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The Left’s War Against The New York Times

The paper has been accused of everything from electing Trump to normalizing neo-Nazis. Are its liberal critics right or unreasonable?

Getty (x3); HBO/YouTube

Last week, liberal Twitter was outraged yet again by the New York Times’ David Brooks, this time for a column suggesting that the Democratic Party’s support for late-term abortion undermined other progressive priorities. Impersonating an imaginary Democratic consultant, Brooks wrote, “I understand that our donors (though not necessarily our voters) want to preserve a woman’s right to choose through all nine months of her pregnancy. But do we want late-term abortion so much that we are willing to tolerate President Trump? Do we want it so much that we give up our chance at congressional majorities? Do we want it so much that we see our agendas on poverty, immigration, income equality and racial justice thwarted and defeated?”

“I’m so fucking done,” Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti tweeted in response. “You know what I’m not willing to tolerate? Dead women. Women being forced to carry dying fetuses. Because that’s what 20 week bans do. My humanity is not an intellectual exercise. Women’s right to bodily integrity and medical care is not political fodder. That Brooks could write like this about women’s lives goes to show how little he regards them.”

ThinkProgress, HuffPost, and NARAL Pro-Choice America had similarly scathing responses. But Oliver Willis—a senior writer at David Brock’s website Shareblue, theBreitbart of the left”—cast the column as part of a larger trend at the Times:

The Times has flourished under Trump, witnessing a surge in digital subscriptions and regularly breaking major news about the administration and the Russia inquiry (not to mention #MeToo). Yet liberal criticism of the Times has also intensified, especially on social media. Not a day passes, it seems, without a prominent Twitter user complaining that the Times is biased against the left, too friendly to Trump and his supporters, or engaging in false equivalences between Democrats and Republicans.

Reporter Michael Schmidt was criticized for not asking more follow-up questions during an impromptu sit-down with Trump in December. His colleague Richard Fausset was accused of normalizing a neo-Nazi in his profile of an Ohio white nationalist the month before. Critics frequently charge that the Times is preoccupied with giving a voice to Trump supporters or even just saying something nice about the president, and the paper has openly struggled with how to cover racists. Broader criticisms go to questions of framing and context—whether news analysis of Trump is too gentle, like when Peter Baker described the president’s “reality-show accessibility,” or why the Times’ mobile phone push notifications seem strangely favorable to the White House. And then there’s the steady moan about the Times opinion section—not just stalwarts like Brooks and Ross Douthat, but Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, both of whom joined the paper last year from The Wall Street Journal.

“I think there’s been a lot more anger from the grassroots against the Times,” Willis told me. “They’re able to be more vocal about it because of social media and Twitter specifically.” Sean McElwee, a socialist policy analyst and columnist at The Outline, said this anger sometimes “unites everyone from a deeply anti-imperialist socialist to someone who works at a center-left think tank.”

That is, someone like Neera Tanden, the longtime Clinton confidant who heads the Center for American Progress. “Donald Trump has waged a campaign against The New York Times—the ‘failing’ New York Times—and I think the worry a lot of liberals have is that his criticism is living in heads of the editorial decision makers of the Times,” she said, adding that “a lot of liberals see The Washington Post as providing more context to Trump’s actions that shows how outside the norm he is.” Tanden acknowledges the difficulty of covering a president who flouts democratic norms, and she’s quick to call the Times “a vital institution for American democracy.” But ultimately she comes back to it: “I worry that they’ve been so subject to an attack over decades from the right that there are moments when they intentionally or unintentionally—I’d imagine mostly unintentionally—overcompensate.”

Some criticism of the Times is rather unhinged. In a piece praising gossip journalist Michael Wolff’s flawed book about the administration, GQ’s Drew Magary ripped “access merchants like Maggie Haberman doling out Trump gossip like so many bread crumbs,” adding that “too many reporters have been far too deferential to an administration that is brazenly racist, dysfunctional, and corrupt.” (One wonders how much we’d know about Trump’s daily behavior, mental fitness, and opinion of obstructing justice if it weren’t for Times reporters’ access.) And Sarah Kendzior, reacting to a Douthat column about White House adviser Stephen Miller’s importance in any immigration negotiations, outright declared the Timesa white supremacist paper.”

But overall, the complaints against the Times raise important questions. Is journalism’s ultimate legacy institution successfully adapting to the age of shattered political norms? What is the Times’ responsibility to the public—liberals and conservatives alike—at a time when the president attacks the mainstream press as “fake news”? Was the paper complicit in Trump’s election victory, and does it continue to enable him and his supporters today? Or are the Times’ left-wing critics being unreasonable, expecting it to be the kind of partisan publication that it has never claimed to be?

The left’s frustration with the Times is hardly a new phenomenon. Conservatives have long cast the paper as an organ of American liberalism. The paper’s first public editor, Daniel Okrent, in 2004 described the editorial page as “so thoroughly saturated in liberal theology that when it occasionally strays from that point of view the shocked yelps from the left overwhelm even the ceaseless rumble of disapproval from the right.”

Yet many on the left refuse to forget the Times’ transgressions over the years, such as when it helped President George W. Bush sell the Iraq War. Many complaints have to do with its coverage of just one Democratic family. As Esquire’s Charles Pierce wrote in mid-2016, while Hillary Clinton and Trump faced off for the presidency:

The Times obsession with finding something—anything!—it could hang on the Clintons goes all the way back to that moment three editors ago when the paper realized that its big Whitewater scoop was little more than a bag of Arkansas hot air. It has continued through the coverage of the Benghazi nothingburger, the e-mail nothingburger, and now, the Clinton Foundation nothingburger. When it comes to the once and (perhaps) future president of the United States, the Newspaper of Record is the In-and-Out of nothingburgers.  

“It’s a very neurotic relationship American liberals have with The New York Times, and that The New York Times has with American liberals,” New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen told me. “I think it has a lot to do with the Clintons.” Rosen said the paper has always prided itself on challenging Democrats as well as Republicans, which sometimes rankles its core readership (including liberal journalists). He said, “I think there is more tension now between the core loyalists of The New York Times and the newsroom, and it’s because of the political situation.”

Of course, many liberal critics blame the current political situation in part on the Times. Willis, a longtime blogger who spent 13 years at Brock’s pro-Clinton media watchdog group Media Matters before joining Shareblue, concedes the paper “has some of the best reporters there are” and “does good work.” But he insists the Times hates” liberals and harbored “institutional hatred” for Clinton during the campaign, a claim former Times executive editor Jill Abramson has vehemently denied. Willis went so far as to tweet, a few weeks after the 2016 election, that his followers shouldn’t subscribe to either the Times or the Post since “it only encourages the bastards.”

Explicit calls for progressives to pull their money from the Times are surprisingly common now. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, a liberal in good standing with the likes of Tanden, is a prominent example: 

That last tweet, it turns out, isn’t an absolute judgement from Moulitsas. “I actually think The New York Times does a lot of good work,” he told me, though he maintains the paper isn’t friendly to the left. He said, “My approach is just to get liberals to stop thinking of The New York Times as an ally,” instead of acting like “jilted lovers” when they don’t like the coverageMoulitsas would like to see progressives invest more heavily in overtly liberal outlets, with the ultimate goal of creating a more partisan press. In this regard, Moulitsas would make America more like the United Kingdom, where he sees The Guardian as a model.

But Glenn Greenwald, who wrote a column for The Guardian before co-founding The Intercept, says too much of the liberal establishment thinks the Times “should be Shareblue or ThinkProgress—that it should serve the Democratic Party.” Democratic operatives who supported Clinton “have this historic black mark on their legacy,” having managed to lose to Trump, and they’ve pointed to the Times as one of the main “culprits and scapegoats” for their failure, he said.

“I actually think they’re doing quite well,” Greenwald said of the paper’s reporting staff. He agrees the Times probably overplayed former FBI Director James Comey’s letter about reopening the Clinton email probe just before the election, but thinks “it’s wildly overblown as a critique.” (Such an unusual action by the head of the FBI is, by definition, massively newsworthy, he said.) Times reporters may get knocked for supposedly obsequious interviews with Trump, but they’ve dominated stories, like the Russia investigation, in which the president’s critics have a vested interest. “They’ve been extremely aggressive about scoops Democrats care most about,” Greenwald said.

But the Times’ reporting supremacy has been challenged of late, thanks to the resurgence of The Washington Post under its deep-pocketed owner, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. In this great newspaper war, some say the Post is taking a more subjective approach to the administration than its rival. “I think The Washington Post has positioned itself as an anti-Trump media outlet, whereas The New York Times doesn’t want to do that,” said Greenwald, a longtime critic of journalistic “objectivity.”

The Washington Post is just better able to negotiate the Trump era than The New York Times,” Rosen said. “I don’t think the Times is pro-Trump or in Trump’s pocket. I think that’s grossly misstated and completely wrong. I do think they’ve had trouble finding their place in an extraordinary situation.... When I look at the front page of the Washington Post website, it’s just more willing to completely challenge what the Trump government is doing and contradict it. With the Times you get this more institutional, formal language.” Part of the challenge, in his view, is that the Trump administration has so devalued various conventions of the presidency, from the White House press briefing to the exclusive presidential interview. “The whole idea that by interviewing him you’re finding out about his governing intentions is false with Trump,” he said. “The noise and bravado he might have in the interview could have nothing to do with what he does tomorrow.... I just think the logic of interviewing Trump has collapsed.”

Ben Wikler, the Washington director for the progressive group MoveOn, faults the Times for not having a dedicated reporter covering the left in the way the Post’s Dave Weigel does. “I love the NYT, and it does amazing work. But unlike every other major outlet, it doesn’t have a reporter whose beat includes the left,” he tweeted last year. “At the Post, @daveweigel has covered the hell out of the resistance, just as he covered the Tea Party. No equiv at the Times. Blind spot. Compounding that blind spot is the way the rest of press takes its cues from the NYT.”

The Times’ communications office declined to make a newsroom employee available for this article, but some of its editors and reporters have responded to their critics elsewhere. Dean Baquet, the Times’ executive editor, has stressed the importance of his reporters keeping personal political opinions to themselves and not letting their views influence coverage. “I know that there’s a whole body of journalism professors who think that we should let it all hang out. None of them have actually done any journalism, as far as I can tell,” he said during a panel at George Washington University in October. Haberman, the reporter GQ’s Magary derided as an “access merchant,” said on the same panel that “on any given day, if you look at Twitter,” there’s a view that “we are either in Hillary’s pocket or in Trump’s pocket.... I think that is a mark of us being pretty straight.” She believes reporters should explain the ways Trump is different from his predecessors, but said, “There are a number of people who believe the media’s job is to be the opposition party, and that is just not our job.”

“There are a lot of critiques of access journalism as a really evil thing,” said McElwee, who said he merely considers it “boring.” “The thing we need a lot more of is exactly what groups like ProPublica are doing and exactly what a lot of the people at The New York Times are doing: the really hard work of showing the ways the Trump administration and Republican politicians are dismantling a lot of key protections we’ve built up over the past few decades, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the State Department, which will have really disturbing long-term impacts for the country.”

If even the biggest Times critics acknowledge its great investigative work, there’s one part of the paper that seems to infuriate nearly everyone on the left: the opinion section. “At a time when smart opinion journalism has become a necessity to counteract the lies coming from the White House, as well as to offset the deficiencies of impartial journalism, the Times op-ed page is awash in out-of-touch, mediocre columnists who are badly out of sync with the era in which we live,” The New Republic’s Sarah Jones wrote last year. Progressives were particularly outraged over the hiring of Stephens, a climate skeptic.

Complaints about the overwhelmingly white and mostly male op-ed columnists are numerous. (The Times did add some diversity with its recently announced op-ed contributors.) “Beyond the obvious demographic homogeneity, literally every one of them fits squarely within the narrow, establishment, center-right to center-left range of opinion that prevails in elite opinion-making circles,” Greenwald wrote last year.

“I’d almost like it more if they started representing Trump’s viewpoints,” McElwee said. “Instead, they’re representing the views of a group of people who are basically marginalized within the Republican Party.”

The Times tried just that last month, when, in “the spirit of open debate, and in hopes of helping readers who agree with us better understand the views of those who don’t,” it filled its op-ed page with letters from Trump supporters. “If you’re going to do an entire op-ed page full of Trump supporters, you ought to do an entire page of Hillary Clinton supporters, Bernie Sanders supporters, or, hell, even Jill Stein supporters,” said Ryan Cooper, a national correspondent for The Week who writes from a socialist perspective. At the same time, he agrees with McElwee about representation on the op-ed page. If you’re going to talk about the spectrum of political opinion that exists, obviously someone who supports the president should be part of that,” he said.

If McElwee ran the Times, his solution would be more drastic: “We should fire the entire editorial side and take all that money you’d save from the columnists to hire a bunch of shoe-leather reporters to get stories out there.” 

Founded in 1851, the Times has operated for the vast majority of its history without a public editor. “Unlike the Washington Post, which hired its first ombudsman, the Public Editor equivalent, in 1970 (but abolished the job in 2013 due to budgetary issues), the Times had long rejected the idea that a journalistic organization can be held accountable by sometimes harsh internal critiques, and many in the newsroom continue to chafe at being second-guessed by outsiders planted in their midst,” Daily Beast editor at large Lloyd Grove reported last year. Okrent was the paper’s first public editor, hired in 2003 after the Jayson Blair scandal. But the Times discontinued the position last year after the much-maligned tenure of Liz Spayd. The paper essentially said the position was obsolete.

“Getting rid of the public editor, who helped interpret one group of people to another, was really dumb,” Rosen told me. 

But Baquet defended the decision during the panel with Haberman. “The public editor system was created when people did not have a way to criticize their newspaper,” he said, “and it was a result of the Jayson Blair scandal, where as it turned out, when people investigated, there were tons of people who knew Jayson Blair was making stuff up and they didn’t have a way to get through the bureaucracy of The New York Times. If Jayson Blair happened today, within two seconds Twitter would explode and everybody he stole stuff from would be all over the place.” 

“I think we actually now have a different kind of ombudsman, which is the public,” he added, “I actually think it was the right decision.”

Baquet said the onus is now on journalists to respond and engage with criticism, but this raises another issue with critics: They say reporters are thin-skinned and don’t respond constructively to criticism of their work on Twitter. “They take conservative criticism seriously,” Willis said. “They don’t take liberal criticism seriously at all.” Which helps explain why liberals like Willis are so adamant about working the refs at the Times. “Conservatives are extremely tough on the media, and what they’ve got is a media that’s more sympathetic to their point of view,” he said.

If the public is now, collectively, the Times’ public editor, then liberals on Twitter shouldn’t hold back criticism, so long as they keep things in perspective. “I don’t wake up every night like, ‘My God, what if I’m too mean to The New York Times on Twitter and they have to shut down?’” McElwee said. “Mostly because I don’t have a particularly inflated sense of what those of us on Twitter can do.”