1986, kept a watchful eye and heavy hand on reporters he perceived to lean too far left. The words, “He kept the paper straight,” are inscribed on his gravestone.

Minutes after Mr. Sulzberger told the staff in an email that Mr. Bennet had resigned, he told me not to interpret the move as a philosophical shift. Mr. Rosenthal, he noted, had presided over a much less diverse newsroom, and one that focused on covering New York for New Yorkers.

“In this case, we messed up and hiding behind, ‘We want to keep the paper straight,’ to not acknowledge that, would have left us more exposed,” Mr. Sulzberger said.

And he told me in a separate interview on Friday: “We’re not retreating from the principles of independence and objectivity. We don’t pretend to be objective about things like human rights and racism.”

But the shift in mainstream American media — driven by a journalism that is more personal, and reporters more willing to speak what they see as the truth without worrying about alienating conservatives — now feels irreversible. It is driven in equal parts by politics, the culture and journalism’s business model, relying increasingly on passionate readers willing to pay for content rather than skittish advertisers.

Ah, so they will start throwing aside objectivity for anything having to do with “human rights” or “racism.” That means they have handed the newsroom over to identity-politics crusaders. This is useful to have confirmed.

Smith talks about Wes Lowery, an aggressive young reporter who made his name at the Washington Post for his coverage of the Ferguson riots. He got in trouble with executive editor Marty Baron, though, for using his Twitter account to criticize people, including those he covers. Eventually he either quit or was fired. Smith writes:

He seemed to insiders and outsiders the prototype of the precocious, nakedly ambitious, somewhat arrogant and very talented (though usually white and male) reporter who has risen quickly at American newspapers.

But Mr. Baron has been more sensitive than other newsroom leaders to reporters who push the limits on Twitter and on television, as Max Tani reported in the Daily Beast earlier this year. (At The New York Times, social media policy is usually enforced by a passive-aggressive email from an editor and rare follow-up.) Mr. Lowery said that when he hit back at a Republican official who criticized his Ferguson coverage on Twitter, he drew a lecture from Mr. Baron.

By 2019, the executive editor had gathered examples of what he saw as misconduct, from Mr. Lowery’s tweet mocking attendees at a Washington book party as “decadent aristocrats” to one tweet criticizing a New York Times report on the Tea Party.

Baron told him to knock it off or hit the road. Six months later, Lowery hit the road. More:

“American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment,” [Lowery] tweeted of the Times [Bennet] debacle. “We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.”

That argument is gathering momentum in key American newsrooms. At The Times, staff members are pressing for changes beyond the Opinion section. At The Post, a committee reporting to Mr. Ginsberg recently delivered a review of staff members’ attitudes toward social media policy. And at The Post’s own tense town hall on Friday, Mr. Baron apologized for failing in a recent email to address “the particular and severe burden felt by black employees, many of whom were also covering the story” of the protests, according to notes from a participant in the meeting. The Post’s union then sent an email to the staff criticizing Mr. Baron’s response. “Most striking of all was that the four voices the company chose to elevate in this moment belonged exclusively to white people. There could be no starker example of The Post’s lack of diversity in management.”

Read it all. They’re going to go after Marty Baron next. This is “moral clarity.” Again, useful to get that learned. It’s all out in the open now.

UPDATE.2: This really happened tonight. Jesse Singal is a New York journalist of the left, but he’s a man of courage and integrity:

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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