It’s bad enough that The New York Times all but admitted last week that its news operations lately have been driven by over-arching missions and “visions” centering on specific issues. In the words of Executive Editor Dean Baquet at an internal “town hall” meeting of Times staff, the paper is now shifting from investigating “Did Donald Trump have untoward relationships with the Russians, and was there obstruction of justice?” to focusing on “what it means to be an American in 2019” and more specifically writing “about race and class in a deeper way than we have in years” because “America [has] become so divided by Donald Trump.”
Possibly worse is how The Times has also decided that this mission includes throwing much of its still considerable resources behind what Baquet called “the most ambitious examination of the legacy of slavery ever undertaken in [inaudible] newspaper….”
For although it’s disturbing that a news organization would in effect bet the house on probing an issue – and thereby create overwhelming incentives for its staff to assume continually that any and all appearances of smoke, even from clearly conflicted sources, add to the case of underlying fire – this Times decision at least dovetails generally with commonly used definitions of journalism that have long served the country and its democratic system well.
Not that the press should get into the habit of proactively designating issues as existential priorities well before the outcomes and implications are reasonably clear. But Baquet deserves some slack here given the charges that the President was a Manchurian candidate beholden to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin – unmistakably an earth-shattering story at least potentially. Therefore, it’s hard to blame him for in effect establishing a major priority and allocating his resources accordingly, and it’s nitpicking to insist that he still might have gone somewhat too far.
Two possible and related qualifications to these conclusions, though, should be kept in mind. First, it’s painfully obvious from the meeting transcript linked above (and not disavowed by any participants) that any number of Times staffers are virulently anti-Trump – which logically raises suspicions about whether any of the paper’s reporters or editors cooperated with the equally virulent Trump opponents in the Obama Justice Department and intelligence agencies to keep the story artificially alive through publishing obviously selected leaks selectively, and even through knowingly trafficking in sheer rumor and innuendo.
Second, as I’ve written, given the abundance of Never Trump-ers in the federal bureaucracy and in the D.C. Swamp generally speaking, and given how commonplace leaks of even the most sensitive material had become, long before the release of Special Counsel Mueller’s report, it was becoming increasingly apparent that if no smoking guns had yet been found, chances are they didn’t exist. But there’s no reason to believe that the paucity of genuinely damning evidence ever gave Baquet any second thoughts about his initial decision – which indicates troubling stubbornness at best and even more troubling bias at worst.
But I can’t prove either of the these two points. Moreover, just as I can’t legitimately fault Baquet for per se focusing, at least for a serious period of time, tightly on the Trump-Russia story, I can’t fault him per se for deciding subsequently to devote much of the paper’s attention to race relations. For times change, and news coverage priorities need to change with them – although Baquet’s link of the decision to a Trump record that he plainly views as uniquely and dangerously divisive strongly indicates that he’s prejudging the results awfully early in the game.
The examining slavery thing, however – that’s fundamentally different. It’s the kind of endeavor, after all, that can’t be squared with any longstanding tradition of American journalism. Instead, the “1619 Project” at its heart is nothing less than an effort to change the way Americans view their history, and how it’s been impacted down to the present by slave-holding. (1619 was the year in which the first enslaved African blacks arrived in North America – specifically, near British-held Jamestown, Virginia. Just FYI, African slaves didn’t arrive in French-held North America until a decade later.) If you’re skeptical about this 1619 project claim, check out how it’s described by The Times:
“The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
For good measure, the paper tells us that “it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.”
Any thinking person understands the need for continual reassessments of history – and all fields of knowledge – if only because new information is constantly coming to light. In addition, you don’t need to fall prey to “present-ism” (judging or merely viewing past events and works through the prism of contemporary standards) to recognize that standards do change; that they can change for legitimate and considered, as well as for faddish and/or partisan, reasons; and that whenever such circumstances warrant, reassessments are needed. Indeed, these exercises are especially important when engaged in the always hazardous but ultimately needed effort to identify the past’s lessons.
And what thinking, informed person doubts that the nation’s professional historians fully understand this imperative, and that in fact their discipline isn’t in a constant state of reassessment?
But even if these scholars were failing their country and academe’s best traditions and practices, why would any thinking person consider The Times institutionally qualified to fill the gap competently? What evidence has the paper presented that it can carry out satisfactorily a project that even it describes as “unprecedentedly ambitious” and that’s surely more accurately described as “unprecedented” period? And as a result, from where does The Times draw its confidence in declaring that it’s able to “finally…tell our story truthfully.”
My answers to all these questions: “Beats me.”
And if you believe that the paper is up to this task, you really need to read the full transcript of the town hall meeting. For it makes distressingly clear that many of the paper’s staffers have no use for notions like sticking to the facts and enabling readers to make up their own minds – at least not since the civilization-menacing emergence of the Trump presidency. (Or was it the Trump candidacy?) As for views of race and its proper role in Times journalism, take a look at these remarks from one staffer:
“I’m wondering to what extent you [Baquet] think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? Like these conversations about what is racist, what isn’t racist. I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting. And so, to me, it’s less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we’re thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all of the systems in the country. And I think particularly as we are launching a 1619 Project, I feel like that’s going to open us up to even more criticism from people who are like, ‘OK, well you’re saying this, and you’re producing this big project about this. But are you guys actually considering this in your daily reporting?’”
His boss’ response (in part)?
“I do think that race and understanding of race should be a part of how we cover the American story. Sometimes news organizations sort of forget that in the moment. But of course it should be. I mean, one reason we all signed off on the 1619 Project and made it so ambitious and expansive was to teach our readers to think a little bit more like that.”
Translation: “You’re right. And the 1619 Project is aimed at persuading Americans to think ‘a little bit more’ like you.” P.S. The transcript records zero pushback against this wildly distorted, reductionist view. That is, like too much of the rest of the Mainstream Media, The New York Times has drifted dangerously far from the notion that journalism amounts to “writing the first draft of history.” It’s going to start writing that history itself. And it’s firmly convinced that it has a monopoly on wisdom.
And that’s fine in principle – if the paper wants to turn itself into something like an opinion publication, a think tank or a lobby group. For a newspaper, however, it represents a bright and dangerous line crossed, and is certain to further erode the public’s confidence in journalists – thereby adding to a list of dangers facing American democracy that’s already far too long.