The American press is not destroying itself — it was already broken
On June 12, 2020, Matt Taibbi published a rather confrontational article entitled “The American Press is Destroying Itself.” In it, he laments that “the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres, who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.” Taibbi cites a litany of recent “newsroom revolts,” which signal, in his mind, an editorial crisis of political correctness, where journalists have been beaten into submission by the new leftist brigade of groupthink.
To be sure, Taibbi’s concerns are not entirely misplaced. Anyone who’s spent a day on Twitter knows it poses a uniquely high reputational cost for publishing anything even mildly controversial. But Taibbi talks in existential terms. He presents a grand narrative in which the left is cannibalizing itself, supplanting “traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance” and “free inquiry” with “shaming, threats, and intimidation” of those who deviate from the accepted view.
For one, Taibbi paints his narrative with a broad brush and often elides the finer details behind the incidents he draws upon. But more concerning than this is his yearning for the press’s bygone earnestness. Taibbi quotes:
“The traditional view of the press was never based on some contrived, mathematical notion of “balance,” i.e. five paragraphs of Republicans for every five paragraphs of Democrats. The ideal instead was that we showed you everything we could see, good and bad, ugly and not, trusting that a better-informed public would make better decisions. This vision of media stressed accuracy, truth, and trust in the reader’s judgment as the routes to positive social change.”
Taibbi’s is not a broad enough view of the media — particularly the mainstream media — which includes the outlets he mentions, such as The Times, Variety, and Vox. The mainstream press has only ever been interested in the ideal of truth and accuracy insofar as its editorial hierarchies will allow. And these editorial hierarchies are invariably controlled by business interests (i.e. advertisers and board members). Those who say that the left is censoring the press are throwing out a red herring that distracts from this fact. If anything, the recent leftist "shakedown" Taibbi alludes to is merely a reaction to the more pernicious structural censorship that media elites have managed to instill from the bottom to the top of the editorial chain of command for decades.
Let’s examine the The New York Times which most of the American public sees as an overall liberal institution (although, as of late, people seem to be increasingly disavowed of this notion). It brings me no joy to critique The Times, a paper which is far from the worst offender. But if they are seen as one of the most liberal and independent sources of mainstream news, then it is not hard to believe the rest of establishment news media, which leans predominantly less liberal and less independently-owned, is censored in the same fundamental ways.
On June 3, 2020, The Times published an op-ed written by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, entitled “Send in the Troops.” Cotton calls for “an overwhelming show of [military] force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter” lawbreaking protesters. In it, he claims that “police officers have...bore the brunt” of the violence, and that “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” have carried out the looting and destruction of private property. (It was later noted by the editors that both these claims are, for the most part, baseless.)
On top of Cotton’s impressive disregard for fact, the piece reeks of tonal insensitivity. He calls protestor-on-police violence “[orgies] of violence in the spirit of radical chic,” and laments that our “politicians prefer to wring their hands while the country burns.” The article was widely rebuked by The Times’ readership, as well as much of its staff. The then op-ed editor James Bennet responded in the paper’s defense:
“It would undermine the integrity and independence of The New York Times if we only published views that editors like me agreed with, and it would betray what I think of as our fundamental purpose — not to tell you what to think, but to help you think for yourself.”
Shortly after his address, Bennet resigned, citing “a significant breakdown in [the paper’s] editing processes.” Allegedly, Bennet “had not read the essay before it was published.” Other staff “had not been aware of the article before it was published.”
Given the moral bankruptcy of Cotton’s article, one might, at first, be inclined to believe that it was published because several editors hadn’t even read it. But in the face of so many ill-founded and tone-deaf articles recently published by The Times — many of which have also been followed by similarly vague attributions to "editorial breakdowns" — one begins to wonder just how accidental these breakdowns really are.
On August, 5, 2019, in response to Trump’s condemnation of white supremacy after the El Paso and Dayton shootings, The Times ran the headline: “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.” They ran this headline despite Trump having said just two years earlier that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville protests. They ran this headline despite Trump having refused to denounce David Duke’s endorsement. After sharp disapproval from its readership, The Times changed the headline and issued an apologetic response, implying that a group of top editors hadn’t read it until it was already published.
On December 27, 2019, conservative columnist Bret Stephens published an op-ed entitled “The Secrets of the Jewish Genius,” which subtly engaged in race science and cited an academic paper written by Henry Harpending, an anthropologist who is well-known for laundering anti-black sentiment as good-faith intellectualism. The Times subsequently issued a note explaining that they’d somehow missed this bit in the editorial process.
On June 1, 2020, in the midst of the George Floyd protests and widespread police brutality against protesters, The Times previewed a front-page headline for the following day’s issue: “As Chaos Spreads, Trump Vows to ‘End it Now.’” This was the very same day that Trump had tear-gassed peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square to clear the area for his bible photo-op. The Times changed the headline upon publication, but offered no kind of explanation at all. Maybe they figured that their apologies were wearing out their welcome.
There is no shortage of blunders in which The Times has shown itself to be less liberal than it might like. But when The Times ascribes "editorial breakdowns" to its many missteps, it is blaming some abstract sense of internal bureaucracy, where truth and accuracy simply got lost in the shuffle. But are these breakdowns really occurring by way of error-prone bureaucracy? Or are they occurring because The Times is simply tipping its hand a bit too far in the ideological direction of its governance?
There is, of course, a clear assumption baked into the latter question: that the ideological leanings of The Times’ governance are, in fact, different from the paper’s reputation. If you do not already subscribe to this notion, then just a cursory look at history suggests it.
Michael Parenti’s Inventing Reality recounts many well-known instances in which Times reporters have been silenced by their editors (who are ultimately beholden to the paper’s advertisers/publishers/directors) in service of a more conservative, corporatist ideology. In 1958, reporter Herbert Matthews was assigned to report on the Cuban Revolution. As perhaps the only reporter truly working in the field at the time, Matthews had unique and extensive access to the highest Cuban intel sources, from which he acquired detailed accounts rejecting the idea that Castro was driven by a communist doctrine. Because his reports went against the pro-business grain of anti-communism at the time, Matthews’ writing was suppressed on the basis of it being too "opinionated."
In 1982, Times reporter Ray Bonner found out about a Salvadoran military massacre of nearly 1,000 peasants. His findings contradicted the U.S. government’s belief that El Salvador was improving human rights, a false pretense used to justify America’s military aid, which bolstered the U.S. economy. U.S. aid was used by El Salvador’s right-wing government to combat the FMLN, a leftist guerrilla operation planning a coup. Bonner would later be pulled out of El Salvador and forced to resign after intense pressure from Accuracy in the Media, as well as other right-wing groups throughout the country.
During the early 2000s, The Times staunchly supported U.S. military intervention in Iraq, despite having immaterial evidence of Iraq harboring WMDs. Moreover, The Times vastly underestimated the number of Iraqi civilian casualties brought about by U.S. bombings by at least 50%. The Times apologized for these missteps, and blamed intelligence sources as well as their own editorial dysfunctionality.
But more important than what The Times has published is what it hasn’t published.
In 2004, Doreen Toben, CFO and EVP of Verizon from 2002-2009, joined The Times’ Board of Directors. The next year, NSA’s warrantless surveillance program came to light, wherein Verizon, along with several other telecom companies, were accused of handing over phone records to the NSA under the auspices of terrorism surveillence. The Times apparently knew about the story in 2004 but postponed reporting on it for a year “because the White House had argued that it ‘could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny.’” After the story broke, The Times published an op-ed in 2006 challenging the efficacy of the program, concluding that “this sort of spying program probably isn't worth infringing our civil liberties for.” Why did it take The Times a year to figure this out?
And if they already knew this earlier — that the program was ineffective — why not publicize their findings in 2004, since there would be no cost of doing so to the American public? During this time, Verizon was also hit with a $5 billion lawsuit from two New Jersey public interests lawyers for violating privacy laws. The story was covered by both CNBC and CNN. But The Times didn’t report on the suit. Instead, they published several articles with exculpatory headlines from the perspective of Verizon’s PR team (“Verizon Denies Turning Over Local Phone Data”, “BellSouth and Verizon deny link with NSA”, “Verizon Denies It Gave N.S.A. Local Phone Records”) and pretty much left it at that. Verizon’s dealings with the NSA weren’t of interest until many years later. Might this all have something to do with Toben’s position on the paper’s Board?
In 2015, Rebecca Van Dyck was elected to The Times’ Board of Directors. Van Dyck served as the VP of Consumer & Brand Marketing of Facebook from 2012-2017 and the CMO of Oculus (owned by Facebook) from 2017 to present. In 2014, Oculus was sued by gaming company ZeniMax for $6 billion because ZeniMax had reason to believe that Palmer Lucky, an Oculus founder and former employee of ZeniMax, used its "trade secrets” and “copyrighted computer code” for Oculus technology. After several years of fierce litigation, in October of 2016, a forensic computer expert found what he considered to be concrete proof that Oculus VR representatives had lied under oath about the contents of the USB storage device Palmer took with him from ZeniMax to Oculus. In 2017, The Times published an article rife with quotes from Zuckerberg (none from ZeniMax) downplaying and trivializing the suit. The final line: “Like most people in the court, I’ve never even heard of ZeniMax before.” Shortly after the case was settled and ZeniMax was awarded $500 million, The Times put out another article with the headline: “Facebook’s Loss in Court Doesn’t Dim Excitement Over Huge Growth.” Instead of centering on Facebook’s potential culpability, The Times article, a puff piece, focuses on the company’s scathless business prospects. It quotes:
“[The settlement sum] may decrease as litigation between the companies continues. But Facebook may not be too worried about it. As the results announced Wednesday showed, Facebook’s dominance in internet advertising is surpassed only by Google’s. And Ms. Sandberg’s latest efforts to woo small businesses are paying off: Tens of millions of businesses market their products across Facebook and Instagram, the photo-sharing app it owns.”
The article, which was published in The Times’ Technology column (not its Business column, mind you) then goes on to present hopeful company financials. With just two articles reporting on the matter, The Times appeared to be running some sort of PR campaign on Oculus’s behalf, intent on preserving investor fervor as opposed to conducting any meaningful investigative research. And when we consider The Times’ journalistic behavior in light of Van Dyck’s position on its Board of Directors, the picture might again become a bit clearer.
Most recently, there is The Times’ handling of Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden this year. The veracity of her claims aside, the The Times mysteriously waited a full 19 days to report on the allegation. It wasn’t alone in its hesitation; many other news outlets waited like The Times did. However, when they reported on it, just five days after Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race, they included three paragraphs about Trump’s history of sexism and sexual assault, as if to compare the two candidates in some inane game of lesser-evilism. After detailing when Reade had filed a police report in 1993, The Times tacked on some very coercive context for the reader: “Filing a false police report may be punishable by a fine and imprisonment.” More than this, The Times edited the article’s initial phrasing. When first published, the piece read as:
“No other allegation about sexual assault surfaced in the course of reporting, nor did any former Biden staff members corroborate any details of Ms. Reade’s allegation. The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden, beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable."
But at the Biden campaign’s behest, The Times actually changed it to:
“No other allegation about sexual assault surfaced in the course of reporting, nor did any former Biden staff members corroborate any details of Ms. Reade’s allegation. The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden."
When questioned on why The Times didn’t simply run a straightforward news story in lieu of an investigative piece, executive editor Dean Baquet replied, “I’m not sure that doing this sort of straightforward news story would have helped the reader understand.” Understand what, exactly? When questioned on why Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser was treated differently, Baquet said: “[Kavannaugh’s story] was already in the public forum in a large way [...] It was just a different news judgment moment.” Is that not the very job of The Times — to bring stories like Reade’s to the fore of the national conversation? And when asked why The Times made a post-facto edit, Baquet explained: “The phrasing was awkward and made it look like there were other instances in which [Biden] had been accused of sexual misconduct.” But did it really imply such a thing when the previous sentence explicitly establishes that The Times found “no pattern of sexual assault misconduct” from Biden?
Baquet's rationalizations are vague, evasive, and somewhat contradictory. They scarcely justify The Times’ editorial approach to the story. But when we consider Sanders’ platform (raising the corporate tax to 35%, levying a wealth tax on the ultra rich, increasing worker representation on corporate boards, etc.), it is easy to understand the paper’s justification: Sanders would, of course, be bad for business.
Make no mistake: the problem with The Times is not one of ideological balance. For example, The Times is well within its right to add such writers as Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and Bret Stephens to their op-ed page as an experiment in the diversity of thought. I don’t mind skipping their articles. But when The Times routinely apologizes for trafficking in ideas that these same columnists would or even do, in fact, believe, then it falls upon its readership to demand answers.
We should challenge The Times’ inclusion of right-wing voices as an attempt to help readers “think for [themselves],” as its former editor put. And we should ask ourselves: do these voices truly contribute to a good-faith endeavor to accurately inform the public? Or do they primarily appeal to its governance, which might occasionally get a little overzealous in pursuing its own interests at the expense of good journalism?
There is no doubt that "cancel culture" and online witch hunts can lead to toxic outcomes that prevent what might otherwise be teaching moments. But to concern ourselves with the left’s "infiltration" and "censorship" of the news is to sideline the fact that these organizations are already deeply influenced and censored by corporate power. Instead of thinking about ways to thwart the left, who are often responding to manifestations of this very power, we should be interrogating ways in which to modify or deconstruct the editorial hierarchies which fall victim to it.
The reality is that very few people outside these news organizations know full-well how this power operates. And even within these institutions, few likely have a comprehensive understanding how corporatism cascades from publisher to director to editor and so on, all the way down to the lowest rung of research and reporting. After all, the business incentives of these news companies are obscured by the hierarchies themselves. This is why editorial breakdowns and bureaucracy can be blamed so successfully; such attributions hold no individuals accountable.
We need to confront a fundamental fact: if news media helps us construct our perceptual reality of political and cultural issues, and the news is by and large manufactured and regulated by corporate power, then we as consumers have no other choice but to to frame and agenda-set issues in a way that scaffolds this power. This is why the establishment media sees political correctness as a threat to its livelihood. It’s fearful that the left is starting to chip away at this scaffolding, holding actual individuals accountable for spreading views that do not earnestly add to the political discourse but instead serve the power attempting to limit it.
To say that the press is destroying itself gives the press too much credit. The media ecosystem is already broken. When about 90% of the media (including both news and entertainment) is owned by the same six conglomerates, then we should not regard the mainstream news media as something that is only in the midst of falling apart. What we’re seeing from the left is malcontent with the media’s long-standing disrepair. Will "newsroom revolts" and Twitter coups fix the problem? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is for sure: they certainly won’t make it any worse.
Jon Skolnik is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, with words in Monthly Review, Political Animal, and Maudlin House. You can find more of his work here.