Ben Smith has yet another finger-poking piece out at the New York Times this week, this time turning the spotlight on how New York media newsrooms have been dealing with the combination of the coronavirus and the unrest in the streets. Plenty of people in the newspaper and television news businesses have lost their jobs recently and some of those who remain are having a rough time. But not all of them. In particular, he explores the vast wealth gap between those at the top of the financial foodchain at major papers like the New York Times and cable news outlets and those of more modest means. He exposes some of the simmering resentment among the less famous (and lower-paid) media workers who have come to realize that the lofty social justice principles they espouse in their outlets aren’t mirrored in their workplace.
New York’s media business appears to be in endless decline, but it is still one of America’s most visible stages for cultural conflict, drama and change. Top figures at Bon Appétit, Refinery 29, Variety, ABC News and The New York Times have been forced to resign or take leave this month, as were lower-profile executives, like the editor of Indy Week in North Carolina.
The ousters were driven, in many cases, by employees who believe the companies’ internal cultures don’t mirror the progressive and anti-racist values they sell. And while the immediate spur is the wave of protests against anti-black racism and police violence set off by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the New York-based media had already been activated by something else: The clarity with which the onset of Covid-19 revealed who could afford to get out of town, who might be OK if they lost their job, who had money or family to fall back on. The backgrounds of Zoom calls, your colleagues’ Instagrams and casual Slack references revealed who was trying to get the air-conditioner in their Crown Heights studio working, and who was opening up the pool.
It definitely sounds like there’s trouble in paradise. Smith describes how CNN president Jeff Zucker has been roughing it in the Hamptons, being forced to actually carry his own golf clubs at the country club because of a lack of caddies. Other top names are similarly “working from home” in luxurious settings, while many of their worker bees are trying to figure out how to get their window air conditioning units to function in their Flatbush apartments. It’s not a pretty picture.
Smith goes further in this vein, pointing out who is making the big bucks in other cable news outlets and who can afford to ride out the riots and COVID-19 outbreaks in luxury.
Many of the most passionate hours of cable news are also produced from out of town, though the miracles of green-screen backgrounds conceal a host’s whereabouts. Sean Hannity has been working from the North Shore of Long Island since before the crisis, and Tucker Carlson’s show is produced near his homes in Florida and Maine. Chris Cuomo made his Hamptons basement famous. (Don Lemon, who has been living in Sag Harbor, is commuting most nights to CNN’s studio in Hudson Yards.) MSNBC’s progressive hosts went north: Chris Hayes to the Hudson Valley, Rachel Maddow to Western Massachusetts.
As we recently learned, journalists at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times have been growing more vocal about the lack of diversity in their newsrooms and job vulnerability of those without big names in the news world. In that respect, those institutions of journalism don’t look all that different than some of the companies they criticize for the same thing.
At the rate Ben Smith is going, casting a critical eye at not only his own industry but his own new employer, he may want to sleep with one eye open. He hasn’t been at the Gray Lady for all that long himself. And pointing out how the titans and rock stars of the news business are lounging around in their hot tubs might not be good for his future professional prospects.