You’d better believe that most of us already know that about the New York Times, but it’s good to get confirmation from its previous executive editor. In her new tell-all book Merchants of Truth, Jill Abramson dishes on her past experience at the Gray Lady but also on what has happened since her abrupt departure in 2014. Abramson accuses her successor Dean Baquet — who won a power battle to take over her job — of following a financial incentive to allow opinion to leach into news coverage at the Paper of Record:
“Though Baquet said publicly he didn’t want the Times to be the opposition party, his news pages were unmistakably anti-Trump,” Abramson writes, adding that she believes the same is true of the Washington Post. “Some headlines contained raw opinion, as did some of the stories that were labeled as news analysis.”
What’s more, she says, citing legendary 20th century publisher Adolph Ochs, “the more anti-Trump the Times was perceived to be, the more it was mistrusted for being biased. Ochs’s vow to cover the news without fear or favor sounded like an impossible promise in such a polarized environment.”
It’s not all a personal vendetta, according to this report from Fox’s Howard Kurtz; Abramson points the finger at the Washington Post, too. (Kurtz makes no mention of what Abramson thinks of Fox News, natch.) Her point goes broader than either or both platforms, however. It’s not just the financial incentive, Abramson argues, but also a generation gap. The younger whippersnappers don’t understand straight news reporting, or at least don’t prioritize it over their political activism:
Abramson describes a generational split at the Times, with younger staffers, many of them in digital jobs, favoring an unrestrained assault on the presidency. “The more ‘woke’ staff thought that urgent times called for urgent measures; the dangers of Trump’s presidency obviated the old standards,” she writes.
Abramson’s undoubtedly correct about the generational issue, but … isn’t that why newspapers employ editors? Aren’t they the “gatekeepers” whose layers provide the assurance of sobriety and credibility to newspapers and other media outlets? The reporters might well believe that the “dangers” of the given moment might “obviate the old standards,” but that can only impact the NYT’s news product if the editors agree with them and allow those old standards to be obviated, as it were.
It doesn’t take much consideration of the Post’s drama-queen sloganeering of “Democracy dies in darkness” to see Abramson’s point. Not only are these media outlets “obviating the old standards,” it’s becoming increasingly clear that those standards were entirely flexible all along. Bernie Goldberg exposed that reality almost two full decades ago in his seminal book Bias, which should be required reading for journalists and the consumers who read them. I had the honor of writing an introduction to the latest published edition of the book, but read any edition of it to understand that Abramson’s complaints aren’t new. The problem isn’t really the latest generation of journalists, but the previous two or three generations who are now in editorial control at major media outlets. Bernie warned about that very problem in 2001, and Abramson was a part of that too. Or should we recap the coverage of John McCain in the 2008 campaign, when Abramson was the managing editor of the news division at the NYT?
That’s how the gatekeepers turned out to be cheerleaders for the Left, and why we see the insipid and self-congratulatory motto at the top of every Washington Post page. At this point, the New York Times’ “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is almost as bad in terms of intellectual honesty, but at least that preceded Trump.
Besides, just how much of Abramson’s book will be dedicated to the intellectual honesty of arguing that major media outlets are undeniably biased and even activist? The blurb for Merchants of Truth at Amazon suggest that at least part of the book defends the establishment media against their younger competition:
The new digital reality nearly kills two venerable newspapers with an aging readership while creating two media behemoths with a ballooning and fickle audience of millennials. We get to know the defenders of the legacy presses as well as the outsized characters who are creating the new speed-driven media competitors. The players include Jeff Bezos and Marty Baron (The Washington Post), Arthur Sulzberger and Dean Baquet (The New York Times), Jonah Peretti (BuzzFeed), and Shane Smith (VICE) as well as their reporters and anxious readers.
Merchants of Truth raises crucial questions that concern the well-being of our society. We are facing a crisis in trust that threatens the free press. Abramson’s book points us to the future.
If that comparison serves to declare a need to return to straight news reporting and an end to media activism, great. If it’s to defend the status quo ante Internet, however, I’ll stick with Bernie and Bias.