The New York Times is more than a newspaper. It’s an institution, a pillar of American journalism, a daily addiction for countless readers, and perhaps nothing less than an alternative reality. Like the fictional encyclopedia imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, The New York Times creates a reflection that nearly matches the dense quiddity of the real world but is subtly different enough from actuality to be disorienting.
There was a time when even the most hardened cynic would doubt everything but still vouch for the veracity of the Times. A Marxist remembering the 1930s once quipped that he and his comrades pored over the Times the way medieval Christians read Aristotle, respecting the paper as authoritative even if pagan. As the beatnik essayist Seymour Krim observed in The Nation in 1988, “Not only does the Times stagger its own readers with the enormous weight of humanity dumped on them every morning; things have reached the point where it has become America’s number-one commissar of the real. If it doesn’t appear in the Times, such is the unconscious reflex of the faithful, it isn’t worthy of existence.”
Yet the faithful, fed up with what they see as the newspaper’s failures in the age of Trump, are starting to have their doubts. On Monday night, the paper faced a readers’ revolt on social media after it headlined a front-page article trump urges unity vs. racism. Those five words were enough to provoke countless aggrieved tweets saying that the paper no longer deserved subscriptions.
The headline was absurdly credulous and did a disservice to the paper’s own reporting. The president’s response to recent gun massacres mixed teleprompter condemnation of racism with berating “fake news,” misstating the place where one shooting took place, and doubling down on his hard-line nativist immigration policy. Journalist Connie Schultz, who is married to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, spoke for many when she complained that the paper gave “an above-the-fold, page one headline absolving the president’s racism.”
My Nation colleague Joan Walsh was among the many who decided that the Times had crossed an unforgivable line. “I canceled my subscription,” she explained on Twitter. “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.”
On Tuesday, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the newspaper, admitted that “it was a bad headline.” He noted that after the outpouring of outrage, the headline was changed online and in subsequent print editions to assailing hate but not guns. In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review, Baquet offered this insight: “The New York Times has a strong view about its role. We are not The Nation, even though I have deep respect for them.”
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The furor over the headline is only the latest in a long string of controversies in which progressives have accused The New York Times, reputedly a liberal newspaper, of giving aid and comfort to an authoritarian president and his far-right politics. These complaints predate Trump’s election, since some liberals (particularly those close to the Hillary Clinton campaign) blame Trump’s victory in part on the Times. One school of liberal thought believes the newspaper has an institutional bias against the Clintons going back to the 1990s that led it to overplay stories about her e-mails, to mainstream far-right theories about the corruption of the Clinton Foundation, and to downplay, in the weeks before the election, evidence that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign.
But it’s not just Clinton-loving liberals who are mad at the Times. The broader left, still fuming over the way the paper gave its imprimatur to George W. Bush’s Iraq War propaganda, has been endlessly annoyed at the Times in recent years.
In The New Republic in 2018, Graham Wyse provided an extensive list of Times cases that annoyed left-of-center readers:
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 [David] Brooks and Ross Douthat, but Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, both of whom joined the paper last year from The Wall Street Journal.
Some of these complaints are trivial, but others speak to serious structural problems with the Times’ journalism. Because, despite popular mythology, the Times is not a liberal newspaper but a resolutely centrist organ with deep-seated establishment proclivities. The Times is always seeking for a consensus that is acceptable to elites of both parties.
In an age of asymmetrical polarization, when the Republican president is an unvarnished racist, the newspaper’s tropism for a position of equal distance from both sides leads it to present a distorted picture of politics. Too often, the Times bends over backward to present the most benign possible view of Trumpism, in a misguided understanding of what fairness requires. The imperatives of access journalism, where insider information is traded for favorable coverage, were always dubious but become more so in an administration as corrupt and dishonest as Trump’s.
Rage against the Times is often justified, but it also springs from readers’ wanting too much from the paper. With the story line of All the President’s Men playing in the back of their heads, many Times readers seemed to hope that the paper would take on the mantle of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, bringing down a corrupt president.
This was always a misunderstanding of the role of journalism. The terrific reporting of the Watergate-era Washington Post had an impact only because Congress, led by Democrats but ultimately joined by some Republicans, was willing to investigate a corrupt president.
In fact, the Times has produced shoe-leather reporting on Trump’s lawlessness as good as anything done by American journalism, notably a blockbuster report on how the Trump Organization has abused tax laws for decades. Yet this reporting isn’t having an impact because Congress, out of a combination of complicity and cowardice, has abdicated its responsibility to hold Trump accountable.
As Times reporter Maggie Haberman noted in 2017 panel discussion, “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.” Of course, the Times itself encouraged such fantasies by positioning itself as an oppositional voice to Trump, which led to a boom in subscriptions.
The Times is, God knows, often irritating, the type of paper that makes you want to hurl it across the room or, in a more high-tech mood, click to another site. Still, the push for mass subscription cancellations is misguided. Progressive Times readers would do better to read the paper with a critical eye, aware of its establishment bias. More important, we have to realize that the Times won’t save us—from Trump or anything else. The only solution to a racist president and the mass movement he leads is political activism.
The New York Times is no giant killer, merely a tool a giant killer might want to pick up. It’s up to the public to be the David that brings this Goliath down.