Some of you know this already: I tweet too much. Most of it gets ignored, as it should.
How was I to know that one tweet would start a conversation the world needs to have, about how The New York Times hasn’t yet reckoned with the disaster to democracy Donald Trump represents? But the world is having that conversation badly, because of the misrepresentation of my tweet.
Here’s the tweet:
I canceled my subscription. I know a lot of folks will tell me I’m wrong. I will miss it. But I can’t keep rewarding such awful news judgment. “Trump Urges Unity Against Racism” is almost as bad as their full-page Comey letter coverage just before 2016 election. Nobody learns. https://t.co/FNUyXN9TmB
—Joan Walsh (@joanwalsh) August 6, 2019
You probably know the backstory: Trump took two days to talk seriously about the El Paso massacre, committed by a white supremacist who literally quoted Trump’s anti-immigrant “invasion” language in his hate screed. The president did spew some narcissistic word salad on his way home from one of his constant vacations, but it wasn’t until the following Monday that he intoned something like a speech, in which he said words that resembled what a normal person would say. It’s true: Those words condemned racism and white supremacy.
Many of those watching—I didn’t watch; I knew it was meaningless—talked about how his words mocked his own statements over the last four years, all of his attacks on Latin American immigrants; on black NFL players and House Democrats of color; on the four progressive first-term representatives he recently suggested should “go back” to their home countries, even though this is their home country; all the things he said that sounded so much like the alleged El Paso murderer Patrick Crusius. To many of us, it didn’t make sense to give Trump credit for reading a teleprompter, poorly, on which a staffer had written some nice words.
But when it came time for The New York Times to go to press, someone—a “copy editor” we learned later, a ghostly figure, easily erased—headlined a reasonably skeptical story about the teleprompter recitation trump urges unity vs. racism. And all hell broke loose.
Social media exploded, but I was actually a bit late to it. You can see that my tweet is tied to one of Beto O’Rourke’s, which followed Nate Silver’s. But mine got a lot of attention, in the interviews that Times editor Dean Baquet rolled through over the next few days.
Interestingly, no one but NPR’s Alison Stewart has asked me to explain why I canceled my subscription. I’ve been credited/blamed with trying to drive a boycott; I was not. Hilariously, the Times sent me a survey to ask how its customer service representative handled my call to cancel; it did not survey to ask why I canceled.
But hey, let’s assume the customer service people and their survey bots know what I said about it on Twitter.
Baquet has thrown together so many straw men over the last 10 days, I don’t know how he’s had time to do his actual job. “People think the leadership of the New York Times sat down and tried to come up with a headline that mollified Donald Trump and that’s just not the case,” he told Gabriel Snyder of Columbia Journalism Review (um, we don’t think that). “I don’t believe our role is to be the leaders of the opposition party,” he added. (I don’t either.) And finally, “We are not The Nation, even though I have deep respect for them.” (We here at The Nation thank him for his respect, but nobody was in danger of confusing our two publications.)
Then on Thursday, more than a week later, Baquet organized an all-hands New York Times meeting to discuss his paper’s bad week—and despite all his apparent efforts, he’s still not getting his critics right. According to a transcript in Slate, Baquet had this to say about us: “They sometimes want us to pretend that he was not elected president, but he was elected president. And our job is to figure out why, and how, and to hold the administration to account. If you’re independent, that’s what you do.”
Speaking for the rabble, let me just say, as the rabble would: That’s bullshit. Nobody wants you to pretend Trump wasn’t elected president (by the Electoral College; never forget Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, by almost 3 million. And by pointing that out, I probably confirmed Baquet’s fears that I’m a reality-denying Twitter loon, but facts are facts.) Still: Nobody wants the Times to deny the reality that the racist halfwit Donald John Trump is the 45th president of the United States. He is. Unfortunately.
Baquet went on to cite Jack Shafer, who wrote one of the dumbest pieces about the Twitter backlash to the Times’ “Trump hates racism” headline, claiming that Times critics “want us to be something we are not going to be.” Really, Dean? That’s depressing. Because all we really want you to be is… good. Don’t you want that too?
Baquet and the Times’ many defenders are trying to ignore the obvious: We are not asking you to be part of the resistance. We are not asking you to be The Nation. We just want you to be better at your job, which is telling the truth.
I was flattered by Jay Rosen’s depicting me as one of many of New York Times readers horrified by living under Trump, and wanting the paper to depict our situation accurately. I think he described what I feel better than I could. Like Rosen, I do want the Times to do an Iraq War–style self-criticism of its 2016 election coverage, particularly the way it savaged Hillary Clinton at every turn and went comparatively easy on Trump. I will probably never get over the fact that the paper partnered with the Steve Bannon–affiliated institution that gave us “Clinton Cash.” Writer Amy Chozick apologized; to my knowledge, no one from the exalted “masthead” ever did.
Here’s how Rosen describes what’s happened, in this age when subscriptions are starting to matter more than ever:
The readers have more power:
They have more power because they have more choices. And because the internet, where most of the reading happens, is inherently two-way. Also because Times journalists are now exposed to opinion and reaction on social media. And especially because readers are paying more of the costs. Their direct payments are keeping the Times afloat. This will be increasingly so in the future, as the advertising business gets absorbed by the tech industry. The Times depends on its readers’ support more than it ever has.
That’s why Baquet gave multiple interviews the day after the headline mess. That’s why the paper’s leaders had a staff meeting. It’s encouraging to learn that many of the younger staffers, and staffers of color, are disturbed by the paper’s many failures to tell the truth about Trump.
But the other truth is, I will probably subscribe again. Partly because I have to for my job; the Times is still the paper of record. Also, because I live in New York, and while it could do better, it does cover my city. (I pull out and read the Metropolitan section on Saturday even if I read nothing else.) I might have already subscribed again, except Baquet and the paper’s leaders keep saying such stupid things about the backlash to their stupid headline, daily. I promise that when I do, I will tweet about it. That’s transparency. But I still wish I’d been heard in the first place.