The latest absurdity in American journalism is the forced resignation of the veteran New York Times reporter Donald McNeil Jr for uttering the word ‘nigger’ in front of a group of teenage tourists on a Times-sponsored trip to Peru. It has been justly ridiculed by many sane conservatives and even some courageous liberals. Although the infraction happened more than a year ago, calls for reason have had no practical effect against the demands online and inside the Times that McNeil be fired after the Daily Beast revealed the teenagers’ complaints. McNeil’s own defence is that he used the racial epithet as information with the high school students, not as an insult. This cut no ice with the hanging judges of Times-world. Neither did the discovery of many examples of the ‘N-word’ being published in the Times over the past two decades.
Instead, the paper doubled down. A piece written by the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens criticising the firing of McNeil by executive editor Dean Baquet and publisher A.G. Sulzberger was then pulled last week. It seemed that illiberal thinking at the Times, of the sort once frowned upon as McCarthyite, Soviet or Orwellian newspeak, had become official policy at the ‘paper of record’. Baquet was forced to admit that he made a mistake in his public rationale for McNeil’s departure, having previously stated that the speaker’s ‘intent’ doesn’t matter when it comes to racist epithets like the ‘N-word’. But the Times didn’t apologise or offer to rehire McNeil. Not even as a tour guide.
I’m happy to join in condemning this extraordinary illustration of the decline of American journalism and liberal thought. But I think the problem in the media goes deeper than political intolerance, which can end quite abruptly, as did Senator Joseph McCarthy’s four-year reign of terror against suspected communists in the US during the 1950s. This historical precedent gives me hope that the mainstream press will soon recognise how wrong is their campaign to substitute ‘diversity for all’ for ‘liberty and justice for all’ in what’s become a new US Pledge of Allegiance.
Yet I fear that even a restoration of the liberal order and an end to cancel culture cannot cure what ails the American press. For there no longer appears to be a consensus about what role journalism plays either in a democracy or a dictatorship, or why anyone with a pluralistic, oppositional or reformist bent would want to make a career in newspapers or magazines.
The McNeil affair is hardly exceptional in its grotesque unfairness, coming as it did after the firing of Times editorial page editor James Bennet last summer for publishing an op-ed piece that advocated the use of army troops to suppress the riots that followed the police killing of George Floyd. My preferred example of Stalinist intolerance was the less publicised defenestration of the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer for having dared to publish the headline ‘Buildings Matter, Too’ during the looting and arson that followed the Floyd killing in the birthplace of American Constitutional freedoms.
But to hear the most convincing US imitation of a Soviet-style bureaucrat, one must listen to the National Public Radio interview on The Takeaway, broadcast on 11 February, with Sarah Ellison, a Washington Post reporter devoted to the party line. Ellison was discussing the retirement of two white male editors, Marty Baron of the Post and Norman Pearlstine of the Los Angeles Times, and the eventual successor to Baquet at the Times. Needless to say, the changes offered marvellous opportunities for more ‘diversity’ in hiring. Ellison talked about the McNeil controversy, as well as the resignation of Andy Mills, another Times journalist, who was accused of sexual harassment — but only as they concerned more job openings for non-whites.
Never did she say anything about what used to be known as ‘the other side of the story’. There was nothing about the circumstances of McNeil’s departure or the protests against management’s position, internally at the paper and online among Times staffers, both current and former. Nor did the show’s host, Tanzina Vega, make any effort to draw Ellison out. Curiously, neither woman thought it worthwhile to mention the pertinent information, at least regarding diversity, that Baquet, who is black, replaced as executive editor Jill Abramson, a woman who was fired in 2014.
Is all this nonsense due to cowardice or conformity? Surely Ellison, Baquet and their bosses would say they agree that journalism is best when it opposes the reckless and arbitrary exercise of power by people like Donald Trump. But opposing Trump was easy, since nearly everything bad he did was blatant. In my experience, the more typical behaviour of American journalism is to go along to get along.
A perfect example was in the fall of 2004 when the Times, pressured by the Bush White House, killed a story by James Risen about the massive, secret and illegal surveillance operation being conducted by the National Security Agency on US citizens. At today’s Sovietised Times, this history has disappeared down Big Brother’s memory hole.
At the start of this year, the paper’s former publisher Arthur Sulzberger (father of A.G. Sulzberger) addressed readers in a column headlined ‘A Farewell From Our Chairman’ on the occasion of his retirement as head of its board of directors. In it he boasted that ‘my job’, among other daily tasks, had been ‘to provide whatever support the world’s best journalists needed to do their important work,’ such as ‘refusing a president’s request to spike a controversial story’.
This is not to say that establishment media don’t stand up to power now and again. I would argue, though, that fundamental caution and timidity are worse than political correctness in this era of suffocating obsession with race and gender. During her interview on NPR, Sarah Ellison stuck pins into two powerless journalists, McNeil and Mills, but she lavished praise on Baron, her boss at the Post, and Pearlstine, a paragon of orthodoxy who betrayed one of his reporters at Time magazine by turning over the reporter’s notes to a grand jury, thus revealing the identity of a confidential source. When you’re skewering white males, Ellison shows us, it pays to discriminate.
Still, despite all the visible hypocrisy and intellectual fraud in the air, I’m baffled by the Times’s fear of opprobrium from kids travelling on a ‘Student Journey’. At $5,500 per ticket, I suppose youth must be served, especially high school students for whom popularity is paramount. It’s just that I went into journalism thinking that what’s popular is often unjust, especially when it’s a lynch mob stringing up someone they simply don’t like.
We find ourselves in a topsy-turvy world that bears no resemblance to the world that existed when I was a young reporter with a clear notion of left and right, not to mention right and wrong. My role models in the 1970s were avowed left-wingers and renegades like I.F. Stone and Seymour Hersh, who opposed and exposed the destructive newspeak of the Vietnam War and its managers in the Johnson and Nixon administrations. They refused to be intimidated by Cold War tropes that stifled criticism. Out of this tradition, and from disgust with the compliance of the mainstream press with government lies, grew the ‘alternative press’ in which dozens of new newspapers and magazines, mostly left-wing weeklies, were founded to get some different version of the ‘truth’ out to the public.
Today, bizarrely, it is the right-wing press that serves this function. Rupert Murdoch’s sensationalist, pro-Trump New York Post published Bret Stephens’s spiked column, which was leaked to the Post as if it were samizdat in eastern Europe under communism. When we can’t depend on the mainstream media in America to give us some semblance of impartial reporting, and Murdoch is left to run the ‘alternative press’, we’re in a lot of trouble.