When twitter outrage is powerful enough to cause the Gray Lady to change its front page headline, that either makes Grievance Twitter big or the New York Times small. Yet, it happened; the New York Times’ front page headline changed.
Whether the original headline was good or bad isn’t the issue any more than whether the changed headline was any better. The issue is that the #Resistance mob went bonkers, as mobs are wont to do, over the headline and the Times allowed itself to be cowed by their shrieks.
The Times’ editor, Dean Baquet, held an internal town meeting, a recording of which, somewhat transcribed, found its way on Slate.
“What I’m saying is that our readers and some of our staff cheer us when we take on Donald Trump, but they jeer at us when we take on Joe Biden,” New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet told his staff in a town hall on Monday.
Reporters, like anyone else including judges, have their personal opinions. It would be shocking, even absurd, to believe that the people whose jobs compel them to pay close attention to the news would not. But then, another piece of the job is to report it fairly and accurately, without favor, without injecting it with their bias.
This can’t be easy, as what constitutes a fact, the significance of facts, the damage that facts can cause to the greater good, depends on one’s bias. Fighting against this urge is one of the foremost demands of sound reporting. Or at least it used to be.
In the 75 minutes of the meeting—which Slate obtained a recording of, and of which a lightly condensed and edited transcript appears below—Baquet and the paper’s other leadership tried to resolve a tumultuous week for the paper, one marked by a reader revolt against a front-page headline and a separate Twitter meltdown by Jonathan Weisman, a top editor in the Washington bureau. On Tuesday, the Times announced it was demoting Weisman from deputy editor because of his “serious lapses in judgment.”
Cynics explained the Times’ reaction as pandering for clicks and subscriptions, just your basic business decision to keep the money flowing. The Times’ subscriber base is New York, urban, Democartic and left of liberal. But to chalk up the change to mere dollars is just as silly as those who cried that they were canceling their subscriptions because of the headline. It’s still the Times, and it’s not as if there was any other paper that would better pander to their bias. Money was not a serious concern.
Baquet, in his remarks, seemed to fault the complaining readers, and the world, for their failure to understand the Times and its duties in the era of Trump. “They sometimes want us to pretend that he was not elected president, but he was elected president,” Baquet said. “And our job is to figure out why, and how, and to hold the administration to account. If you’re independent, that’s what you do.”
Why, one might ask, would Baquet or his staff concern itself, even for a moment, with its complaining readers (read twitter outrage mob, as that’s where the “complaining readers,” assuming they were readers of anything more than this one headline that outraged them, expressed their outrage)?
In the early days after the election that couldn’t possibly happen, people would send me links to Facebook #Resistance groups, who were establishing “rules” of engagement. They would refuse to use the name “Trump,” either calling him Drumpf or replacing a letter with an asterisk. It was some odd variation on “he who shall not be named” and “f*ck.”
They would refuse to acknowledge him as president, as that would recognize the legitimacy of his election and they would never do that. It was all infantile nonsense, but promoted by putatively intelligent and educated people. Often, these groups were founded and led by professionals with fancy degrees from elite institutions. This became the core of social media resistance, the voices screaming in the void, now screaming at the NYT.
When the NYT headline crisis hit the fan, candidates for the Dem nomination took to twitter to express their views. Whether right or wrong, they are certainly entitled to challenge the Times’ characterization, and they, too, were part of the cacophony attacking the headline.
At Slate, Ashley Feinberg characterized the problem facing the Times and Baquet when twitter turns against them.
Yet the problem for the Times is not whether it can navigate social-media controversies or satisfy an appetite for #resistance-based outrage, both of which it can tell itself are not a newspaper’s job to do. It’s whether it has the tools to make sense of the world.
While it’s unclear to me what she means by “tools,” as I’m not fluent in social justice jargon, she’s right that there is a clear answer, that sating #resistance-based outrage is not a newspaper’s job. Yet, that wasn’t Baquet’s answer.
To some, the correctness of an “opinion” is based on the relative number of “likes” versus outraged replies on twitter, what’s known as “ratio.” If you get ratio’d, it’s conclusive proof that your view is wrong, not because of facts and reason, but because you outraged more people on twitter than agreed with you. Is that any way to run a newspaper?
Having an unpopular opinion doesn’t make it any more right than having one adored by the outraged mob on twitter. But neither popularity nor outrage should bear upon what constitutes reporting, particularly if one wishes to be the paper of record. Perhaps Dean Baquet would do well to heed Christopher Hitchens.
My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.
If the New York Times is going to change its headline, change its opinion, when the outrage mob demand it, then it concedes what’s left of its integrity to the winds of ratio. The choice for Baquet is whether to tell the mob to kiss his ass or for him to kiss theirs. That’s the only “tool” he needs.