An Intelligence-Squared Debate: Has the New York Times lost its way?

August 2, 2021 • 11:45 am

Here’s a 64-minute Intelligence-Squared debate on a topic of interest to many of us: “Has the New York Times Lost Its Way?” It’s a debate between four people: two for the motion (“lost its way”) and two against (the paper is fine). Here are the participants.

For the Motion:

Yascha Mounk – Author, “The People vs. Democracy”
Batya Ungar-Sargon – Deputy Opinion Editor, Newsweek Magazine

Against the Motion:

Frank Sesno – Former CNN Washington Bureau Chief
Virginia Heffernan – Columnist, Wired Magazine

Moderator: John Donvan, journalist and debate monitor

There are three rounds in the debate:

Round 1: 4-minute opening statements from each debater

Round 2: Conversation among debaters, questions by Donvan (he does a creditable job)

Round 3: Two-minute closing statements from each debater.

I think we all agree that the NYT is still one of the best papers around, but many of us object to how its editorial slant is spilling into the news coverage, including what topics are even covered—a point that Mounk makes repeatedly. Yes, as Sesno says, it’s making money, but $$ are not the question. I would be on the “lost its way” side, but would have added things like the 1619 Project, designed to propagandize schoolchildren (a NYT first, I think); the treatment of the Tom Cotton op-ed;  the firing of Donald McNeil for using the n-word in a didactic context but then allowing the word to be used in other didactic contexts (all the while saying “intent doesn’t matter”); the hypocritical hiring of Sarah Jeong versus the firing of Quinn Norton, and so on.

Yes, I still subscribe to the paper, because its reporting is still some of the best around. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t lost its way in some respects. The main way is that it has become beholden to the social media mob in a way that makes it change course repeatedly in response to pressure, and has allowed its editorial stance to bleed into the news (its anti-Israel bias is one example, but there are others, as Mounk notes). It is no longer, also as Mounk notes, “The paper of record”—a paper whose journalism can be read with profit by all (thinking) Americans.

Mounk and Sesno do the best job of defending their opposing sides, Ungar-Sargon weakens her arguments by getting overly worked up, and Heffernan, whose work is great in other venues, doesn’t seem to have much to say. I doubt this debate will change people’s minds, but you might have a listen. [GCM: Recall, though, as has been noted here at WEIT, that Heffernan is a creationist.]

And weigh in below in the comments. Do YOU think the NYT has lost its way?

h/t: Paul

22 thoughts on “An Intelligence-Squared Debate: Has the New York Times lost its way?

  1. I didn’t vote on it as it seems like a question whose responses are multi-dimensional. The NYT does good work, as all agree, and is still indispensable, at least as much as one newspaper can be. I just wish they wouldn’t indulge in wokeness. I don’t mind the occasional article about wooish or woke subjects as they need to appeal to a broad population. Anyone not interested in some article’s subject can simply skip reading it. It’s the impact on editorial and opinion section policy by woke staffers that is the most objectionable.

    The biggest problem with Woke philosophy, IMHO, is the pulling down of merit and the raising up of grassroots bullying in its place. This happens within the NYT and in society at large. The Woke pretend that their opinions are held by everyone, at least everyone who counts from their perspective. I think they know that it isn’t the case but aren’t interested in democracy or criticism.

  2. Yes, the NYT has lost its way and yes it is still the one newspaper I cannot do without. More than anything, I think, it is generational. Back in the day when the NYT was at its height in my opinion, the editors and journalists were all close to my generation. Now it is younger and woker. And as I get older, it gets younger and woker every year. 🙂

  3. … many of us object to how its editorial slant is spilling into the news coverage …

    I believe the NYT still maintains its famous, standard-setting “wall of separation” between its news and editorial divisions. I don’t think what we’re seeing is so much a top-down spilling of editorial content into the news, as it is a bottom-up result of The Times hiring younger, woker reporters who sometimes infuse the news with their own sensibilities.

  4. I liked the Hokusai-themed poster for the debate. Good metaphor with the Woke as the Great Wave, overwhelming a storm-tossed NYT.

  5. I disagree strongly with Ken. I have no doubt that there is editorial pressure of various kinds on reporters. Or the mentality just seeps downward and reporters are afraid to buck the higher-ups. Either way it has compromised the paper. Its wokeness spreads across the country and that makes it more dangerous and more culpable in driving the divisiveness in the country. Editors, not reporters, make judgements about what to publish or not publish. They are carrying out the propaganda of the management, no question about it. The same is true in the culture sections. White artists, writers, dancers, etc. are almost nonexistent now. And phony news stories abound, like the wokesters griping about the lack of Asians in top music positions! What kind of crap is that? Asian classical music performers are now almost the MAJORITY in chamber music groups, and there are a huge number in orchestras. They are in fact PRESERVING western classical music! Without them, worthless
    mindless pop music would take over….as it has already in the NY Times, which promotes low brow and cheap thrills (telling people how to dress, spiritualists and their practice, any pop group that sends out press releases). Culturally the NYT is now almost worthless, and its politics even worse.

    1. Here’s a copy of the NYT handbook covering these issues. Do you believe that The Times is violating its own journalistic tenets by having either its publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, or its editorial board direct the reporting done by its news division, Lorna? Do you have any evidence of this is occurring?

      I think, as I said above, that bias arising within the news (and features) division is itself sufficient to account for the slanted reporting.

      1. No, of course I have no direct evidence and there will never be any. However, I am not so naive as to believe that the management and editorial opinions and politics do not make its silent invisible way downstairs to reporters. Do you seriously think that a columnist in her right mind would write a column disagreeing with the higher ups on CRT and keep her job? Come on! Look at what happened to McNeill, Weiss and the other guy whose name I forget. If you are a lowly reporter and see this, there is no way you are going to buck the trend or write honestly. That’s why the NYT never reported impartially on the disastrous rampages and threats in Portland. Anyone on the NYT who did this would be kicked out onto the street promptly. As for your claim that the news writers themselves are all biased, YOU need to provide evidence for that! I am not so cynical to believe that they all have signed their loyalty to CRT on the dotted line, and that there is no dissenting opinion among them!

        1. Actually, as the story goes, it is the NYT staffers that are the Woke ones because they’re generally young and fresh out of university where CRT is ubiquitous and unquestioned. While the higher-ups make the hiring and firing decisions, they fear their young employees will accuse them of racism and, perhaps, they feel that they reflect the feelings of the younger demographic of their readership. This pattern is reflected in corporations across the country. It is more noticeable at the NYT because it’s a newspaper.

    2. Oh but without the NYT where would I get all the latest in astrology and dowsing? And all that free advertising for Gwinnie.


  6. I think the Times makes mistakes. Show me a paper that does not. In this country we have only two papers that still can be said are the nations best and the Times is one of them. One of the debaters seemed to be saying that Trump did not get a fair shake from the Times. I would say to that — so what. Trump is not a normal candidate and cannot be covered as one. If you attempt to show both sides of the story fairly with a Trump world, you are kidding yourself. There are no two sides.

    1. I agree with this partly. Coverage of Trump is asymmetric largely because he’s a crook, liar, and general source of bad ideas. However, letting Tom Cotton, Trump sycophant and senator, say his piece is a good idea in order to foster debate.

  7. Immediately after reading this I scanned the NYT to find “Three (White, Male) Tough Guys Sign Off. Is It a Moment?” But of *course* “white, male” had to be in the lede in order to frame the article. It had little or nothing to do with the content.

  8. I also subscribe to the NYT and WP. I have found that these papers are still the best source for news available. However, I also believe that the Times has allowed its “woke” management style to bleed into what should be objective news coverage. I cite as some examples the biased coverage of Israel during the most recent battles with Hamas. The blatantly negative bias and outright falsehoods against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign that were presented as news reporting. The dismissals of James Bennet, Bari Weiss and Donald McNeil for apparently no good reason. It is one thing to express your opinion, whatever that happens to be, in the Op-Ed section of the paper. It is a completely different matter when these opinions take root in what should be clear, unadulterated news coverage. I firmly believe that the NYT has lost its way.

  9. I agree with Frank Sesno (participant in the Intelligence Squared debate) that the motion should not have been “The NYT has lost its way”. Instead it should have been “The quality of NYT journalism has declined recently.” And with that motion I agree, for reasons that have been discussed on this website many times.

    A book that might be of interest to some of the readers here:

    Ashley Rindsberg: The Gray Lady Winked: How the New York Times’s Misreporting, Distortions and Fabrications Radically Alter History. 2021
    since the book’s table of content is not on Amazon, here it is [with some additional info in square brackets]:

    1. Canned goods: “Minding the Nazis less than most” [How the NYT got Hitler wrong and misreported the outbreak of World War II by taking Nazi propaganda at face value. Contrary to the Times Hitler was not a peace lover.]
    2. Broken eggs: “They’re only Russians” [How the NYT got Stalin’s terror-famine in Ukraine in 1932/33 wrong. Walter Duranty even got a Pulitzer prize for his erroneous reporting.]
    3. The making of a Messiah: “And there was Fidel Castro”
    4. Whispering conspiratorially: “Unrest grows in Vietnam”
    5. The white Tafetta gown: “People who happen to be Jewish” [Holocaust]
    6. Little boy, fat lie: “We’re on the way to bomb Japan” [radiation damage to humans]
    7. Mideast martyr: “A young symbol of violence” [Israel, Gaza, West Bank, 2000: Al-Dura affair – Palestinian boy allegedly murdered by Israeli army
    see here: ]
    8. The Plame game: “A misbegotten war” [Jayson Blair; Judith Miller and Iraqi WMD; undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame]
    9. Crazy vets: “Extensive, unprovoked killings” [sexual harassment and rape in US military, of US women; veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who killed, or had been charged for killing, after coming home]
    10. Woke history: “Our founding ideals were false” [the NYT’s 1619 project]

    So far I read chapters 1 and 10, and based on these chapters I recommend the book. Though the book, of course, does not make good on the claim in its subtitle that false reporting by the NYT “radically” altered history.
    The thesis of the book is on p.22:
    “What this book shows is that the journalistic failure explored in each chapter occurred when politics, ideology, or institutional self-interest played too great a role in the shaping of a news story. Rather than fitting the pattern to the facts, the Times too often gave in to the temptation to fit the facts to a preconceived pattern. This is what we see over and over, and each time to devastating effect.”

    1. This pre-empts what I was going to say, but I’ll say it anyway. The Times hasn’t lost its way; it never had the way. What we’re seeing here is a transition from biases most Americans are OK with to biases (like woke-ism) that irk many more people.

  10. I did not watch the debate, but thought I’d throw in my concerns and explain why I’ve pretty much given up on the NYTimes and the Washington Post.

    Two concerns really.

    First that by going in so strongly on the opinion front (something like 50% of both papers now, to judge from their websites), and by publishing so much of what amounts to authors’ moral views, both papers have been burning through their credibility on any front, including more fact-based journalism. I agree with much of the editorial position of both papers, but why anyone who mostly disagreed with those positions would trust either paper, I can’t imagine.

    The second concern is that both papers now generate virtually all news articles in the modern narrative style. Every piece is like what used to appear in a magazine. Every article contains anecdotes and narrative arcs and every article tries to tell you, not only what the news is, but what it means.

    But as far as I can tell, the shift to narrative journalism entails a terrible loss of accuracy and thus ultimately of trust. The fundamental problem stems from the challenge that it is very difficult to get the facts right in any straight news story. If you’ve ever been in the situation of knowing what actually happened for a news story and compared it to what appeared in print, then you know what I mean. So now lets change the reporter’s job – in addition to getting the facts right, they have to figure out what it all means, and find a nice story to wrap in a bow with. Layering on the BS can only detract from getting the facts straight, and that was incredibly difficult to begin with.

    Anyway, I read Reuters and AP mostly. It bums me out no end.

  11. Yasha Mounk was the only person listenable there (as always, he’s shriekingly smart). The Washington bureau chief guy was a joke – a man only capable of listing topics covered by the NYT and his own ego. Nasty.
    Like the warden here at WEIT, I am also very disappointed in my hometown newspaper the NYT, for the same reasons.


  12. EVERYTHING at the NYT is race obsessed – it (and gender) are the only lenses they can imagine the world through.
    Recently I was reading an article about pet ownership in the covid era. Fair enough reporting, till about half way through when the article drives into a ditch with various screeds about how BIPOC, Latx, whateverx, marginalized minorities, etc. are denied pet ownership b/c of structural…. white supremacy, etc.
    Pet ownership.

  13. The NYT losing its way can be similarly said about any large city paper of influence. The conversation would be similar and not by coincidence. I think Sargon made some excellent points on the digital transformation of news – and how it caters to the much larger social media platforms and its hoards of influencers. Maybe the medium is the message again!

  14. One point the “opposed” group made, over and over, was that even if the Times is shifting in some ways, it still produces good product. If it’s not too bad yet, how can one say it’s “lost its way”?

    But, an object’s trajectory depends on more than where it is at a given point in time. Toss a ball off a cliff, and even though the ball just barely left my hand, absent something to stop the ball its overall course is pretty predictable.

    News media and establishments of higher education all across the nation are undergoing a post-modernist remake. New players at the Times and elsewhere are showing that they have an agenda and know how to advance it. Horror stories are piling up from all quarters, stories that sound increasingly familiar. The Liberal ideal of the pursuit of truth is under attack from all quarters in our increasingly post-truth era. The proponents of “Woke” culture have made no bones about how they regard objective truth.

    If this isn’t the paper of record’s “losing its way”, what should we expect “losing its way” to look like?

  15. One thing that gives me hope about the NYT is the readership. Look at the comments on any article that is excessively woke and you’ll see the majority of commenters calling out the paper on its excesses. I have to believe the paper will self-correct its wayward drift.

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