CJR Says New Times Editor Joe Kahn Faces the Same Old Questions

From a story by CJR’s Mathew Ingram headlined “New editor at the Times faces the same old questions”:

A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, announced that Joseph Kahn would succeed Dean Baquet as the paper’s next executive editor in June. Kahn, 57, is a former international and managing editor of the paper, and also a Pulitzer Prize-winning former China correspondent. A profile in New York magazine describes Kahn as “the ultimate inside man” at the Times, someone for whom being named to the top job was almost a foregone conclusion. But some believe his status as a long-time company man could make it difficult for him to navigate the political and cultural challenges the paper faces.

Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of CJR, wrote in a piece about Kahn’s appointment that the choice of a new executive editor has drawn even more scrutiny than usual. “The residue of the Trump years, and fears that the former president will return for another campaign, have put the Times in the bull’s-eye of the journalistic debates over objectivity and both-sides coverage,” Pope wrote. In picking Kahn, he argued, the paper has sent a clear message that it “has no plans to rethink its approach.” Sulzberger described the paper’s approach to its coverage of Trump and other related topicsin 2018, saying: “We won’t be baited into becoming ‘the opposition.’ And we won’t be applauded into becoming ‘the opposition.’”

What those within the paper see as a commitment to independence is seen by some outside the Times as a failure to address reality. Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, responded to that Sulzberger comment in 2018, writing that some longtime Times readers “want Times journalists to see what they see—an assault on democratic institutions, the corruption of the American Republic.” Inside the Times, however, Rosen says these kinds of people “are perceived as a threat.” The paper’s own piece on Kahn’s appointment says 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.” Rosen suggested this passage should instead read: “The Times is struggling with a model of political coverage that assumes a rough symmetry between the two parties at a time when one of the two has turned anti-democratic.”

Dan Froomkin, editor of Press Watch, likened Kahn’s take on the objectivity question to Baquet’s, based on a speech Kahn gave in 2017, when he was assistant managing editor. At the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s annual gala, Kahn said some of the paper’s readers “want us to more forcefully confront a president they see as a threat to democracy and American power,” but that the managers of the Times “have decided it is not in our journalistic or business interest to do that.” For those kinds of decisions, Dan Gillmor, who runs a journalism lab at Arizona State University in Phoenix, said the Times “will be remembered as a great news organization that willingly served the people who hated the American republic.”

Prior to Kahn’s appointment, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the Times‘ award-winning 1619 Project, said on Twitter, “I’ve been thinking more and more that newsrooms need to hold an all-staff meeting where they invite democracy experts & historians in & really do a massive reset of how we are covering what’s happening in our country right now. It’s not about partisanship but covering reality.” She added that she believes “we will look back and be appalled at the failures of journalism in this period of clear and, in my lifetime, unprecedented, attacks on freedom of speech and our democratic institutions.”

The commitment that the Times and other newspapers have to the principle of objectivity has come under fire in recent years, including from Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter, in a widely shared opinion piece published in 2020. “Since American journalism’s pivot many decades ago from an openly partisan press to a model of professed objectivity,” Lowery wrote, “the mainstream has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses.” The contours of acceptable debate, he said, “have largely been determined through the gaze of white editors. The views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral.”

In his piece on Kahn’s appointment, Pope noted that recent decisions by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post “to fill their own open executive-editor positions with people from outside their organizations (and outside a succession of white men)” led some to hope that the Times might also look to break with tradition in that regard, but it clearly chose not to do that. One reason for this decision, Pope argued, could be that things seem to be going so well for the paper of late, at least from a business perspective: “Ultimately, it was the Times’ financial and editorial successes under Baquet, Kahn, and their colleagues that mitigated the need for a leadership gambit.”

Sulzberger acknowledged as much in his note to Times‘ staff on Tuesday, when he said that “some will interpret this promotion as a sign of confidence in our current path” and then added emphatically, “That’s true. Under Dean and Joe, the Times has grown stronger in virtually every way.” Whether those strengths include the ability to put aside a doctrinaire approach to objectivity and consider the threats to democracy on its doorstep remains to be seen.

More on the Times

  • Sturdy: In New York magazine, Shawn McCreesh describes how two former executive editors of the Times—Howell Raines and Jill Abramson—”self-destructed spectacularly in public after losing the faith of the Sulzberger family,” but says that this fate seems unlikely for Kahn. “He is the ultimate inside man, so sturdy, disciplined, and reverential to the mission of the Timesthat the very notion of him self-destructing seems improbable.” Kahn, writes McCreesh, is “a fabulously wealthy Bostonian” who, superficially at least,  “seems more akin to Bill Keller, the son of a Chevron CEO.”
  • Steel: After returning to New York in 2008 from China, Kahn helped launch the Times’ Chinese-language website, a large financial investment at a difficult time for the company. In 2012, the site published an investigation into the hidden wealth of China’s ruling class, and the Chinese government blocked access to the site from within the country. (It remains blocked today). Sulzberger told the Times the episode was an illustration of Mr. Kahn’s commitment to journalistic independence. “It was a really remarkable moment where you learned a lot about the steel in that guy’s spine,” the publisher said.
  • History: In 2019, Amber A’Lee Frost wrote for CJR about“Why the Left Can’t Stand the New York Times.” The paper, she said, is “the flagship publication for liberal triumphalism; it holds the line of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’—the notion that all serious ideological conflict crashed to a halt with the suspension of the Cold War, with very little at stake in future political disputes beyond regional trade accords and fine-tuning of currency regimes.”

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