Geneva Overholser: What in the World Does the New York Times Mean by “Independence?!”

From a story by Geneva Overholser headlined “What in the world does the Times mean by ‘independence?!'”

Joe Kahn, soon to become executive editor of The New York Times, is obviously smart, substantive and devoted to the venerable paper he will lead. A recent New York magazine article called him “the ultimate inside man…sturdy, disciplined and reverential to the mission of the Times.” I’d like to urge Kahn to reflect on that mission more deeply.

I write this because I kept noticing the word “independence” in comments from Times leaders about his appointment. I had previously seen the paper’s new branding choice: “Independent Journalism for an Independent Life.”

But it’s not just the marketing folks talking. “Independence” was all over the reports of his selection, and in the mouths of the paper’s leaders. It made me wonder what exactly the Times is asserting its independence from. In the old “Without Fear or Favor” days, it was independence from commercial pressures or from political leaders that was sought. This seemed different.

Here’s a quote from the Times announcement. “The Times is grappling with shifting views about the role of independent journalism in a society divided by harsh debates over political ideology and cultural identity. Mr. Kahn said securing the public’s trust ‘in a time of polarization and partisanship’ was among his top priorities.”

Also in the announcement, Kahn “cited maintaining editorial independence in an age of polarization.”

And here’s the current executive editor, Dean Baquet, in a Times profile of his successor-to-be: “He’s going to have to continue to build a staff that’s a mix of talents and abilities while maintaining our independence, which feels like one of those easy things to say, but it’s really hard.”

Kahn told the New York magazine interviewer, while discussing staff debates about how the Times needs to evolve: “I pay very close attention to those debates. I’m also really committed to the independent mission of The New York Times.”

And he told the Times reporter: “We don’t know where the political zeitgeist will move over time. Rather than chase that, we want to commit and recommit to being independent.”

The sum of all this would seem to indicate that the Times’ new veneration of independence applies specifically to rising above (walling itself off from?) the fray of today’s political and cultural debates. But this is both a fool’s errand and a grievously crabbed view of a newspaper’s mission. There is nothing the Times could do that would end the right’s tarring it with the dreaded “liberal” label. And attempts at self-inoculating against the left’s newly impassioned critique of the paper’s false equivalencies will only keep the Times from opening itself to what the nation desperately needs it to do: rethink its role at this moment of our democracy’s endangerment.

What this requires is a newspaper that sees itself as not independent but interdependent with the public. Not the left or the right or the woke or the inflamed, but all the public. The people — those who will determine whether our democracy will live or die. What do we need to know?

The habits and practices of journalism that Kahn reveres were shaped in a very different era. This era begs for new ones.

What does information in the public interest mean now?

How do you cover a Congress whose leaders no longer operate according to norms?

How do you approach national reporting when so many metro papers are all but dead, and so many topics of coverage (agriculture, labor, religion) are underattended?

What role does the press play in an era when misinformation divides us? How do newspapers help address (and how cease to worsen) the increasing divisions among Americans?

What does journalism’s addiction to conflict do to sap the nation of hope?

Come to think of it, how about this, Joe Kahn? You are about to join two other top editors still fairly new in their posts: Sally Buzbee of the Washington Post and Kevin Merida of the Los Angeles Times. All three of you are leading influential news organizations owned by individuals or families intent on strengthening them. Of course newspapers alone can’t solve all the problems caused by unregulated tech, media illiteracy, political division and cultural change. But what these three organizations do, matters. What you three editors do, matters. And you can make it matter still more. Launch a discussion of these questions. Invite thoughtful leaders to join you. Bring the issues to national attention. And deepen your own sense of mission along the way.

Kahn’s best statement during all this coverage was this: “I strongly believe the Times needs to ground its journalism in deep reporting, open-mindedness, curiosity and empathy. There is no such thing as perfect neutrality, and defaulting to ‘both side’ framing on divisive issues can be insufficient and misleading. But the journalistic process needs to be objective and transparent, and we need to challenge ourselves and our readers to understand all the facts and explore a wider range of perspectives.”

That’s a sound, if conventional, beginning. But our times call for greater depth. Consider this from a Commission on Freedom of the Press in 1947, another period of upheaval: “With the mean of self-destruction that are now at their disposal, men must live, if they are to live at all, by self-restraint, moderation and mental understanding. They get their picture of one another through the press. The press can be inflammatory, sensational and irresponsible. If it is, it and its freedom will go down in the universal catastrophe. On the other hand, the press can do its duty by the new world that is struggling to be born. It can help create a world community by giving men everywhere knowledge of the world and of one another, by promoting comprehension and appreciation of the goals of a free society that shall embrace all men.”

Promoting comprehension and appreciation of the goals of a free society that shall embrace all. Sure beats independence.

Geneva Overholser, former editor of the Des Moines Register, also worked at the Washington Post. New York Times and Colorado Springs SUN.

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