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The New York Times Is Finally Moving on From 2020
The paper has become much more ideologically diverse in recent months.
After the 2016 presidential election, The New York Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet issued a mea culpa. Writing in a note to employees, he said that “we’ve got to do a much better job of being on the road, out in the country, talking to different kinds of people than the people we talk to… and remind ourselves that New York is not the real world.” Baquet was, in so many words, acknowledging that the paper had underestimated Donald Trump’s appeal and misunderstood something fundamental about the country.
That recognition is why, after the election, the paper publicly committed to a new editorial direction to reflect “a broader range of perspectives in its pages.” The Opinion section took this charge on with particular enthusiasm, and within half a year had poached both the conservative columnist Bret Stephens and the editor and writer Bari Weiss from The Wall Street Journal. When the paper took its lumps from progressives who didn’t like this new direction, the top Opinion editor, James Bennet, responded with a strident defense of ideological diversity, open debate, and intellectual humility. Even National Review praised the fact that “hardly a week goes by without a column by” a prominent conservative.
Within a few years, however, any trace of this reform was gone. To fit within the bands of progressive acceptability that tightened significantly in the latter half of Donald Trump’s presidency, the paper narrowed both the content that it would publish and the journalists it would employ.
Looking back through the Opinion page’s archives from the post-George Floyd era, for instance, one would be hard-pressed to say that the paper was living up to its founding mission “to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.” The homogeneity of perspective was stifling on all culture war battlefronts, but none more so than regarding race and policing. From my tally, Times Opinion published around 50 pieces focusing on race in June of 2020. I could find only one that dissented substantially from the dominant progressive attitude. A similar, though perhaps less overt, lean entered the paper’s hard news reporting. From its coverage of the Covid lab leak theory to “The Central Park Karen,” the Times made reporting mistakes that, in each case, favored a progressive narrative.
The paper’s employee roster tells a related story of ideological intolerance. In the nine months from June 2020 to March 2021, for instance, three of the paper’s biggest names—James Bennet, Bari Weiss, and their top Covid reporter, Donald McNeil Jr.—were pushed out after they failed some progressive purity test. Bennet would eventually say that it had “felt like all my colleagues treat[ed] me like an incompetent fascist” and that the paper “blew the opportunity to make clear that The New York Times doesn’t exist just to tell progressives how progressives should view reality.”
But as the paroxysms of 2020 and 2021 fade, the Times seems to be moving on, too. The first sign that an ideological thaw might be happening came in August of 2021, when the paper hired John McWhorter, a left-leaning linguistics professor and author deeply critical of the left on cultural issues, as an Opinion writer. The second sign came seven months later, when the editorial board published an unequivocal defense of free expression entitled “America Has a Free Speech Problem.” A few days prior, the paper had moved Pamela Paul from her role as editor of the Book Review section to Opinion columnist, adding another critic of progressive excesses to the Opinion page’s roster. And this January, the Opinion section brought on David French, a former conservative writer at National Review and a fierce supporter of free speech.
It’s difficult to overstate how different the Opinion page looks now than it did just two years ago. Within the last two months or so, it published a number of pieces that are hard to imagine it allowing in 2020 or 2021. Two, in particular, stand out: one by Jesse Singal questioning the efficacy of DEI trainings and one by Pamela Paul defending J.K. Rowling from charges of transphobia.
On the reporting side of the paper, things look similarly hopeful. Consider, for example, the paper’s recent coverage of transgender issues, which is undoubtedly one of the most emotionally and ideologically charged issues of the day. In a number of thoroughly reported articles over the last year or so, the paper has explored the complex issues relating to gender identity—including medical treatment, youth transition, transgender athletes, parental rights, and hormone therapy—with great nuance and sensitivity. This is a sharp departure from the paper’s earlier approach, which was to report on the issue using narrow ideological blinders or just not touch the topic at all.
Just as encouraging is how the paper’s management responded to the indignant progressive response. One recent dust-up began when a group of New York Times contributors signed an open letter criticizing the paper’s reporting, saying that the Times’s coverage of gender diversity was a “mix of pseudoscience and euphemistic, charged language” and was following “the lead of far-right hate groups.”
The charges leveled in the letter were either vague complaints about the framing of certain topics, ad hominem attacks on authors, or tenuous accusations of bigotry. And the few specific allegations of factual inaccuracy that the letter did make were themselves factually incorrect. In effect, the letter was an attempt to intimidate the Times and its reporters out of covering the complexities of transgender issues at all and to hew instead to the activist-approved narrative and language.
The response from Times leadership was, in a word, excellent. Writing in an internal memo, the paper’s executive editor defended their reporting: “Our coverage of transgender issues, including the specific pieces singled out for attack, is important, deeply reported, and sensitively written… We do not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums.”
The paper’s refusal to cave and appease activists is especially heartening because it happened alongside other institutional reforms—most importantly, the Opinion section’s realignment, but also more minor changes, like the paper encouraging reporters to pay less attention to Twitter’s echo chamber.
Of course, as the whiplash between 2017 and 2020 shows, institutional change is not always long-lasting or permanent. Still, it’s important to recognize progress when we see it and give credit where it’s due. So while further improvements can no doubt be made, compared to just two years ago, the Times’ reporting is more trustworthy, its Opinion section more ideologically diverse, and its management more sturdy. Progressives who want the paper to be a walled garden might mourn this transformation, but the rest of us should feel free to celebrate.
Seth Moskowitz is a contributing editor at Persuasion. He also writes Brain Candy, a newsletter about politics and elections.
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