Last May, the chairman and publisher of the New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger, wrote a twelve-thousand-word feature in the Columbia Journalism Review appealing to the importance of independent journalism and framing the Times as a news organization committed to this ideal.
Sulzberger defines his model of independent journalism, writing that it “elevates values grounded in humility—fairness, impartiality, and (to use perhaps the most fraught and argued-over word in journalism) objectivity—as ideals to be pursued, even if they can never be perfectly achieved.”
He then identifies several arguments used against the model—such as the insistence that journalists use appeals to objectivity to hide their liberal worldview or to prioritize a straight, white, male perspective and the assertion that our moment is too perilous for journalists to sit back and just describe the world when they have the power to help fix it.
Sulzberger then deploys several recent anecdotes where critics attacked the Times for reporting on stories that harmed their side politically to combat the impression that the paper has a bias. And he highlights cases where his organization resisted the temptation to mix advocacy into its reporting to present the Times as being uniquely committed to the independent journalism ideal.
Sulzberger’s claims were revisited last week after James Bennet, a former New York Times editor, published a seventeen-thousand-word piece in The Economist essentially calling the Times’ boss a liar.
Bennet relays a few counteranecdotes of his own—including one where Sulzberger lost patience with a conservative on staff, telling the writer that the paper had a double standard when it came to politics and he should just get used to it—and recounted in great detail how the chairman had pushed Bennet out for publishing Senator Tom Cotton’s 2020 op-ed calling for the military to be deployed to quell the riots following the killing of George Floyd. But the most damning revelation came in paragraph sixty.
And then, to the shock and horror of the newsroom, Trump won the presidency. . . . Many Times staff members—scared, angry—assumed the Times was supposed to help lead the resistance. Anxious for growth, the Times’s marketing team implicitly endorsed that idea, too.
As the number of subscribers ballooned, the marketing department tracked their expectations, and came to a nuanced conclusion. More than 95 percent of Times subscribers described themselves as Democrats or independents, and a vast majority of them believed the Times was also liberal. A similar majority applauded that bias; it had become “a selling point”, reported one internal marketing memo. Yet at the same time, the marketers concluded, subscribers wanted to believe that the Times was independent.
So, as the staff came to see themselves as leaders in the fight against President Trump, the New York Times marketing team found that the paper’s progressive audience wanted to consume news that confirmed their worldview but they also wanted to be reassured that the news they were consuming was unbiased.
Bennet’s exposure of the Times’ internal memo shines a new light on Sulzberger’s feature—uncovering it as nothing more than a marketing ploy. And the revelations about how the paper’s staff and subscribers put pressure on top editors to not publish articles and perspectives that would upset America’s progressive elite reveal that the organization does not subscribe to the ideal laid out by Sulzberger.
It’s this kind of deception and dishonesty that has led to the historically low level of trust in the news media we see today. And that distrust is well deserved. But too often, these problems with journalism are laid at the feet of capitalism and markets. It’s frequently said that viewing journalism as a business rather than an “essential public service” encourages organizations like the Times to give their readers what they want instead of what the country needs.
But why is giving readers what they want a problem? When fiction writers and poets publish works that readers love, they are rightfully celebrated. What is it that makes journalism different?
In short, it’s politics.
Only through the political system can people take their worldviews, sometimes completely detached from reality, and force them on others at gunpoint. And the delayed and dispersed costs of bad policy shield everyone from the direct cost of being wrong—making it easier for political tribes to grow ever more delusional.
Bennet’s account reveals that the New York Times is happy to stoke that delusion.