Known as “The Gray Lady,” The New York Times has a global reputation for seriousness and objectivity. That is the brand it built. Like all brands, it reassures because of its endurance, inspiring trust. But well-established trust can lead to the abuse of trust. And like most modern enterprises, The NYT is more interested in ensuring revenue than fulfilling its declared mission of publishing all “the news that’s fit to print.” What better proof than the fact that the motto has become the brand of a sweatshirt (yours for $85 plus shipping)?
The dear old Gray Lady came under pressure recently because of a headline that seemed to contradict the image its readers have of US President Donald Trump as a shameless racist. The newspaper faced a barrage of criticism after titling an article: “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM.” Can a racist oppose racism? Does The Times believe Trump has the profile of a unifier?
The NYT’s editors responded to the internal crisis by calling a town hall meeting for the newsroom staff. The executive editor, Dean Baquet, responded to this question and fielded other complaints about editorial decisions. These included the newspaper’s commitment for the past two and a half years to the lost cause of Russiagate — the now-discredited scandal the liberal media regularly stoked with unconfirmed “news” in the hope of bringing down Trump’s presidency. When the outcome of the Mueller report recently turned out to be a damp squib after the congressional hearing with Robert Mueller himself, questions arose about the kind of alarmist fake news that The Times had consistently reported since Trump’s election in 2016.
As reported by Slate, Baquet admitted that that didn’t look good for the newspaper’s image. “We’re a little tiny bit flat-footed,” he confessed. “I mean, that’s what happens when a story looks a certain way for two years. Right?”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
In a position that impedes quick and appropriate reactions to a changing environment, as required by those who wish to maintain the status quo and have the cash to pay for it
The town hall meeting called by Baquet provided a unique occasion for the public to discover how The Times refits the news that it deems fit to print. Baquet describes the chain of events that led the newspaper to deviate from the pursuit of truth in favor of a predesigned narrative often referred to as “Russiagate.” Despite a budget permitting true investigative journalism, The NYT was happy to keep embellishing a story that looked “a certain way.”
It wasn’t as if they hadn’t made an effort or didn’t have the means. Baquet said: “We built our newsroom to cover one story, and we did it truly well. Now we have to regroup, and shift resources and emphasis to take on a different story.” They “did it truly well” even if the outcome contradicted everything they presented as news. Though Baquet uses the word “cover” in the traditional journalistic sense of focusing on a topic and dedicating resources to it, The Daily Devil’s Dictionary detects that “cover” in this sentence might more appropriately mean: to invent a story that covers (or papers over) the truth. When Baquet says that they “built [their] newsroom to cover one story,” it sounds as if they set out to write a novel or a five-act play with the fifth act already well defined.
Russian expert and Professor Emeritus Stephen Cohen, writing for The Nation, calls Russiagate “the worst and (considering the lack of actual evidence) most fraudulent political scandal in American history,” claiming that we “have yet to calculate the damage Russiagate has inflicted on America’s democratic institutions.” In its defense, The Times was never alone in its campaign, accompanied notably by MSNBC and CNN. Although Baquet now wants to shift its “resources and emphasis” to “a different story,” he makes it clear that there’s no need to apologize for the damage critics like Cohen have attributed to the affair. After all, he repeatedly tells his audience it was “a really hard story.”
The Times is nevertheless ready to embark its readers on another story that will capture their attention and titillate their emotions. This time, Baquet claims that it will be about “what it means to be an American in 2019” with a “deep investigation into people who peddle hatred” in a story “about race and class.” Addressing his staff, he says, “I really want your help in navigating this story.”
Some might interpret this as an admission that he failed to asked for help in “navigating” Russiagate and set an agenda the journalists had no right to contest or contradict. The transcript reveals the qualms the journalists expressed in their questions to Baquet. It appears they had no choice but to follow the preconceived Russiagate storyline.
On the question of whether Trump is a racist, this column recently quoted Anthony Scaramucci for his insight into Trump’s evident racism when he said: “He’s actually worse than a racist. He is so narcissistic, he doesn’t see people as people. He sees them as objects in his field of vision.” Trump’s narcissism is what allowed him to think of himself as a unifier. That’s a detail The Times failed to notice. The Slate article notes that staffers “repeatedly asked Baquet about the paper’s reluctance to use the word racist” and concludes that “Baquet and other editors” deflected the criticism of the newspaper’s editorial line when they “addressed the headline as an operational problem.”
One of the staffers points out that racism has always been so integral a part of US culture that it may seem meaningless to focus on the racism of particular public figures, including Trump. On the other hand, the symptoms of narcissism apply only to a small, though growing minority of Americans. For nearly three years, The New York Times neglected the narcissism, preferring to paint Trump as a puppet of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Since the US has been consistently racist throughout its history, the theme of a trend toward narcissism might appear more newsworthy. As a general social ill, the trend has severely grown in intensity thanks to the role social media play in people’s lives today. The toxic combination of traditional racism and modern narcissism may well prove to be the poison that definitively undoes US culture. The editors would be wise to see this as one of the topics treated in their new “story” destined to replace Russiagate.
We know that it is called “1619,” to mark the arrival of the first slaves on North American soil. But will The Times treat it as a sin of the past, to be regretted and apologized for, or will it delve into issues that continue to undermine the social fabric? Will it question the integrity of both modern Democrats and Republicans and explore the issues that could provide valuable insight into contemporary institutions, from the internet itself to foreign policy? From the Middle East to Venezuela, from Flint, Michigan to China, US social and foreign policy still embodies the economic logic that permitted the emergence of slavery.
It’s more likely that we will learn about the reprehensible actions of nasty individuals in history and contemporary society — from 17th-century slave traders to today’s white supremacists — the kind of people who prefer to make racism their vocation and their brand. We will be encouraged not to identify with them. But the economic pillars of a racist system will most likely be left aside, maybe in anticipation of some new future “story,” held in reserve for when this one becomes stale or even, like Russiagate, discredited by facts. Or maybe never, because the one thing The NYT doesn’t do is expose the code that underlies the nation’s operating system.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.