The Gray Zone Lady

Disarray and indecision on the New York Times’ politics desk

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“The New York Times was a timeless blend of past and present, a medieval modern kingdom within a nation with its own private laws and values and with leaders who felt responsibility for the nation’s welfare but were less likely to lie than the nation’s statesman and generals,” Gay Talese writes in The Kingdom and the Power, his 1969 account of the inner workings of the New York Times. “The Times was the bible, emerging each morning with a view of life that thousands of readers accepted as reality.”

Everything and nothing has changed in fifty years. Media has fractured; cyberspace has subsumed material life; newspapers have devolved from stolid, profitable businesses into emblems of collapse, their profit model obliterated for good. Ill-conceived consolidations killed the two-newspaper towns, the internet’s inevitable march took the classified sections, and Google and Facebook swallowed whatever pennies on the dollar newspapers could lap up through online advertising. The newspaper, once the indispensable bundle with something for everyone—whether a crossword puzzle, a weather report, supermarket coupons, or the box score that subsidized the necessary work of gathering news—was rendered irrelevant in an age where all the extras could be had elsewhere, for free. The newspaper’s monopoly on life is gone. For all the tremendous flaws of the old model, this is ultimately sad.

Out of the smoldering ashes of the newspaper business soars the Times, though no single newspaper can agenda-set like it did in Talese’s day, when reality filtered through far fewer prisms. At the dawn of the 2020s, the Times is paradoxically both more and less influential than it was in the analog age, a gray colossus by virtue of its native resources and eviscerated competition. If, over the next few thousand words, I write of all the ways the Times, a newspaper I still admire, has failed, I do so with a caveat: if the Times went away for good, we would all be far worse off. There are fewer and fewer organizations who can afford to do what the Times does. Newspapers, with few exceptions, do not dispatch reporters to foreign countries and leave them there. They do not operate functioning, weekly book review sections. They do not maintain bureaus in states thousands of miles from Manhattan. They do not finance months-long investigations into corporate and government malfeasance.

As aesthetically irksome as the digital media boom of the 2010s could be, it’s a tragedy it didn’t last. Investment money dried up because there is not a sufficiently profitable way to undertake news reporting. Tech companies operate under the fantasy of galactic profits; Uber has never made a cent, but its market saturation and fraudulent, though saleable, mythos allowed it to swallow endless rounds of investment capital. Digital media isn’t the same. Ballyhooed upstarts like Fusion came and went. The pivot to video failed. If you aren’t a prestige outlet with decades, or even centuries, to bank a brand on, making money in news is just about impossible. Tech investors can pretend that one day the products they pour their cash into will make money. With news, there isn’t even a fantasy.

In this charred landscape, with the die-off of small-town and regional newspapers as well as culturally significant alternative weeklies like the Village Voice, the Times looms ever larger. If large counties and even whole cities no longer have newspapers, the news consumer who doesn’t want to wade into the abyss of Facebook for relevant information must turn to the Times. What the paper does, or fails to do, has consequences for us all. We cannot afford another catastrophic mistake like Judith Miller’s propagating of Bush White House lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Power Outage

Lately, the Opinion section has brought the Times well-earned derision. I don’t want to spend too much time on that; those failures are almost too obvious to enumerate. Among their columnists, the choices range from rote center-left perspectives to full-blown neoliberalism (looking at you, Tom Friedman) to the Gray Lady’s idea of diversity, Bret Stephens, a conservative former Wall Street Journal columnist who is good for an absurd controversy every two to three months. In December, Stephens cited an academic paper coauthored by a white supremacist to argue that Ashkenazi Jews have higher IQs than the average population. A full two days after the column ran, the Times removed reference to the paper and posted a long editor’s note at the top of the column. Many rightfully asked why Stephens, so ill-suited for his role, is getting paid in presumably handsome fashion by the Times to write columns in the first place. Why didn’t an editor tell Stephens not to traffic in racist conspiracy theories? Perhaps if the Times had not decided to eliminate its public editor position, enough pressure would have built internally to short-circuit his tenure long ago.

The Stephens controversy does speak to a fundamental truth the Times has never adequately reckoned with in the digital age: it is a center-left publication with a center-left, or even further left, core readership—a readership now empowered to directly hold accountable the reporters and editors who produce the news. As NYU professor and media critic Jay Rosen has argued, the Times is increasingly dependent on print and digital subscriptions, not ad revenue, to survive, and this gives the audience new power to demand more out of its coverage. Before the internet, the Times, like all newspapers, only needed to serve its advertising masters. Now, in the absence of other forms of revenue—government subsidies, nonprofit foundations—it is the reader who will decide if a publication lives or dies.

The trouble for the Times is that it continues to identify as a neutral, above-the-fray arbiter, as if such a thing is possible, while winking and nodding to its inherent cultural liberalism. Unlike, say, the Wall Street Journal, which knows itself to be a staid, conservative daily and acts accordingly—or even the “Democracy Dies in Darkness” Washington Post, far happier to wear the mantle of anti-Trump resistance—the Times still isn’t quite sure what it is. Caught between worlds, it manages to frustrate more than satisfy, even as subscriptions increase in the Trump era. The Times cannot admit to unvarnished neoliberalism, like the Financial Times, and make its intentions plain for the consumers of news. But it will not reject reverence for free markets either. Its elitism can be painful. Witness its coverage of real estate, turning the fallout from gentrification into lifestyle porn, glorifying the wealthy young things who scour for absurdly priced apartments in formerly inexpensive parts of New York. One couple, the Times gleefully noted, paid $999,999 on a Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment with two terraces to avoid the city’s mansion tax on homes priced over $1 million. And if you want to know how the nation’s Ivy League graduates and children of PR executives and white-shoe lawyers find love, the Vows column has you covered.

At the dawn of the 2020s, the Times is paradoxically both more and less influential than it was in the analog age, a gray colossus by virtue of its native resources and eviscerated competition.

Donald Trump has presented a unique challenge for a newspaper trying to remain a liberal, pluralistic bulwark of truth against revanchism without simultaneously veering too far into left territory, lest it sacrifice its priestly devotion to objectivity. Last summer, after mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, Trump gave a national address that, devoid of any context, could have made the Times’ subsequent print headline plausible. “We must recognize that the internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts,” he said without irony. “The perils of the internet and social media cannot be ignored, and they will not be ignored,” adding that racism, bigotry, and white supremacy should be condemned.

Trump rose to political prominence denying that Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, was born in the United States. He earned the endorsement of David Duke. He campaigned on banning Muslims from entering the United States and entertained the idea of creating a registry solely for them. He was the first internet troll to win the presidency of a major nation, using his Twitter account to harass opponents and spread conspiracy theories. He has turned the news media into a hate object. He has resisted the autocratic urge to jail reporters for reporting the news (though he has threatened as much), but he has, through legal means, further sowed discord by labeling any and all critical coverage of him “fake news” and the press “enemies of the people.”

The Times, in turn, chose this print headline to sum up Trump’s address after the Dayton and El Paso shootings: “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.” It was properly excoriated. The Times backtracked, eventually opting for a new headline for the evening edition, “Assailing Hate But Not Guns.” Had the controversy occurred before the advent of the internet, when the Times was not beholden to its readership or able to hear reader complaints in real time (the best hope then was a strongly worded letter to the editor), such backtracking would not have occurred. In the gray citadel, the Timesmen of Gay Talese’s day could have brushed off the ruckus and moved on. But the Trump unity controversy crystallized how little the leadership in the news division has prepared for the world it has inherited, one without revered gatekeepers and with higher demands from an empowered audience. The people who read the Times, rightly enough, understand that both-sidesism concerning Trump is absurd, the equivalent of trying to write about a George Wallace effort to court black voters in a so-called balanced manner.

But balance of a false and illusory kind is something the Times is relentlessly committed to, as long as executive editor Dean Baquet leads the paper. “Our role is not to be the leader of the resistance,” Baquet said on CNN last year, adding that “one of the problems” that would come about if the paper took on that role is that “inevitably the resistance in America wins.” He added: “Inevitably the people outside power gain power again. And at that point, what are you? You’re just a chump of the people who won. Our role is to hold everybody who has power to account.” Baquet is right that any worthy news organization, left, right, or center, must hold power to account. But having a clear value system and recognizing what you are, while recognizing the reality of an ethnonationalist demagogue in your midst, is not the same as making yourself a stooge for a liberal presidency. To insist on false balance out of fear that those who are on the receiving end of the demagogue’s hate campaign may one day take the reins of power, thus muddling your purity, is shortsighted at best and self-sabotaging at worst.

Trivial Pantsuits

The Times, particularly in its approach to national political stories, has clung to a horse race model of coverage that should have been discredited decades ago. The model, long derided but shockingly durable, operates from a rather simple premise: How do we figure out who’s going to win? It is rarely curious about anything else, and it can be applied to political campaigns and governing policy alike. Horse race coverage treats politics as a glorified sporting event, each side reduced to a combatant of equal moral stature, and tries desperately to divine the future, with all the arrogance of science and none of its corresponding rigor. It regards political reportage as theater criticism, diminishing pivotal and thorny questions about policy. The other question horse race coverage may ask: How does this play? Instead of asking whether a certain candidate will support more drone strikes in the Middle East or will pursue a health care policy that makes coverage cheaper and more humane, the horse race paradigm is most concerned about tactics. Will an embrace of x lead to victory or defeat? What is the underlying strategy? Political coverage becomes inseparable from gossip. Such an approach relishes artificial events constructed specifically to make news, like the press conference, the diner visit, or the rally with surrogates, campaign operatives tasked with massaging the truth, repeatedly, for the benefit of the press, who must decide whether to be “spun” or not.

The Times, Baquet proclaims, can never be the paper of the resistance, but it can virtue signal in that direction in more ludicrous ways. The day after Trump was impeached, the Times paired its in-depth coverage of the proceedings with a 746-word column about the lapel-less black suit and brass pin with gold overlay that Nancy Pelosi wore on the day. We learned, crucially, that the pin can retail for $125. Second-wave feminists might wonder why a newspaper is devoting so much ink to what clothing a woman wore. Conservative critics could ask if the Times would write such a complimentary account (the pin “tends to make its appearance in situations that merit an implicit reminder of what exactly it is the House has been empowered to do, and whence it derives its authority”) of the wardrobe of a right-wing female politician carrying out a very different agenda. Either way, the intricacies of impeachment and the effects it would have on the Trump presidency, on democracy, and on ourselves—what it all truly meant—had no bearing on what type of pin or suit Pelosi wore.

This attention to trivia is not new. Joan Didion flayed insular, vapid political coverage as well as any writer alive in her 1988 New York Review of Books essay, “Insider Baseball.” Rather than die under Didion’s withering gaze, the genre grew: Politico was born in 2007, in part to monetize a certain subset’s addiction to incremental, insider-oriented political coverage. The benefit of such a model is that it allows for a certain degree of remove. If politics are treated as a mere game, and not, for instance, a contest between those who want to deny you health care coverage or give you more, the news organization loses all stake in the matter. The neutral pose can be adopted—and calcified. If a game is being played, the journalist is to referee. And the journalist, in this construct, is made to feel free of all bias. It’s not about who’s right or wrong, what policy works or doesn’t. “Who’s going to win?” is always the easiest, and most pointless, question to ask. “The game changer, the horse race, the Hail Mary—apt, perhaps, for the party politics of the 1990s and 2000s—are painfully inadequate for the movement politics of a new era, with higher stakes, higher passions, and far wider interest,” Ben Smith, the former editor in chief of BuzzFeed and a former Politico staffer, wrote in 2018, disavowing an approach he once celebrated. (Smith has since joined the Times as its top media columnist.) The thing about “who’s going to win?” is that we always find out the answer eventually.

Keys to the Kingdom

The Times has made a specialty of hiring former Politico reporters. Many of them are talented people. But what has occurred, consciously or not, is a Politico-ization of Times political coverage, a movement toward a broad-based allegiance to the horse race, even as former practitioners call for something new. Of course, the Times’ overall coverage of politics and the White House is not without substance. There are many excellent journalists analyzing how Trump is dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency and reshaping the federal courts. Policy is not ignored. Rather, it competes with everything else: the political machinations of the Trump White House, a fever dream for palace intrigue journalism, and the endless 2020 presidential campaign, which began in earnest more than a year ago. The Times has shuttered its New Jersey bureau and can only dedicate a handful of full-time reporters to cover entire regions of the country but will gladly task five different journalists to report on how one presidential candidate among many is struggling to stay afloat.

The Times has clung to a horse race model of coverage that should have been discredited decades ago.

“How Kamala Harris’s Campaign Unraveled” is a marvel of the Times ethic, an artfully written and wholly misconceived use of otherwise potent resources. It is inside baseball of the highest order, a tale of warring factions and backbiting gossip. It was a mistake, we learn, for Harris to split her campaign’s operations between Baltimore and the Bay Area. “Sought-after” outside strategists were never recruited because of this bifurcated structure. Perhaps Maya Harris, Harris’s sister, wielded too much power. Some donors were “alarmed” Harris didn’t strike back harder when criticized by another candidate, Tulsi Gabbard. This sort of juicy accounting—in newsroom parlance a “tick-tock,” or blow-by-blow account of how something happened—isn’t unique to political reporting or to the Times. It’s relatively easy to write and can be consumed without difficulty; it’s far more challenging to do explainers on the particulars of criminal justice reform in Harris’s California. And the Times does do this. So why bother with such policy-free stories?

One former Harris aide quoted in the story appears to speak for the journalists and editors who believe strongly in this genre. “You can’t run the country if you can’t run your campaign,” declares Gil Duran, the California opinion editor of the Sacramento Bee. It’s a truism that can justify thousands of words; it’s also, like much that undergirds political reporting, based on a cocktail of dubious conventional wisdom and hazy theory. The claim doesn’t have any particular empirical basis. A brilliant come-from-behind effort by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 primary yielded a tepid presidency. By all accounts, George W. Bush ran a strong enough campaign in 2000, dominating the field in the Republican primaries, and won re-election against significant headwinds. He was also the architect of the Iraq War, one of the worst foreign policy disasters of the last half century.

The Times is awash in incremental campaign stories. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar scraping for the moderates in Iowa. Political elites and strategists endlessly speculating on how the Democrats will continue to attack each other and gobble up delegates in the primary. Bernie Sanders shuffling staffers in New Hampshire. As the Times retreats from its local and regional coverage to build a global brand, this is how their talent is now deployed. It’s not that stories about campaigns are without merit; we must know something about a campaign if it’s to last a year or more. But there is the greater question of what they amount to. The status of a disgruntled Harris or Sanders staffer, or the guesswork of an Iowa Democratic macher, has little bearing on the issues that weigh on Americans, like housing and health care and war. If Dean Baquet’s primary aim is to hold power to account, as he told CNN last year, who is held accountable, exactly, when five reporters are dedicated to the arcane strategizing of a single campaign? Does this count as holding Kamala Harris to account? Did Harris actually speak with the Times? The story said she declined an interview request, which isn’t the same thing as denying a request and then speaking off the record, a custom journalists afford to especially influential and powerful sources.

The Times’ approach relishes artificial events constructed specifically to make news, like the press conference, the diner visit, or the rally with surrogates.

It is this type of reporting—prestige national political work—the Times prizes most. We learn this when punishments are meted out. In 2017, star White House reporter Glenn Thrush—whose horse race credentials were so sterling he was revealed, while still a staffer at Politico, to have shared major chunks of a story with Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair before publication—was accused of sexually harassing four female journalists. Thrush was suspended but did not lose his job. He was, however, removed from the White House beat, the Times’ equivalent of losing knighthood. Thrush, who blamed his predatory interactions with younger women on a drinking problem, was reassigned to cover housing on the federal level. The public message was clear enough: Thrush’s conduct was too gross to merit the White House but acceptable enough to cover housing policy. When Ali Watkins, a Pulitzer Prize finalist who eventually worked on the national security beat, was revealed to be in a relationship with the former head of the Senate Intelligence Committee—the subject of an FBI investigation—her punishment was a reassignment to the Metro desk in New York. One doubts a Metro reporter accused of sexual harassment or sleeping with a source on the beat would be kicked up to covering the White House or national security as due punishment. More likely the reporter, trawling a less prized beat, would be kicked out altogether.

The Times’ long-term prognosis is better than most. Like the Washington Post, The New Yorker, and other news organizations and magazines with universal name recognition, they have the subscriber base and the goodwill to survive industry cataclysm. This resiliency creates greater responsibility, in our diminished age, to defy its worst impulses and discard tired models for covering the politics that will determine the future of America’s increasingly deranged democracy. The Times, as Talese wrote, remains something of a modern medieval kingdom. It will be up to its leadership to decide how much it wants to change its private laws and values for a world that demands much more of its considerable resources and clout.

Ross Barkan's debut novel, Demolition Night, was published last year. An award-winning journalist and former candidate for office, he is a columnist for the Guardian and a frequent contributor to Gothamist. He has been a columnist for the Village Voice and his journalism and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, and the Columbia Journalism Review.

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