“We need more skilled editors, not unseasoned writers, who direct us to what we don’t know that we need to know.”

From a post on mortreport.org headlined “Good Times and Bad”:

No privately run enterprise is more vital than the New York Times in an America at war with itself in a world facing authoritarian takeover and climate collapse. But the staid old Gray Lady, made over and flush with cash, is getting out of hand.

People often fault the Times on specious grounds, ignoring its strengths and missing the point of intended objectivity. But recent cases are deeply troubling, in particular the loss of Donald G. McNeil, Jr., a globe-ranging expert on deadly plagues, when he is so badly needed.

The Times is America’s last family-run newspaper of record, with foreign bureaus and a stringer network extending to 150 countries. Its national reporters exposed truth behind a self-obsessed president’s false absurdities, financial manipulation and treachery.

At its best, it is stunning. Abroad, stories probe distant societies with words and images to show an inward-looking nation how the other 95 percent live. At home, seasoned hands pry open closed doors to reveal our own domestic failings.

The Washington Post excels at national coverage but is thin beyond American borders. Jeff Bezos has infused it with fresh resources but, with his omnivore obsessions and so much else on his plate, he is no Katharine Graham.

But beyond the Times’ hoary slogan – All the News That’s Fit to Print – it now strays into misplaced moralizing, advocacy in news columns, sloppy editing and “content” that on occasion smacks of a high-school paper without adult supervision. Stories that matter are lost in fluff.

This is a personal view. The Times has loomed large in my life since I was a kid. I turned down a job offer in the ‘70s to remain overseas with the Associated Press, then an ad-free non-profit cooperative that was what AP branders mislabel it today: the world’s essential news source.

I’ve written op-eds and a blog for the Times. As International Herald Tribune editor, I answered to its bosses. I realize their challenge to attract young readers who don’t read and want news for free. New income streams are crucial when so many advertisers go elsewhere.

Ben Smith, the paper’s ex-Buzzfeed media writer, has it right: “It is no longer just a source of information. It seeks to be the voice whispering in your ear in the morning, the curriculum in your child’s history class and the instructions on caramelizing shallots for the pasta you’re making for dinner.”

The cost is a blurring of once-sacred lines separating editorial from advertising and self-promotion. It remains honest, scrupulously correcting factual errors. Yet a new culture threatens its historic mission. As it seeks to reflect diversity and widen its reader base, it upends newsroom tenets that have evolved since the Sulzberger family bought the paper in 1896.

In earlier days, it was like the New York Yankees. Reporters worked on farm teams or, like McNeil, as newsroom clerks, until judged ready for the majors. Some were poached from the competition. Egos clashed, but a shared esprit du corps defended the institution.

Now it also hires journalists fresh out of school, who are encouraged to use the “I” key, with thinly masked points of view, who sometimes forget it’s not about them. A page-two fixture connects reporters to readers with accounts of how they got their stories. And no one appears to be in control….

McNeil is an odd-shaped peg who defies round holes in today’s woke world. A curmudgeonly manner put off newsroom colleagues; his union activities pissed off management. But he is accurate and apolitical, intimately familiar with a complicated world.

He spent 35 years moving from copy clerk, beat reporter and foreign correspondent to his specialty: earning scientists’ respect with prodigious knowledge and forays into African and Asian backwaters.

When he started, the paper faced tough competition from the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, along with dozens of others that had Washington bureaus and sent correspondents abroad. Most were run by founding families with ink in their bloodlines.

News back then was a one-way flow. Beyond letters to the editor, readers had no way to kibitz. But reporters covered stories at firsthand, steeped in larger context, with no distracting side gigs. If they fabricated facts, they were fired. If they got facts wrong, the competition shamed them.

Publishers expressed strong views on editorial pages, but news sections were sacrosanct. Beyond any sense of mission, that was also a business decision. Their survival depended on evenhanded reporting free of advocacy. In today’s world, this has changed beyond all recognition.

Successive Sulzbergers, alone among those old families, have resisted corporate takeovers and profit-over-principle compromise since acquiring the paper in 1896. After a rough financial patch, the Times thrives. But it is an almost unmanageable octopus that partners with other organizations in a range of projects and programs.

Each day, limousines await reporters who thumb tweets on their way to “contributor” jobs at CNN and MSNBC. The Times competes with news agencies and broadcasters for running comment on major events. The print edition is essentially a magazine; newsbreaks and updates appear online around the clock.

And there are those Times Journeys, designed to boost profits when the paper needed cash. Some take busy reporters off their beats for weeks at a time.

In 2019, McNeil shepherded well-heeled white kids from Phillips Academy Andover to Peru. An earlier Peru trip had gone well, and he reluctantly agreed to do it again. A young woman asked about a project she had done on race. He used “the n-word” in the context of their exchange. That got back to parents, who complained.

Dean Baquet, the Times’ editor, who is black, examined all evidence. Though pissed, he decided it was not a malicious slur. He and publisher A.G. Sulzberger decided on a simple reprimand. But 150 staffers, including many young new hires, signed an outraged letter. Soon after, in the midst of a deadly pandemic his stories examined deeply, McNeil was gone.

In a 20,000-word, four-part piece on Medium, McNeil gave his nuanced account. He expressed regret to those who took offense but cited conversations from his careful notes that belied fragmented quotes and distortions about his interaction with the group.

There is a lot to it. Rather than learn from a seasoned world-watcher, it seems, students lectured him on right thinking. Some, having not read Kipling, bridled at his reference to “the white man’s burden.” He was judged anti-Semitic for an inoffensive Jewish-mother joke. And so on….

Bret Stephens wrote an op-ed about the case, but Sulzberger took the unprecedented step of killing it. Someone (not McNeil) leaked it to the New York Post, which ran it in full.

Stephens argued that the issue was about intent. McNeil clearly did not use the disputed word — which he noted appeared often in the Times, including four times in the Richard Pryor obit — as an epithet. He concluded:

“We are living in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are awfully sure they’re right and fully prepared to be awful about it. Hence the culture of cancellations, firings, public humiliations and increasingly unforgiving judgments. The role of good journalism should be to lead us out of this dark defile. Last week, we went deeper into it.”

When the story broke, outsiders quoted pro and con posts on the Times veterans’ Facebook page, meant to be private (as if anything is these days). Robert Worth, a long-time Middle East correspondent, got to the crux of it: “Dean and AG (Sulzberger) make a decision, and then are bullied by a vocal minority into changing their minds. This is not the NYT I know.”…

A newspaper’s editorials and its selection of op-ed contributors reflect its own voice. Yielding to second-guessing from the ranks weakens its authority and diminishes serious readers’ respect….

We need The New York Times. How it evolves is up to the Sulzbergers. But given its impact on all of our lives, here are a few thoughts from a lifelong devotee:

Should it stretch its people so thin, exposing them to opinionating and missteps on TV, Twitter and social media? Must they also be tour guides and brand ambassadors? Times-style reporting is a fulltime job, and its journalists’ perceived objectivity is crucial.

Shouldn’t reporters file fewer running updates rather than compete with 24-hour news agencies and networks? That would allow them to develop sources and liaise with colleagues in foreign bureaus to give broader meaning to stories that shape today’s world.

Shouldn’t they rethink the notion that ethnic or other affinities lead to better coverage? Often, it’s the opposite. Language skills matter. But no one represents a collectivity. Getting the story straight demands professional detachment and across-the-board empathy.

We face a simple reality in a world that has no more minutes in a day despite the infinite words and images that now overwhelm us from every direction: Less is more. We need more skilled editors, not unseasoned writers, who direct us to what we don’t know that we need to know.

After 39 years of covering global stories for AP and several years editing the International Herald Tribune in Paris, I am now happily independent. MortReport is a labor of love, with a lot of help from my friends: old-style correspondents of hard-won experience and young ones with fresh eyes. We report first hand, with sources we have learned to trust. We base analyses on non-alternative fact.

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