NY Times’ cluelessness is wrecking journalism | Will Bunch Newsletter
Plus, a politician who keeps bumping her head on Pa.’s ‘glass ceiling’
I know, I know, you’re probably sick of “anniversary journalism,” but it must be noted that this week marked the 32nd anniversary of Billy Joel’s last big hit, the unforgettable “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I’m thinking there’s plenty of material for a sequel: January insurrection, COVID-19 detection, Daft Punk, Donald Trump ... I can’ t take it anymore.
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Hey, New York Times, Trump voters will always hate you. Just write the truth.
Yo, Trump voters in rural Ohio diners! Wake up! It’s time to put your MAGA hats back on, grind some bitter coffee and wipe the layers of grease off that Formica countertop. The New York Times still desperately wants you, and they’re coming back your way! Like, for the umpteenth time.
That may sound over the top, but I don’t know what else to say after learning that America’s most influential newsroom — after more than four years of dozens of stories informing its largely left-leaning readers that Donald Trump voters still love Donald Trump — is doubling down on efforts to persuade media-bashing right-wingers to like them, and maybe even subscribe.
That’s the take-away from a recent report by Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo into what’s behind this month’s somewhat opaque announcement from the Times that it’s launching a high-powered 10-member team, including three prominent journalists, aimed at addressing readers’ trust in the media, particularly in the so-called “Paper of Record” itself. Pompeo’s sources told him the team — a top priority for Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger — is aiming to “sort of win people over” with an amped-up effort to teach people how journalism works, “to show the rigor we use in preparing our report.”
“The fact that we have a Supreme Court reporter who’s a lawyer, or that we have a medical doctor writing about COVID — we know that stuff, but how do we get that across?” one Times insider told Vanity Fair, while another added: “It’s about ensuring that people understand how and why we do what we do.”
Pompeo’s sources said that while the project obviously targets the deep media distrust held by conservatives — the kind of folks who go bonkers at rallies when Trump calls the American media “enemies of the people” — it also looks to educate and woo recalcitrant readers on the left, as well as young people or others who tend to lack what journalism professors call “news literacy.”
It’s true that lack of trust in the media is widespread these days, but since the dark morning of Nov. 9, 2016, the Times has been largely obsessed with its seeming failure to understand the Trump movement, but also — more weirdly — its inability to forge some kind of connection with these huddled masses who seem to hate them. In an anxious moment when the Times’ core readers and a flood of new digital subscribers looked for leadership to defend truth, science, and the role of a free press, the Times instead dwelled on the question that Sulzberger and top editor Dean Baquet asked in a letter five days after that election: “Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters?”
» READ MORE: Saving journalism’s soul in the Age of Trump | Will Bunch
Thus, the Times dispatched teams of reporters to Trump-ified country diners and coffee shops across West Virginia or Iowa, again and again and again, even though a) these right-wing voters never wavered in their support even after the 45th president did something that looked obviously stupid or corrupt to the cosmopolitan reporter asking the questions and b) no comparable effort was made to survey, say, barbershops in Black Detroit neighborhoods that voted 99% for Hillary Clinton. While its ads appealed for mostly left-learning new subscribers desperate for “the truth,” Times leaders seemed more obsessed with “balance” when they hired climate-denying columnist Bret Stephens. When democracy was most under assault from Trump’s demagoguery, the Times often seemed to run from the fight.
Instead of learning from those mistakes as we enter the Biden era, the new Times initiative seems to double down on its lost-cause obsession with wooing angry conservatives, like John Cusack holding up that boombox. Why? The crass answer would be money, as the Times — which already dominates digital journalism in America with 7 million subscribers, including more in many cities than that city’s hometown paper — is aiming for a goal of 10 million, which presumably could be reached with some (literal) buy-in from conservatives.
But more important is the Times’ stuck-in-the-1950s worldview that their self-worth as journalists comes from everyone perceiving them as balanced and fair — as opposed to a commitment to uncomfortable truths, regardless of how that might offend some readers. This apparent belief by prominent Times journalists that the public would like them more if they only understood how gosh-darned smart and overqualified its medical or legal reporters are is almost sad in its naivete. It shows that in those 58 months since the Sulzberger-Baquet letter, the Times has learned nothing about the modern conservative moment.
Trump voters don’t think the New York Times is an “enemy of the people” because they don’t understand how the newsroom works. They hate the Times because they do understand exactly what they do — they just don’t like it — and because of the elite, condescending tone that’s embedded in the just-let-us-tell-you-how-brilliant-and-educated-we-are vibe of its new project.
The Times could save some money and much-needed reporting resources by simply reading a few books like Kathy Kramer’s The Politics of Resentment, in which her travels across Wisconsin actually defined the zeitgeist of rural rage that so befuddles the Times’ newsroom leaders. Her research chronicles the anger and the slights felt by voters isolated from the concerns of the so-called professional and managerial elites — bureaucrats and, yes, journalists — who they feel look down on them. Of course, this resentment also gets wrapped up in problematic ideas about issues like race or immigration that don’t jibe at all with the illuminating ideals of journalism.
In other words, not only is there little — nothing, really — the Times can do to gain the trust of such non-readers, it shouldn’t even consider pandering to these instincts in the first place. A truly trustworthy news organization doesn’t cater to the concerns of any segment of the public — but only to one thing, the truth.
In today’s current fraught moment, that means an aggressive and clear-eyed approach to informing that public about the unprecedented threats to American democracy — with zero concern about “on one hand, on the other hand” forms of balance. The irony is that, in doing this, the Times might actually gain a few million new readers from so many Americans who desperately want the earned trust that comes with unvarnished truth, and not a phony, manufactured kind. If the Times still insists on clueless kowtowing instead of rising to this moment, the nation’s premier news org might be destroying journalism instead of saving it.
Yo, do this
The late Bob Marley sang his “Redemption Song.” Now Robert Kagan — the neoconservative thought leader who strongly advocated for the disastrous and immoral 2003 Iraq War — is singing his redemption song, in a powerful and timely Washington Post op-ed titled, simply: “Our constitutional crisis is already here.” Kagan powerfully makes the case that Trump will be the 2024 Republican nominee and that the scheme to reinstall him in the White House by subverting electoral democracy is well underway.
If you follow D.C. politics, you know that this is going to be a nerve-racking week. If you follow the Philadelphia Phillies, as I’ve been blessed and cursed to do these last two decades, you know the anxiety levels will be 10 times higher. Beginning Tuesday night in Atlanta (7:20 p.m., on NBC Sports Philadelphia), the Phils need to sweep a three-game series to have any realistic hope of returning to October’s playoffs for the first time in 10 years. If anyone can make this impossible dream happen, it’s MVP candidate Bryce Harper. Pennant fever is a hopelessly incurable disease.
Ask me anything
Question: What are your thoughts on the filibuster? — Via Jean Burke-Spraker (@jburkespraker) on Twitter
Answer: What a well-timed question, Jean. As regular readers know, I’ve long opposed the filibuster, which requires a supermajority of 60 out of 100 votes to pass most key legislation in the Senate. Simply put, it’s an antidemocratic measure that was never intended by the nation’s Founders, which not only thwarts the will of a popular majority but has most often been used over 200 years to defend white supremacy. (Please read Adam Jentleson’s Kill Switch, if you haven’t already.) This week, the Republicans’ use of the filibuster to block raising the nation’s debt ceiling — threatening an economic crisis — gives the Democrats the perfect moral and timely rationale for ending this curse on democracy.
The Inquirer published an article last week looking in depth at the nine announced or highly likely candidates (eight Republicans, and Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro) for Pennsylvania’s open governor’s seat in 2022. One thing jumped off the page — all nine of the faces were white men. That might be shocking but for the fact that 47 of the last (checks notes) 47 Pa. chief executives have also been white men. The Keystone State is a hard place, politically — but especially for women, who’ve also never seen one of their own get elected either Philadelphia mayor or to our two U.S. Senate seats.
» READ MORE: Can #MeToo politics be the thing that takes down Philly's Democratic machine? | Will Bunch
Just ask Nina Ahmad. A former local leader of the National Organization for Women and Philadelphia deputy mayor with a compelling coming-to-America story, Ahmad has struggled to gain elected office. In 2020, winning a hard-fought Democratic primary on a path to become Pennsylvania’s first female auditor general, she hoped to sweep into office with President Biden and Shapiro, only to see voters vanish when they got to her ballot line in the general election. It could have been a demoralizing moment. Instead, Ahmad is back just 10 months later with a new mission: Launching an organization called Equity PAC aimed at promoting not only other women candidates, but those committed to racial and social justice, Ahmad said this week: “I know the change we desperately need can happen if we try.” In Ahmad’s home state, those changes are long overdue.
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My latest Sunday column was in some ways inspired by those on Twitter who insist the media are being hysterical in writing about the 2020-21 spike in homicides, since overall crimes are down and at historical lows. Really? Some 5,000 more Americans were murdered in 2020 than in 2019, more than the number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq War. That’s a real crisis, and anecdotally it seems that homicide today is more a matter of rage — boosted by too many guns — than a question of economics. I argued that means we should think differently about how to fight it.
The threat to American democracy posed by the GOP’s Trump-inspired voter suppression and schemes to override future election results is getting very, very serious. Over the weekend, I wrote about one especially pernicious part of the plan — an effort to elect or install zealously pro-Trump conspiracy-minded secretaries of state in key battlegrounds ahead of 2024. In Pennsylvania, a new governor in 2023 will choose our new secretary of state, so voters really need to choose the right governor.
When I first moved to the Philadelphia region at the dawn of the 1990s, to say that Philly wasn’t a soccer town (despite some remarkable history) would have been a gross understatement. Today, the Philadelphia Union are finally competitive in Major League Soccer and drawing good crowds to their unlikely home in Chester. The Inquirer is blessed with one of the nation’s top soccer writers in Jonathan Tannenwald. Last week, he covered the long-awaited visit of officials planning the 2026 World Cup with some brilliant insight on whether the world’s premier sporting event will really come to Lincoln Financial Field. Sports and good journalism are two elements of a healthy, livable community. Support good journalism in Philadelphia by subscribing to The Inquirer.