Batya Ungar-Sargon used to be the opinion editor of The Forward, and now she’s an opinion editor for Newsweek (which leans right); she also just wrote a new boo, from which the Spectator piece below is excerpted. The book, whose title tells you where she stands, is called Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy, and has endorsements by both Greg Lukianoff from FIRE and Jon Haidt. At the bottom you can see her interviewed by Megyn Kelly.
This all doesn’t necessarily mean that Ungar-Sargon is a conservative, and to some extent that’s irrelevant, for we should hear what she has to say: in this case, an analysis that could only have been done by a journalist on why the New York Times has sunk so low. It’s complicated, involving feedback between the reading public and the paper. (Actually, it’s not that complicated.)
Because I’m no fan of the new NYT (though I subscribe and read and like many articles), it’s become abysmally woke, and that’s what Ungar-Sargon is trying to explain: how it happened.
Click on the screenshot to read.
The sequence in short (quotes are indented):
a.) NYT decides to go digital in part.
b.) To boost their subscriber base, its journalism begins to fuse with advertising.
Of course, journalists have always been aware who their readers are and have catered to them, consciously and unconsciously. But it was something else entirely to suggest that journalists should be collaborating with their audience to produce ‘user-generated content’, as the report put it. ‘Innovation’ presaged a new direction for the paper of record: become digital-first or perish.
If you want to know what makes America’s educated liberal elites emotional, you only have to open the Times. Judging by the coverage of recent years, two things make them more emotional than anything else: Trump and racism.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, books like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy soared to the top of the bestseller list as blindsided liberals sought to understand how people could have voted for Trump. For a brief period, it seemed like the American mainstream might truly grapple with the question of class. But this quickly disappeared in favor of an easier explanation: Trump voters were racists.
Liberal news media pushed study after study allegedly ‘proving’ that the class narrative — that Trump’s voters had chosen him out of economic anxiety — was false. They were simply racists, we were told by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Atlantic and Vox. You could feel the relief seeping through the repetition: if Trump’s voters are racists, we no longer have to care about them! This line absolved journalists of the inner twinge of doubt that must come to any honest reporter when they realize that they are afflicting the afflicted. There is only one problem. It’s just not true.
She goes on to argue that Trump voters weren’t one-issue voters who were promoting racism as the ideal, but had a number of different motivations, and were willing to overlook Trump’s own palpable racism because they liked other things he stood for. As she argues, “Trump’s racism was not a deal breaker for his supporters, many of whom expressed discomfort with the president’s ranting and raving.”
d.) Journalists became complicit in an anti-Trump, anti-racist “moral panic”, which of course was good for the NYT’s bottom line. Judge this for yourself:
The truth is, the reasons people gave for voting for Trump were numerous —and legitimate. His promise to appoint conservative justices was a major motivating factor for antiabortion evangelicals. Others were swayed by his commitment to religious liberty, which gave him a lot of support in the Orthodox Jewish community. Independents especially appreciated his anti-war position. Lower-income voters were impressed by his opposition to America’s disastrous trade deals.
Anyone who talked to Trump voters knew their reasons for voting for him. But journalists at America’s leading publications did not know any Trump supporters socially, and that made it easy to caricature and misrepresent them. When New York Times reporters did venture into Trump country, they inevitably found some reason to tar the people they interviewed as racist.
This penchant was part and parcel of a larger dynamic that preceded Trump, in which liberal news media, increasingly reliant on digital advertising, subscriptions and memberships, have been mainstreaming an obsession with race, to the approval of their affluent readers. And what was once a business model built on a culture war has over the past few years devolved into a full-blown moral panic.
Any journalist working in the mainstream American press knows this, because the moral panic is enforced on social media in brutal shaming campaigns. They have happened to many journalists, but you don’t actually have to weed out every heretic to silence dissent. After a while, people silence themselves. Who would volunteer to be humiliated by thousands of strangers, when they could avoid it by staying quiet? The spectacle alone enforces compliance. . .
. . .This bears repeating: there can be no moral panic without the media and the social consensus they create. The power of the press — despite its unpopularity — is still immense. And it has used that power over the past decade, and with exponential intensity over the past few years, to wage a culture war on its own behalf, notably by creating a moral panic around racism.
Nor is it surprising that the New York Times played an outsized role in shaping our moral panic. Its business model is deeply bound up with the mores of affluent white liberals. Inevitably, in the spring of 2020, it turned its wrath on its own. By the time the dust settled, five people would no longer work at the Times.
e.) Ungar-Sargon goes on to review the familiar stories of the departure of Bari Weiss, op-ed editor James Bennett, and others. You’ll recall that Bennett was fired for running an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton saying that if (racially based) demonstrations got out of hand and couldn’t be controlled by the police, the National Guard or other troops should be called in to stop violence and destruction. (Most Americans agreed with this.) Cotton’s editorial was objected to by a thousand Times staffers, who said that the piece was racist put their black staff “in danger”. Twitter backed this up. (Go have a look at the editorial and the new “introduction” by the NYT editor.) Anyway, that was the end of Bennett.
What I found interesting is that the Times pretended that only one sub-editor, Adam Rubenstein, was responsible for editing Cotton’s piece, and, close to when Bennett left, he did too—another casualty. But Ungar-Sargon contradicts the Times’s own narrative about the vetting of the fatal op-ed (how she got this information I have no idea):
Cotton’s ‘whatever it takes’ language was harsh, but the majority of Americans — including a large share of black Americans — agreed with him. This is why the Times’s Opinion section, which planned to run an editorial and two opinion columns opposing the use of the Insurrection Act, was also on the lookout for a piece defending it. When Cotton pitched an op-ed about how Twitter was threatening to lock him out of his account, a senior editor suggested he write up his thoughts on the Insurrection Act instead.
Cotton’s first draft was deemed strong by two senior editors at the Times. He excoriated defenses of looting as ‘built on a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters’. He insisted that the majority ‘who seek to protest peacefully’ shouldn’t be ‘confused with bands of miscreants’. He argued that the president had the authority to use the Insurrection Act to send in US troops if governors couldn’t quell the rioting and looting on their own.
The draft went through a series of edits — fact checks, line edits, clarifications and copyedits. There were several phone calls to the senator’s office. A few lines were deleted and some language clarified. By the time the piece was ready for publication, no fewer than seven editors had worked on it. Having been approved one final time by a senior Opinion editor, the piece was published on the Times website on June 3.
All hell broke loose.
So it goes. The last part of the excerpt has an interesting comparison (my emphasis):
And the hunt for insufficiently antiracist Americans has become its own genre. The Times has run articles declaring that wine and surfing are racist, and that it’s time to ‘decolonize botanical collections’ by ridding them of ‘structural racism’. It even ran an article about a 15-year-old girl who used the ‘N-word’ when she bragged about passing her driving test in a private video to a friend — which another student got his hands on and saved for three years until he could use it to get her kicked out of college.
Stories like this seem to attract an unlimited audience in the way stories of crime once did for Joseph Pulitzer’s papers. That’s because articles that offend the woke person are crime stories for the affluent: stories of people just like themselves who commit crimes of thought or speech, and lose everything when they fall on the wrong side of the reigning orthodoxy. As the Twitter mob pursues small infractions as avidly as it does large ones, and as the etiquette keeps shifting, who dares trust their own ability to judge right from wrong?
It’s how you know we’re in a moral panic: only the mob has the right to judge you. And too many journalists have ceded them that right. Indeed, a huge number of the mob are journalists — journalists from the most important newspapers in the country and the world, all tweeting the exact same meaningless sentence repeatedly. People who had been hired to think for themselves now mindlessly repeat a dogma like their jobs depended on it.
Well, they do.
There’s no doubt that the NYT caters to the mob: their firing of Bennett, and the disclaimer in front of Cotton’s editorial, shows that they not only lied about the vetting of that editorial, but also truckled to the mob and to their own staff, even though the paper initially wanted Cotton’s piece. They couldn’t rescind it, but the preface is now larded with self-flagellation about how the piece was insufficiently vetted. The truth is that it was well vetted, but black and white NYT staffers raised a ruckus because the editorial made them “unsafe”. That’s bogus, of course, but enough to make at least two heads roll at the paper.
I can only guess that Ungar-Sargon, who’s been around journalism a long time, had some inside information about what went on at the NYT. You may not agree with her analysis, but you have to agree with some of her claims. The paper is woke, and that goes for both the news section (which refuses or hesitates to cover stories that reflect badly on the Left) and the op-ed section. Read her piece and report below what you think. I think it’s a thought-provoking analysis.
Here’s her interview with Megyn Kelly about the book. It’s interesting (especially Kelly’s take on Fox News and its audience after she’d worked there), so watch it.
h/t Doc Brydon