Who Tells Them Things They Don't Want to Hear?

Can the New York Times ever defy its affluent white subscriber base again? Sources speaking on condition of anonymity say it's unlikely

So the NYT newsletter lineup has been unveiled. I suppose the expectation is that I would make fun of this but I’m not moved to do so. Whatever else its problems, and I’m about to lay them out here, the Times does not suffer from a talent deficit. I don’t know what this is all going to look like in practice, or what the financial inducements are for the writers. But I’ll read several of these with interest and I’m excited to see what comes from the experiment. Let writers write. I imagine the Times has some extremely complicated and arbitrary rules about original reporting appearing in these newsletters; I’m told there are a lot of turf issues over there on 8th Avenue. But that’s not my concern. I’m in favor of giving people freer rein to explore their interests in writing, and from my vantage it seems like this setup could result in a lot of cool stuff. I for sure will read Jane Coaston and Jay Kang. I for sure will not read Frank Bruni. For the rest, we shall see.

Of course, what none of these people will do is what no one at the Times can do: publish things that upset the subscriber base. And it’s precisely the willingness to do so that has powered the financial success of newsletters like this one.

If you’re new around here, the basic scenario is that we’ve had a years-long moral panic in which elite white tastemakers adopted the political posture of radical Black academics out of purely competitive social impulses, trying on a ready-made political eschatology that blames the worlds ills on whiteness and men and yet somehow leaves space for an army of good white people and good men to cluck their tongue about it all. Concurrently, the most influential paper in the world emerged from decades of fiscal instability by going hard on digital subscriptions, paywalling more and more of its content and rattling its tin cup more loudly than ever before. The result has been boom times, attenuated only by the end of the immensely lucrative Trump years. (I believe Chris Hayes is covering Trump’s latest spray tan tonight.) The trouble is that this model leaves them even more dependent on a particular social and political caste, namely the educated white professional class that graduates from top 25 universities, moves to Echo Park or Andersonville or Austin, then sends Zane and Daschel to pre-K that costs more than their Audi. Oh and they, like, care about justice and stuff. Conservatives hate read the NYT and thus have traditionally brought in advertising revenue, but they don’t hate subscribe, and the end result is that a paper that was about a 6.5 on a ten-point Liberal Elite Scale when I was a kid has moved to a 9.5. And there’s nothing internal to the publication that can stop this leftward march.

This will invite reprisals for speaking out of turn, but all of the following comes from public knowledge, other people’s reporting, what former and current employees have said, and a little bit of gossip. The social and professional culture within The New York Times is notoriously toxic, the confluence of people with immense career ambitions and total shamelessness about using social justice rhetoric to attack their enemies; watercooler shit-talking and mean-girling has moved to Slack, where it’s somehow even worse than it was before; all of the younger staffers see their jobs as straightforwardly activist positions, and the role of the paper to advance a pro-Democrat social justice ideology rather than to report objectively or to present a range of viewpoints; executive editor Dean Baquet is afraid of his own employees; the Sulzbergers don’t want to have uncomfortable conversations with their fellow white liberal elites at the food co-op or whatever; and in general absolutely every internal incentive within the paper points towards uncritically advancing a Robin Diangelo-approved race and gender ideology, a class-never, deferential-to-woke-norms soggy social justice politics that says nothing remotely challenging to said staffer cliques or the Hermosa Beach soccer moms who now fund the paper. When Bari Weiss resigned the media Borg represented it as all about Weiss, but her story was really about the kind of perspective that can’t exist anymore at The New York Times. I’m sure the blob would deny this stuff, but again none of these are well-kept secrets. If Ben Smith was not paid by the New York Times he would have reported this out long ago.

If you disagree with me, well, point me to some counterexamples. Since the Tom Cotton editorial, what pieces has the Times published that defy the woke politics shared by the vast majority of their staffers? No one remains on staff who regularly puts their thumb in their eye of the rest of the writers and editors there, who consistently violates the assumed politics of the NYT subscriber base - affluent and educated white liberal urbanites who stick BLM signs in their windows and make sure the $30k/year private schools (I’m sorry, independent schools) they send their kids to have a good social justice curriculum. People who wouldn’t fit in at the UC Berkeley recycling club aren’t welcome. They certainly frog marched James Bennet right out of there, didn’t they?

Yes, there are people who are not liberals on staff, but they’re a certain kind of not-liberals. I like and admire Ross Douthat very much, and I don’t think he pulls his punches or changes his views to suit the NYT crowd. But I think that his natural tendency is to be precisely the kind of conservative the Times wants, which is the kind that doesn’t activate the culture war resentments of their median reader or inflame the rest of the staff. Similarly, my readers recently informed me that Coaston is a libertarian, which is cool. I think Coaston is the real deal. But again, while I’m not questioning her honesty or the independence of her thinking, she is very much a NYT libertarian, one uniquely suited to flatter their audience. They aren’t looking to hand a contract to Reason’s Robbie Soave, are they? So who else? Michael Powell, I guess. Nellie Bowles, whose “book leave” looks pretty damn likely to become a “just leave”?

You can talk about Bari Weiss, you can talk about the Cotton brouhaha, you can discuss the inherent and ugly incentives of the subscription model for the paper. But the Donald McNeil firing is truly the bellwether. A reporter with 45 years of NYT experience on an absolutely essential beat said something clueless but utterly anodyne to some spoiled adolescents on a trip that 99% of people their age can’t access. Despite the fact that what he said would have been totally unremarkable even in liberal circles five years ago, the situation caught the staff’s attention and its ire and they vented that ire with the typical absurdist claim that McNeil had put them “in danger” in some incredibly vague way. (On Twitter, of course). So McNeil was duly dispatched, and the basic power dynamic of the modern day New York Times was laid bare: a handful of the paper’s untouchable celebrities can kick up the junior staff into a frenzy, and once that catches fire on Twitter, there is no one in the paper’s leadership who has the honesty and integrity to tell them no. No one. (The NYT’s self-exonerating reaction to McNeil’s defense is quietly hilarious.) The simple fact of the matter is that Baquet has not demonstrated anything like the public courage it would take to face down a Twitter storm prompted by Nikole Hannah-Jones et al., and there’s no reason to think that that’s going to change anytime soon. The media types would reject all of this, if anyone at a big-shot publication had the integrity to write a story about these open secrets. But I’m not lying.

What annoys me about resistance to this narrative, from within the NYT or the media writ large, is that sometimes they admit that the point now is to advance social justice, which is to say to support a specific ideological project associated with one party. Wesley Lowery’s “moral clarity” piece remains a remarkably frank confession on the part of the Times that they have accepted what’s been obvious for a long time, that even they don’t believe in their own vestigial gestures towards evenhandedness anymore, that it’s all a naked pretense to please the last lingering greyhairs involved with the organization and that in due time they’ll be no less explicitly Democrat-aligned than DailyKos. (I think of David Brooks and Tom Friedman at the Times like children whose parents have handed them Xbox controllers that aren’t plugged in.) Watching the establishment media accept the fundamental claim of Lowery’s piece, that elite journalists possess such enormous moral wisdom that they have transcended the notions of subjectivity and embedded perspective, has been pretty wild, for the inconsistency if nothing else. They step from “of course the MSM hasn’t adopted full-throated social liberalism en masse, that’s absurd” to “yes we’re telling the truth now and that’s good and righteous” as rhetorically convenient.

Here’s where I have to insert the caveat that I don’t think and have never suggested that crowdfunded media can replace the basic newsgathering function of newspapers and that the NYT in particular still serves a vital function in its fundamental reportorial duties. This is, in fact, precisely why I am so disturbed by the paper’s takeover by a fringe ideology embraced by a tiny sliver of the American public and by behind-the-scenes high school bullshit.

All of the incentives within the paper militate towards the people in the building playing nice with the politics of the young staffers, out of elementary professional considerations if nothing else. I do hope that everyone involved knows that they’re not going to get the Paul Krugman contract someday. (That kind of job has about as much salience moving forward as the dying stevedores union in the second season of The Wire, kiddos.) Meanwhile, the incentives within the industry writ large are to someday be in a position to get hired by the Times, which means not having a record that would be vetoed by Yelling Social Justice Slack. Everyone knows the next wave of brutal media layoffs is coming, and they’re not going to stick their necks out.

In the broader perspective, what incentives are left for careers in media? The fast-then-slow-then-fast internet-enabled collapse of the industry’s financial foundations appears to be experiencing another fast phase. Everybody in the industry is aware that there’s some 22-year-old in the wings who will do what they’re doing for half price. (Those 22-year-olds are rich enough or stupid enough not to care that they will in short order be the one getting undercut themselves.) Covid killed whatever lingering cool NYC media social scene remained. Perceptions of prestige are subjective, but by my lights the indignities of the click-chasing era and pathetic Trump-humping of the past five years have erased whatever lingering prestige was left in writing for, say, The Washington Post. Along with The New Yorker, writing for the Times is one of the last privileges in the business that really walks the dog in the impress-your-normie-uncle sense - and, more importantly, provides clear benefits in the ancillary fields where affluent writers actually make their money. To get to that stage, you have to be liked by the right people. Every industry is influenced by petty popularity, but it’s particularly acute in the news business, and now bullshit me-first social justice complaints have been weaponized to enforce that popularity hierarchy.

This all leaves us in a place that’s utterly inhospitable to the noblest urge in any profession, which is to tell the profession and its gurus to go fuck themselves.

The purpose of writing is to provoke. That is writing’s function. It’s a technology invented to offend, to undermine, to destabilize. But now professional journalistic writing’s primary customer base is affluent white people with a self-interested and ostentatiously performative anti-racist and feminist politics, who are simultaneously offended by everything but completely unused to confronting an opinion that contradicts what they already believe. And so we have a profession of flatterers and opportunists who do nothing but carry water for the Brown graduates of the world. Meanwhile, the only people willing to defy the cosseted worldview of that privileged and elite class have been forced out of mainstream media and into independent forums. Conveniently, everyone within that mainstream media now declares that all independent media is inherently conservative, so either you are a member of the cathedral in good standing or you’re a Trumper. It’s hard to imagine a scenario less friendly to the painful work of telling comfortable people everything they don’t want to hear. The great privileges of Boerum Hill liberals now includes not just their townhouses or their nannies or their chic vacations in Slovenia or their kid’s robot-building classes. (STEM, baby.) It’s also the Grey Lady, telling them and the world that they are the moral aristocracy that deserves to rule, that they are the Good White People, and they always have been. And it only costs $17 a month.

The only thing I can do, at this point, is appeal to the integrity of the individuals within that world. They aren’t bad people, most of them, they’re just afraid, financially precarious and terrified of being called racist in an industry which has busily drained professional success of any prerequisite other than popularity with one’s peers. You can understand a lot about media culture by understanding that most of the people within it feel like they’re barely hanging on. Well, let me put it to you all privately, here in this space away from Twitter and away from Slack, where it’s just you and me: was this really what you wanted to do, when you set out to make this your profession? To tell Bradley Whitford’s character from Get Out that he’s right about everything? To nod along with a conventional wisdom that you’re too scared to step outside of? I doubt that’s what you once dreamed of doing. The most valuable thing you can do with a prominent place in media, right now, is to point out how sick the whole business is. It’s only integrity when it hurts, guys. Something you write is only brave when it pisses off all your friends and colleagues. Why on earth did you get into journalism, instead of becoming an actuary, if not because you wanted to say the things your profession and your peers and your culture absolutely do not want you to say?

You’re unconvinced. Perhaps you work for the New York Times itself. Well then, tell me: who at the paper now would feel empowered to write the piece I’ve just written?