Joe Kahn, the next executive editor of The New York Times, will inherit a great news organization that has lost its bearings when it comes to national and political coverage.
When the current editor, Dean Baquet, took over the top job in 2014, American politics still worked more or less by the same rules that had applied for decades: The two rival parties largely agreed on the facts; they just interpreted them very differently.
Enter Donald Trump, on a wave of ignorance, disinformation, and white grievance, taking the Republican Party to what had been considered an extremist fringe of alternate facts and conspiracy theories. The differences between the parties were no longer about policy; they were about truth and lies.
Then Trump and his loyalists tried to steal an election. The danger to democracy was no longer abstract. The Republican Party aligned itself against the concept of universal suffrage and the principle of majority rule.
Baquet did not rise to this challenge. He treated the divisions about basic facts and democratic rule as just so much partisan squabbling. During the 2016 campaign, in the name of balance, his staff savaged Hillary Clinton and went easy on Donald Trump.
He stuck to the old political-journalism algorithms even as they stopped producing anything approximating the truth and instead privileged lies and normalized the abnormal.
He ignored and belittled his critics. He failed to see that his news organization, which sets the standard for the American journalism community, had lost the plot.
And this is where Joe Kahn comes in.
Kahn was Baquet’s deputy for six years, and so far there have been zero gleams of daylight between the two men. Since his appointment was announced, Kahn’s defense of the status quo has been aggressive to the point of belligerence.
But once he takes charge, Kahn will have a reputation to build, not to protect.
Baquet had already set his course before this massive political transformation became fully realized. Kahn has no such excuse.
Kahn’s legacy will be defined by whether he listens to the critics, acknowledges the failures of the recent past, learns from them, and puts the most influential journalistic institution in America back on its proper bearings.
And there’s no time to lose. The midterm elections, which could be a pivotal step toward authoritarian rule and a failed state, are fast approaching.
Under Baquet, the Times has treated the upcoming midterms like any other. Reporters have glibly asserted that Republicans are in great shape to sweep, and win back a majority in one or both houses of Congress. They have unquestioningly adopted the conventional political wisdom that midterms are a referendum on the president, and since Biden is underwater, it doesn’t matter what the Republicans stand for.
But that’s not what these midterms will actually be about. They won’t be about Joe Biden, or putting a “check” on his agenda. They won’t be a “protest vote”.
It’s not just that the GOP has become an insurrectionist party that traffics in hate-filled conspiracy theories and lies. Now the Supreme Court has evidently decided to repeal Roe v. Wade, and Republicans are planning to force pregnant women to term against their will.
For decades, the history of America has been of expanding human and constitutional rights. At this moment, however, we appear to be headed the other way—unless a supermajority says no at the ballot box. Starting in November.
That’s the real story of the midterms.
The goal of a responsible news organization is not to get people to vote a specific way. But it is to make sure that everyone understands what’s at stake.
This potential tipping point is what New York Times journalists should be reporting the hell out of. Even more importantly, they need to be putting every daily political story squarely in that context.
I would bet that almost everyone in the Times newsroom agrees with that first sentence—and has no better argument against the second than “that’s not how we’ve done it before.”
The New York Times should not publish daily articles that treat the GOP like a party that is offering solutions to the nation’s problems, when it is campaigning by sowing culture wars and avoiding real issues. The paper should not suggest in its daily coverage that a Republican majority in Congress would lead to anything other than chaos, obstruction, and endless political witch hunts. Newsletter writers should not be surprised every time Republican voters make it clear that Trump is their hero. Star political reporters should stop pretending that the “deepening divide” and “polarization” are the fault of both parties.
Extraordinary investigative work and the occasional truth-telling news analysis don’t make up for endless incremental political stories that exist in a context-free zone. Indeed, the lack of recurring reminders of beyond-the-pale behavior has helped create a political environment in which right-wingers have reason to believe they will face no consequences and no accountability, no matter what they do.
Joe Kahn could change that. But he probably won’t. “We don’t know where the political zeitgeist will move over time,” he said in an interview with the Times. “Rather than chase that, we want to commit and recommit to being independent.”
The call to more assertively cover Republican threats to democracy is just one element of a larger body of criticism that Kahn should hear and heed. That critique comes from outside and inside the Times newsroom. It is born of a love of journalism and a desire for the Times to uphold its own core principles more vigorously.
One fundamental critique is that Times leadership hasn’t adjusted to the profound asymmetry between the parties. Being unable to openly acknowledge the extremism and shamelessness of one party has forced smart, capable reporters to engage in deceptions and contortions, including:
- False equivalence or both-sidesing (“lawmakers from the two parties could not even agree on a basic set of facts”)
- Focusing on what works instead of whether it’s true or false (“Republicans are using fears of critical race theory to drive school board recalls and energize conservatives”)
- Attributing the most obviously true characterizations to “critics” or Democrats (“Rufo…has become, to some on the left, an agitator of intolerance”)
- Spectacular understatement (“in a move that has raised eyebrows among diplomats, investors and ethics watchdogs, Mr. Kushner is trying to raise money from the Persian Gulf states”)
- Pox on both your houses (“Democrats, without much to brag about, accuse Republicans of being afraid of competitive elections”)
- Giving both parties credit for solving problems entirely created by Republicans (“Senate Democrats and Republicans neared agreement…to temporarily pull the nation from the brink of a debt default”)
- Denial and gaslighting (Republicans “have been intent on rehabilitating themselves in the eyes of voters after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol last year”)
I write about this stuff in Press Watch all the time.
Another major element of the critique is that the Times hasn’t recognized its obligation to fight disinformation by championing the truth as assertively as right-wing media spreads lies.
That doesn’t mean acting “in opposition” to Trump or the GOP. But it certainly means being “in opposition” to misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda—and to its purveyors.
The Times does sometimes point out that large chunks of the population are laboring under serious misconceptions about facts, or have tuned out from news altogether. But reporters and editors should consider that a major problem to analyze and solve rather than an occasion to gawk at people talking nonsense.
The Times also needs to report aggressively and plainly on the racism, misogyny, and Christian nationalism that fuels the right, rather than covering it up with euphemisms.
Underlying almost all these critiques is a feeling that the Times has used “objectivity” as an excuse for enforcing what is really its own form of subjectivity—and “independence” as an excuse for not taking any side that might be even vaguely associated with a political party.
Real independence manifests itself in exposing racial injustice and the civilian toll of US air strikes. It manifests itself in holding accountable institutions like the Supreme Court, the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers of Disease Control, major corporations, and, yes, both political parties—without fear or favor. It has nothing to do with abandoning truth-telling in an attempt to seek refuge from accusations of liberal bias.
The question going forward is whether Kahn sees critics’ suggestions as a threat to the Times’ independence, or a way of reasserting it. I very badly want him to realize it’s the latter. But I’m not hopeful.