THR Web Features   /   July 20, 2021

Changing Times

The failure of authority in the age of Trump.

Mark Edmundson

( Via Wikimedia Commons)

On November 22, 2016, Donald Trump, recently elected president of the United States, paid a lunchtime visit to the offices of the New York Times. He talked with editors and writers for an hour or so and complained at length about how the paper had treated him during the election campaign. Very unfair, he said, the Times has been very unfair. He also praised the paper, calling it a jewel and asserting that there was no comparable newspaper in the world.

Trump no doubt hoped to soothe relations with the Times by the visit. If he did, he was badly disappointed. In the months and years to come, the Times was anything but a friend to Trump: it was a force of perpetual opposition. The ascendancy of Trump to the presidency crystallized a new identity for what has long been considered the nation’s newspaper of record. The transformation may be one of the most important cultural shifts of the Trump years. When Trump arrived for that lunchtime meeting in 2016, the newspaper possessed massive cultural authority: It consistently commanded a strong measure of belief in the public world and stood virtually alone as a highly informed and relatively unbiased source.

With Joe Biden’s election, our greatest newspaper is at a crossroads. Should it continue on in advocacy mode, directed by the politics of its staff and of its readers? Or should it move back to being a relatively detached, authoritative enterprise? More to the point: Having succeeded in amassing a vast readership as an advocacy organ could the Times move back if it wanted to? Its readership, which has now grown to seven and a half million and made the Times quite prosperous, knows what it wants to see in the paper. Is the Times even in a position to change?

The Times assumed its signature identity as a comprehensive, unaligned purveyor of the news in 1896, when Adolph Ochs came to New York from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and purchased the newspaper. Mr. Ochs, as he’s still referred to at the Times, wanted to establish a “decent, dignified and independent” paper, one that would be much different from most of the existing competition. This was the era of yellow journalism, when the news business was dominated by the likes of William Randolph Hearst, who purportedly thought that pouring fuel on the fire of a smoldering Spanish-American War was worth the gains in circulation. Papers then were full of reports about murder, rape, and general mayhem. Mr. Ochs wanted a different sort of paper and he came up with a slogan for it: “All the news that’s fit to print.” Fit news was not scandalous, but sober and accurate.

In his book Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times, Harrison E. Salisbury says of Mr. Ochs that “his headlines were discreet” and that “there was nothing in his business and financial columns (by which he set great store) which would give offense to the great bankers, merchants and entrepreneurs of the day. His editorial page was bland and wholesome. He did not believe in shrillness or strong statements.” Against what seemed considerable odds, the paper succeeded. People did want, and were willing to pay for, detached, relatively accurate versions of the news. In his first issue, Mr. Ochs pledged to “Give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect, or interest involved.” So the Times became the newspaper of record, the primary candidate for being the rough draft of history. Its authority in the media world remained for many years overwhelming. If the Times said so, it was quite likely true. The paper was serious in the extreme, generally measured, and always sought detachment. It was emphatically non-partisan. It generated a level of respect that no other medium in recent memory has equaled, much less surpassed.

Looking back at the history of the Times in contrast to its present, one might overstress its powers of judicious detachment. Criticism of bias at the paper goes back a long way. In 1920, Walter Lippman, one of the most prominent journalists of the day, and Charles Merz denounced the newspaper’s coverage of the Russian Revolution. “The news about Russia is an example of what people wanted to see, not what happened,” they wrote. The Times, they said, was unfair to the revolutionaries and to the Bolshevik regime. In 2003, the paper was forced to admit that one of its reporters, Jayson Blair, had committed journalistic fraud, and repeatedly. The list goes on.

And yet despite missteps, for the century and a quarter that followed Mr. Ochs’s statement, the New York Times has clearly done all in its power to be the impartial, fair-minded paper that its founder hoped it would be. But on the day that Donald Trump came to visit, that status was coming to an end. Whether it will be a temporary or a permanent end is still to be seen. But during the Trump administration and up to the present, the Times committed itself to opposing Donald Trump and to a spectrum of social issues, particularly those involving race, gender, and sexuality. The Times has become a political actor in an age of partisan politics, not an arbiter or an observer, but a potent force for change in its own right.

The rise of Donald Trump was surely important to the transformation of the Times. But part of the change had to do with the fiscal dynamics of the newspaper business. When the paper went online, it became much more difficult to draw advertising. There were so many competing ways to advertise on the Internet that newspapers risked being left behind. And for a while they were. But the Times found a way to solve the problem.

They stopped relying so heavily on advertising revenue and began to rely on subscriptions. Now it would be readers and their annual fees that maintained the greatest journalistic enterprise in America and maybe the world. The customers, not the advertisers, would be the major players in supporting and shaping the paper. As former Times executive editor Jill Abramson says in Merchants of Truth, “Given its mostly liberal audience, there was an implicit financial reward for the Times in running lots of Trump stories, almost all of them negative: they drove big traffic numbers and, despite the blip of cancellations after the election, inflated subscription orders to levels no one anticipated.” On the cusp of the millennium, circulation brought in only a fourth of Times’ revenue; by 2018, it was closer to two-thirds.

Abramson is right: The Times ran hundreds of Trump stories, virtually all of them negative. And one might justly speculate that they did so in large part because that is what their readers wished to consume. For in the present online environment, newspapers are not the creation of writers and editors exclusively. They are the creation of writers and editors in collaboration with readers. It sometimes seemed that the readership, and the Times staff, especially its younger members, would simply not tolerate a good word about Trump or even a neutral one. In August of 2019, the paper ran a front-page story under a headline that read, “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.” This was intolerable to some. Internal pressure came to bear, and the paper changed the headline: “Assailing Hate But Not Guns.” 

Not too far into Trump’s presidency, the newspaper directly called him a liar on its front page. Trump is a liar of course, though he’s more frequently what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt would call a “bullshitter.”  As Frankfurt observes, “In making his assertions, [the bullshitter] is indifferent to whether what he says is true or false. His goal is not to report facts. It is, rather, to shape the beliefs and attitudes of his listeners in a certain way.” Trump is hardly the first American president to tell lies. Nixon comes immediately to mind. Detest him as most of them did, there is no way the Times editors would have called the thirty-seventh president of the United States a liar on its front page.         

The Times has not been alone in its overt contempt for Trump. The Shorenstein Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School showed as much in its report on how the mainstream media covered Trump during his first hundred days in office. “Trump has received unsparing coverage for most weeks of his presidency, without a single major topic where Trump’s coverage, on balance, was more positive than negative, setting a new standard for unfavorable press coverage of a president.” From what one could tell, the central tenet of the new committed Times was that Donald Trump was a blight and he had to go. Every day, stories appeared underlining Trump’s radical inadequacies as president and as a human being. He was corrupt, incompetent, vulgar, mean, uninformed, under-intelligent and narcissistic. The paper constantly attacked him. It endorsed the impeachment, supported the Russia probe, and excoriated Trump constantly for corruption.

When a paper goes online, its editors know something that the editors at an exclusively hardcopy paper don’t. They know which articles fetch their readers’ attention. They know how many clicks this story or that one gets—and they can also learn how long readers spend with any given piece. If you’re going to keep the paper alive through subscriber revenue, you must give the subscribers what they want, and apparently what fully paid Times readers wanted was attacks on one Donald John Trump. Night and day. Day and night. They got them.

In an excellent story about tensions at the Times published in New York Magazine, Reeves Wiedeman observes that “what the audience wants most of all, apparently, is ‘Opinion.’ On a relative basis, the section is the paper’s most widely read: ‘Opinion’ produces roughly 10 percent of the Times’ output while bringing in 20 percent of its pageviews.” In 2018, Wiedeman goes on to say, data scientists at the Times created a group of algorithms that could determine what sort of emotion a given story or editorial might produce. Said one employee on the business side of the paper, “Hate drives readership more than any of us care to admit.” And who better for the Times opinion writers to hate than the newspaper’s number one public enemy?

There are plenty of reasons to share the newspaper’s rage at Trump—for what it may be worth, I did and do. But it should also be noted that the Times has moved from being an observer to being an active player in the current political scene.

For the Times now surely has an agenda—a set of values that it wants to promote in the world at large. It is a feminist newspaper and declares itself to be such; it is an antiracist newspaper and proud to be; it endorses gay rights and trans rights with conviction and gusto. The paper is more than open—it is an active force that seeks to consolidate the gains from and advance the cause of identity politics. The Times, it should be said, is not generally a force for progressive economic policies. The newspaper gave highly critical coverage to both of Bernie Sanders’s runs for president, when it chose to cover them at all. In this sense, the Times is one of the leading drivers of a kind of progressivism that is strictly limited to cultural and social issues.

The Opinion section is one thing. But how does the paper’s ethical and political stances filter into its coverage of the news?

During the hundred days after George Floyd’s death, one heard frequently about unrest in the city of Portland, Oregon. Every day, the journalist Andy Ngo posted video on Twitter that seemed to show horrendous clashes between the police and black-clad rioters that Ngo identified as antifa. In one especially memorable sequence, an antifa member (call him that for now) stood outside the door of a building that housed police. He had a hammer in his hand and was poised to strike the first cop who came out. He swung but didn’t deliver a full blow. There was plenty of other comparable footage. At the same time, the journalist Bret Weinstein on his DarkHorse podcast told tales of ongoing, bitter antifa provocation and violence. Not long ago, the writer Douglas Murray visited Portland and compared the city to third world war zones he had visited. “This is not normal,” he said again and again.

How did the Times respond to the situation in Portland? There had been criticism of the paper by conservative outlets for under-reporting the events in Portland and under-playing the violence when it did report. In July, a couple of months after Floyd’s death, when the troubles had been going on for some time, the Times sent the distinguished journalist Nicholas Kristof to investigate. He wrote a piece, much of it tongue in cheek, about how very hard it was to find a genuine anarchist in the whole city of Portland. The demonstrations, as he saw them, were overwhelmingly instances of peaceful civic engagement. “We see dueling narratives. One is Trump’s, and it portrays Portland and other cities with protests against police brutality as teetering on the abyss and requiring his Lincolnesque hand to hold America together. The other is—well, shall we call it reality? Yes, there’s violence and vandalism, as well as opportunistic looting, and it will be a challenge to manage it, but local officials are much better placed to do so than the White House.”

Now of course Trump reacted in predictable fashion, sending federal officers into the city. If in fact there was horrid violence in Portland, then Trump was right—and one began in time to sense that in this paper, Trump could almost never be right. So who was one to believe? Should I credit the Times's distinguished representative? The paper newly committed to an agenda would surely prefer that there was nothing terribly dangerous going on in Portland. So Kristof had some reason to see some things and block out others. Or should I believe Andy Ngo, who has been fighting a one-man war against antifa for some time? He’s surely more sinned against than sinning in all this—antifa members put him in the hospital with a brain injury not long ago—but obviously he has his views and biases. Should I believe Bret Weinstein, an admirable one-time science professor who stood up against a mob at Evergreen State College? Weinstein now hosts a podcast for “curious minds and free thinkers” and his view of Portland is far more dire than that of the visitor from the Times.

Ten years ago, this question of belief would have been very easy to answer. I would believe the Times, of course. A decade ago I would never think to measure Ngo and Weinstein’s views of the truth against the truth dished up by a Times stalwart like Nick Kristof. But for many readers like myself, that kind of confusion will, I suspect, become more and more the order of the day as people begin to see that the Times has transformed itself.

In the midst of the George Floyd demonstrations, James Bennet, the editorial page editor was forced out of his job. The ostensible reason was that he had published an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton that did not live up to the newspaper’s standards. Cotton argued that if the civil turmoil unleashed by the death of George Floyd didn’t stop, it might be necessary to mobilize federal troops again. Bennet was in charge of the editorial page and was seen as giving his approval to the piece though, as was reported later, he had not read it before it ran. (This is not surprising. The volume of material submitted to and published by the editorial page is overwhelming; no editor could read every piece.) Bennet’s firing was in many ways a show of force by the more resolute members of the staff. They claimed that the editorial, which recommended the possible use of force to quell the riots made them feel “unsafe.”

According to Bari Weiss, an opinion writer who recently resigned from the Times, the only one good way to get along at the paper was to endorse the established Times narrative. In her resignation letter, she observed that “a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.” Reflecting on her work as an editor, she asked, “Why edit something challenging to our readers, or write something bold only to go through the numbing process of making it ideologically kosher, when we can assure ourselves of job security (and clicks) by publishing our 4000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and the world?” As she put it, “self-censorship has become the norm.”

This shift from a detached publication to an advocacy organ is perhaps not yet broadly recognized. Habitual readers, more than others, may not notice the change, especially if their opinions coincide with those of the new Times. Right now the paper is like a young person living off the principal that earlier generations have carefully accrued. Soon this will be evident to the world. And that authority may be depleted. Maybe it was the right moment for the paper to burn its cultural capital in the quest for salutary change.

Yet the loss may also be considerable. Once upon a time there was a publication that was doing all it could to tell a straight story and to listen to all sides. It was imperfect to be sure—beset by lapses and scandals of its own. Still: Politicians lied, many newspapers lied, party offices lied, religious figures lied; but there was one source out there that to the best of its ability tried to tell the truth. It provided ballast and security. It made you feel like the cultural and political world had a center. Was it sometimes stodgy, self-important, deaf to the new? Yes—but the paper was also a collection of people trying very hard to step above the fray and get it right. Maybe under Joe Biden’s administration, the Times will go back to being the wise, slightly flawed arbiter it once was. But now, it’s not too much to say that under the influence of Donald Trump, the Times turned away from its legacy. Something is gone from the cultural center—and naturally the old Yeats line comes to mind—the center, without the Times, may be less likely to hold.

Trump’s assaults on the paper were, of course, ridiculous. For a time, he called it the “failing New York Times.” It was, and is, anything but failing. Yet Trump may have damaged the paper in another way. The writer Michael Lewis notes that Trump knows that he’s perceived as being radically untrustworthy. So he tries to make everyone else in the room look untrustworthy, too. He didn’t do this directly to the Times. What he did do was to pull the paper out of its prior orbit and make it something other than it was, something that isn’t perceived as “untrustworthy” per se, but has liquidated its cultural authority.

In what may be her most illuminating essay, “What Is Authority?” Hannah Arendt says she should be asking not what authority is, but what it was. Genuine authority, she argues, has passed away from the world. The classical instance of authority was a cultural feature of ancient Rome. There people were guided by the best deeds and words of their ancestors. They could never hope to attain the virtue that the early generations possessed, but that virtue was their guide. The best Romans sought to reproduce the values of the elders in their own lives, and so always had guidance, and a secure base. They turned to the past for authority.  

As Arendt sees it, authority is not guaranteed by force. When you bully and threaten people, you are not exerting authority. More strikingly, Arendt observes that authority does not arise from persuasion. A person or institution that possesses authority does not argue to maintain its preeminence. Its status is unquestionable and usually unquestioned. The Roman word for religion, religare, means “tied back.” Just so, the Romans were tied back to the best of their past: Their religion was the authority of the glorious days when their ancestors established Rome. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it means everything to those conspiring to kill Caesar that Brutus join them. For Brutus descends from Junius Brutus who helped to drive the tyrant Tarquin out of Rome. Through his past lineage and his virtuous behavior in the present, Brutus possesses authority.

According to Arendt, this sort of authority has passed away from the world. It is no longer available: And there we find a major source of modern suffering. The essay is brilliant and provoking. But I don’t think that it’s entirely right. It seems to me that there continue to exist authoritative individuals and institutions. They may not have the broad, unquestionable authority that Arendt’s Roman founders had. But we still trust them. We greet their acts and utterances with initial assent.

No one would deny that such people and institutions are fewer in number than they have been. The Catholic Church (in which I was raised) once possessed authoritative presence in America and throughout the world. The horrible priestly sex crimes have no doubt weathered the church’s authority, and badly. On the other hand, the western medical establishment has enhanced its authority, by coming up with a vaccine for COVID-19 with astonishing speed. But suffice it to say, we do not have many authoritative institutions left. And Arendt is entirely right to say that without a basis in authority, human beings are often lost.

The importance of an authoritative newspaper seems to me beyond doubt. In the past, the Times was the center for the understanding and interpretation of events of the day. It’s not too much to say that every serious discussion of current affairs began with the Times—began and often ended there. As of now, I’m not sure the Times can be considered authoritative. It surrendered that status in what I have no doubt its editors thought to be a higher cause—the cause of ridding the nation of Donald Trump.

A new president is here and it may be that the Times will try to move back toward its earlier status. It will not be easy—for its nature has changed in the eyes of its readers and in the eyes of the world. In fact, its readers may not allow it to change back. They now at least partially control the contents of the paper—and pleasing them will be at the center of any effort to continue to thrive financially. The Trump years have in one sense been good years for the Times. Readership has grown, money is pouring in. There are more and more gifted people working at the newspaper, bringing with them remarkable talents. But whether these gains will make up for the Times's loss of a fundamental quotient of its authority, is hard to say.

And America, how will we fare? If the Times doesn’t reform, how will we get along without this once flexibly authoritative presence in our public life? What, politically and socially, will emerge? The Times was once a compass that helped us steer the nation ahead. Lately it’s sometimes looked more and more like a sail driven by ideological winds.