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Long before David Carr, the late Times media critic, published his 2008 memoir, “The Night of the Gun,” I asked him why he never wrote a book about newspapers and the rise of digital journalism. David, who had already gone fifteen rounds with life and was not prepared to wrestle with a book that would hold little popular interest, waved off my question, saying, “Have you ever noticed at Barnes & Noble that the books about media are on the fourth floor?”
Nevertheless, libraries are filled with books about the Times. There are volumes that celebrate and critique the paper and its history, ones that dissect its triumphs (the Pentagon Papers) and its low points (its derelict coverage of the Holocaust). What has yet to be examined in full is how the Times endured a prolonged era of financial decline, one so exigent that the Sulzberger family, which has owned the paper since the late nineteenth century, might have been forced to sell the paper—just as the Graham family would sell the Washington Post, for just two hundred and fifty million dollars, to Jeff Bezos. In 2009, Michael Hirschorn wrote in The Atlantic, “What if The New York Times goes out of business—like, this May? It’s certainly plausible. . . . The former Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal often said he couldn’t imagine a world without The Times. Perhaps we should start.” Instead, the Times reversed its fortunes, steadily transforming itself into a thriving, highly diversified digital enterprise while remaining the most important news-gathering organization in the country, and arguably the world. With the collapse of so many local and second-tier newspapers, with the disappearance of once promising sites like BuzzFeed News, the Times occupies a nearly singular place in American journalism, a fact that makes honest scrutiny of the paper in all its forms even more necessary than ever.
In December, 2017, A. G. Sulzberger, then in his late thirties, was named the publisher of the Times, the sixth member of the Ochs-Sulzberger family to lead the paper. After graduating from Brown University and holding reporting jobs in the newsrooms of the Providence Journal, the Oregonian, and the Times, Sulzberger, a calm, deliberative personality, was charged with accelerating the digital transformation that he had helped to initiate, and with deepening its success. What he might not have foreseen were the tensions that arose within his own newsroom, never a particularly placid realm in any era. Under his father’s reign, two executive editors, Howell Raines and Jill Abramson, had been fired; now there were challenges that were no less charged. The rhetoric of the Trump era insured regular attacks on the Times as a supposed purveyor of “fake news” and as a left-wing propaganda outlet. At the same time, a new generation of critics, inside and outside the newsroom, argued that the paper, despite its many investigative triumphs, was, in an era of authoritarian threat, too cautious, too reluctant to call things what they were. Meanwhile, critics on the right saw the paper as exceedingly “woke,” in thrall to tempests on social media and in its own newsroom.
At an off-the-record meeting in the Oval Office, in 2018, Sulzberger told Trump that the President’s anti-press rhetoric was “not just divisive but increasingly dangerous.” Sulzberger characterized his remarks for reporters only after Trump tweeted that he had lectured the Times publisher about the “vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media.”
Sulzberger’s defense of the Times only enhanced his reputation at the paper. Far more trying were his attempts to deal with internal newsroom debates during the pandemic and after, as well as prolonged (now concluded) negotiations with the NewsGuild, the union that represents members of the Times staff.
Recently, Sulzberger decided to write a long essay for the Columbia Journalism Review called “Journalism’s Essential Value.” The essay is hardly a fiery polemic; it studiously avoids confronting critics with any personal specificity. It also avoids the bombast of Abe Rosenthal, the legendary Times editor who prided himself on keeping the paper “straight” and yet was blind to his own prejudices and increasingly right-leaning politics. For reasons both dynastic and principled, Sulzberger is a traditionalist, and his essay is clearly written as a reaction to the polarized moment, inside and outside the journalism business. He confronts the many arguments over journalistic principle, method, and process that have been aired in recent years. I interviewed Sulzberger a couple of weeks ago (the morning after the Times signed an agreement with the union) for The New Yorker Radio Hour; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Since we first talked after you became publisher, a lot has happened at the Times. I’d like to start with your essay in the Columbia Journalism Review. I take it to be not only an assertion of what you call “independent” journalism but also a reassertion. What forces and trends are you reacting against?
It’s a reassertion of a principle that has been very much a constant in the history of the place. The New York Times was basically founded twice. It was founded once, in the eighteen-fifties, in the tradition of the era—the partisan press. It was essentially refounded, in 1896, when my great-great-grandfather, Adolph Ochs, purchased the paper. He made a commitment to readers that the New York Times would deliver the news impartially, “without fear or favor.”
Which was exceptional in those days. At that point, almost everything was in the hands of some partisan entity, whether it’s a political party or business interest.
That’s right. Gay Talese once wrote that this represented a publisher, an owner, pushing power down in the organization, pushing the power to the journalists, who are looking for the facts and seeking the truth and following it wherever it leads. That really set the Times on a new path. You could argue it set American journalism on a new path. That model obviously became the standard. In the last ten years, but really in the last five or six, in the Trump era, I’ve seen that model more fiercely contested than at any point in my career.
At the Times and elsewhere.
Across the industry, but certainly including the Times. Almost everyone I talk to says it’s more fiercely contested than at any point in their lifetimes. It’s been really striking to me that the people making the strongest arguments, the people who are putting the intellectual muscle behind this conversation about what is the role of journalists, ask, Should the role of journalists be to push for a certain cause or party or group or ideology or even a specific outcome on a specific issue? Or should the role of journalists be to independently follow the truth and try to arm the public with the facts and the context and the understanding it needs for this giant, diverse democracy to come together and self-govern?
And the latter view is your view and the traditional view.
That’s my view and the traditional view at the Times. I’ve been struck that a lot of the intellectual firepower has been making the opposite case. The traditionalists in the ranks have long believed that their view speaks for itself. I became increasingly convinced that the argument doesn’t make itself. Now, I’ve led a bunch of transformations at the Times. I’m certainly not afraid of change.
But, among those transformations that you led, the best known is the digital transformation of the Times. This issue of independence, as you put it, is something more ideological, intellectual, and political. How are you reading your own paper? Is there stuff in there that you are not happy with, or that you find overly ideological or tilted? What’s forced your hand to write this essay and make this reassertion?
I feel like I’ve led three transformations, actually. There’s the digital transformation of the newsroom. We now have the “Daily” podcast, which is bigger than the front page. There’s also been a cultural transformation. I’ve been very focussed on diversifying the company, bringing groups like product, design, and technology closer to the newsroom and building a more collaborative newsroom, right? And then obviously there’s the business transformation. And in each of these I take no credit. I’ve had great partners at every turn.
But leading transformations has really convinced me that the most important thing you can do is understand what is not changing first. You can call it either the mission of the place or even the soul of the place. If you’re not clear-eyed about what is enduring, then you don’t really have a reason for being. And, for me, all along, the thing that’s enduring is original, reported, independent journalism.
I wouldn’t say that there was any one moment where I said, “I need to say this.” It really emerged out of a dialogue I’ve been having for six years now with leaders inside the newsroom, with journalists and leaders outside our walls as well. I’m really grappling with the fact that we haven’t seen the full-throated argument for what independence is, why it matters, particularly in this moment when the stakes feel so high. It’s a case that reckons with a very thoughtful criticism of this model.
What are you pushing back against?
I think you’ll agree that one of the defining challenges of this era for our country, and indeed for the whole globe, but particularly for pluralist democracies, is polarization. I think there is a real risk that journalism will get swept up in those pressures and trends that have skewed the national discourse in a way that’s harmful to the country.
You seemed very careful in using the word “independence” as a watchword, as opposed to “objectivity.”
I feel like “objectivity” is a narrower word. “Independence” is the word with the longest tradition at the New York Times. It’s in my great-great-grandfather’s will, where he charges the family to maintain its stewardship of the New York Times.
You’re not quite being specific about what you’re pushing back against. Joe Kahn, your choice last year to be executive editor, has said, “You can’t be committed to independent journalism and be agnostic about the state of democracy.” What I’d ask is, is the New York Times explicitly pro-democracy? And how does that align with what you’re saying? Walter Lippmann, whom you quote in your piece, argued that journalists ought not to be serving a cause, no matter how good. Should the Times be serving the cause of liberal democracy, which is now under horrendous threat abroad and at home?
I think you’re hitting a couple different questions there. Look, the shortest answer of what I’m pushing back against is certitude. It’s journalists going into stories knowing the story they want to tell and knowing the outcome they want to drive toward. I think that that posture is a dangerous posture in journalism. I talk in the essay about journalism requiring a commitment to describing the world as it is, not the world as we may wish it to be, right? Journalism requires a posture of searching rather than knowing.
Let me just give a very specific example. Since the war in Ukraine started, we have had at least a dozen journalists on the ground every single day of the conflict. There is no “both sides” equivalency of what’s happened in Ukraine. Russia invaded in an unprovoked act of aggression and has committed a shocking string of atrocities. That is just objectively true. I’m not sure there’s another news organization in the U.S. that’s done more to expose those atrocities. One of the things that’s misunderstood about independence is that it doesn’t require you not to have a theory of the case, right? My great-grandfather had a line that he often quoted: “I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”
Now, my guess is that every one of the journalists on the ground wakes up every day thinking they are going to tell a story about Russian aggression, Russian atrocities, how Russia is hurting this country in an unjust war. But one day, last year [in April, 2022], a Times reporter [Thomas Gibbons-Neff] woke up and found a different story: the Ukrainian government was using cluster munitions, which are internationally banned. They’re internationally banned because they disproportionately kill civilians, particularly children. They didn’t do that so that we could balance a ledger. They did it because it was true. [The article was co-written by John Ismay.]
All sorts of people may question that, with everything that Ukraine’s been through. Why would you point to misconduct on the Ukrainian side? In fact, the Ukrainian government was angry enough about that reporting that they tried to eject that reporter from the country. But, if independent actors don’t track their usage, an international ban is toothless. And, ultimately, if the press decides that the good guys can use it, it leads you to two questions: Are we always right about who we are calling the good guy? And then, two, doesn’t that basically validate the bad guys using such weapons, too—and probably in a much more ruthless way?
So is the Times pro-democracy?
Of course. The Times serves the cause of the truth. An informed public, we believe, is the most important ingredient in a healthy democracy. We believe a common fact base is the most important ingredient in a democracy. Independent journalism—I don’t believe it’s nihilistic or amoral or valueless. If you look up the classic tenets of liberal democracy, it’s about rule of law, equality, and human rights. You would never see a story in the New York Times—or The New Yorker, for that matter—that argued against those things. You know, “Some say that everyone should have to obey the laws; others say that only the poor should.” Similarly with equality, right? You couldn’t imagine an argument against women having the right to vote. So it isn’t valueless. The challenge comes not in the top-line question. It comes in the questions that cascade underneath it.
What are the types of questions that come underneath it? If you are a Democrat and you believe that Donald Trump represents a threat to democracy, is it then anti-democracy for an organization like yours, David, to produce reporting that raises questions about the actions, conduct, or fitness of President Biden?
I think there are people who argue sometimes—I don’t want to caricature them—that, if your reporting is hypercritical of Biden, that it somehow serves the cause of his defeat, and therefore the rise or the re-rise of Donald Trump.
Exactly. And that’s the type of argument that the Ukrainian government made when we reported on their use of these internationally banned weapons.
Take the Hillary Clinton e-mail obsession [in the 2016 election]. There were a lot of people saying the Times is just writing incessantly about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, and that helped tilt the balance of the election.
I’ve heard thirty different arguments about what tilted the balance of that election. I hate going down any one of these rabbit holes because, as we know, every group in this era has one version of that argument.
About e-mails, it was the number of pieces, the proportion of coverage. It wasn’t the fact that it was being reported on at all.
I could point to a hundred other examples. We heard that from the Hasidic community with our coverage of how certain yeshivas in New York are depriving their kids of [a well-rounded education].
Eliza Shapiro’s excellent reporting.
Yes, and Brian Rosenthal. It was the same argument. It was, Hey, look, our group has good reason to feel vulnerable in this moment, when antisemitism is rising. And our group, which is a particularly visible part of the Jewish population, faces a disproportionate amount of antisemitism. Even if this information is true, having it out there on the front page of the New York Times makes it more likely that people will say bad things or do bad things that impact our community.
It’s important to hear what’s on the other side of that. Everything that I’ve just said is reasonable and true, right? That’s a community that faces a disproportionate amount of prejudice in this country, and it’s our job as journalists to represent that, just as it was our job as journalists, in the 2016 election, to represent all the things that Donald Trump promised and threatened, and the various ways he was defying and promising to defy long-standing American norms. I don’t think you’ll find another news organization that did more, and more aggressive, reporting on Donald Trump the candidate, and certainly not on Donald Trump the President.
But let’s go back to the yeshiva example. What’s on the other side of the ledger? On the other side are tens of thousands of students, kids who are being deprived.
Who are not learning English and math.
Members of the Hasidic community criticized our reporting, and very loudly. They sent a letter to the Pulitzer committee raising all sorts of concerns. But it is also true that we heard from countless members of the community saying, “We needed this.” The implicit request of the critics is to suppress such reporting: “It may be true, but, because it can be misused, we don’t want it out there.” But, if we had suppressed the reporting, more kids would be deprived of education. That is the posture of independence.
In 2004—this is long before you took the reins—the first public editor of the New York Times, Daniel Okrent, published a column headlined “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” And the first sentence of that column was “Of course it is.” Every time I’ve ever talked, certainly publicly, to a New York Times editor, and asked them, “Is the New York Times a liberal newspaper?,” they say no. That’s when they’re still in office. Afterward, it’s another matter. Why not come out of the closet and admit to being a liberal newspaper in the broadest sense?
“Coming out of the closet” suggests that we’re hiding something. I think the premise is simply not true. Like all the critiques of the independent model, I think there’s some truth in there. And I hope in the essay you see me grappling with it.
I talk, for example, about how almost everyone who works at the New York Times lives in the big city and graduated from college. That alone makes our staff unrepresentative. It means that we’re going to under-index in gun ownership, under-index in church attendance.
If you had an election in the newsroom about the Presidential election in 2016, what do you think the outcome would have been?
I’ve had Republicans really push on this question as well. I don’t ask who people—
Of course you don’t ask, but what’s your supposition?
I’m not going to suppose. Let me start at the high level and then go to the specific. The posture of independence is not about being a blank slate. It’s not about having no life experience, no personal perspectives. That is an impossible ask. That’s a parody of the long debate over objectivity. The idea of objectivity, as it was originally formulated, wasn’t about the person’s innate characteristics. It was about the process that helped address the inherent biases that all of us carry in our lives. So the question isn’t “Do you have any view?” The question is “Are you animated by an open mind, a skeptical mind, and a commitment to following the facts wherever they lead?”
I always find it helpful to point out that Michael Schmidt, the reporter who wrote much of the journalism that you just asked questions about—the Hillary Clinton e-mail reporting—is the same reporter who got most of the major scoops early in the Trump Administration about Trump’s efforts to undermine the Justice Department and the independent investigation into Trump’s relationship with Russia. I can point to so many reporters, right? Who did that reporting on Ukraine, right? It’s also a reporter who’s exposed a huge number of Russian atrocities, Thomas Gibbons-Neff.
The key isn’t being a blank slate. It’s not that you don’t have a theory going into any story. It’s a willingness to put the facts above any individual agenda. Think about this moment and how polarized this country is. How many institutions in American life do you believe are truly putting the facts above any agenda? Who has an independent posture and the desire to arm the public with the information it needs to reckon with all the giant existential challenges we face?
And yet the public distrusts us. The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal—our ratings are a misery.
We’ve seen a few things drive that. Let’s be absolutely clear: the former President of the United States, the current leader of one of America’s two political parties, has now spent the better part of seven years telling the public not just to distrust us but that we are the enemies of the American people, that our work is fake, manufactured. The term “enemies of the people” has roots in Stalin’s Soviet Union and in Hitler’s Germany.
But that wasn’t a downside for Trump. It had tremendous appeal. What’s more, our ratings, even before Trump’s ascension, were low. After Watergate, our ratings were extraordinarily high in American life.
I’ll push you to look at the data there. From Eisenhower to the arrival of Trump, you certainly saw periods of declining trust in the press, but the partisan gap was actually fairly consistent in that period.
I think there are other things that we need to reckon with on our end as well. We’re in an era that, because of social media, it is easier than ever for like-minded people to gather, to build their own narratives, in which the loudest and most extreme voices in those communities tend to rise. It’s easier for those groups to mobilize and be heard. Those are the fundamental dynamics of social media. We now see that the tolerance for journalists challenging group narratives has decreased. We used to only see that with abortion, with Israel-Palestine, with Presidential politics; those were the giant stories in American life that had all those dynamics where the sort of rhetoric and intensity always felt dialled up to ten. Now it’s everything.
Another dynamic inside our industry is that journalism, to some extent, has become an echo chamber. What do I mean by that? It’s been a while since I looked at your bio, but, if you are like many journalists of your generation and in my generation, you probably started at a local paper. That was the traditional path. And what was the day like for a journalist at that point? If you were a cub reporter, you were probably writing—
As you were at the Providence Journal.
You were probably writing one story a day to three stories a week somewhere. What were your days like? Every day, you were out in the communities you were covering. You were being confronted with the full diversity of this country and of the human experience. On the same day, you would talk to rich and poor, you’d talk to a mother who just had lost a son to murder, and a mother whose son was just arrested for murder, right?
Are you saying that’s changed? That reporters are just sitting in rooms in front of a screen? I don’t think that’s the case.
Of course it’s the case! It’s the least talked-about and most insidious result of the collapse of the business model that historically supported quality journalism. The work of reporting is expensive. As traditional media faded, and particularly local media faded, and as digital media filled that vacuum, we saw a full inversion of how reporters’ days were spent. The new model is you have to write three to five stories a day. And, if you have to write three to five stories a day, there is no time to get out into the world. You’re spending your time writing, you’re typing, typing, which means that you are drawing on your own experience and the experience of the people immediately around you. So, literally, many journalists in this country have gone from spending their days out in the field, surrounded by life, to spending their days in an office with people who are in the same profession, working for the same institution, living in the same city, graduating from the same type of university.
You are alluding also to something that is an enormous and ongoing trend in American life, and that is the collapse of local newspapers. Substantial cities in America have seen their newspaper, their main media outlet, either collapse entirely or have its newsroom shrink to the vanishing point. When Ben Smith started as the media columnist for the Times, having come from BuzzFeed News, his first column was about the potential dangers of the New York Times’ immense success. Now the distance between you and your competitors and your putative competitors has widened. I don’t see that it’s going to narrow in the near future. What are the perils of the Times’ success and its singularity, if that’s what it is?
Thank you for the kind words. I pushed back after Ben wrote that column because I think he even invoked the word “monopoly,” which I think shows how small our industry has been thinking. Would you call Peacock a giant success?
I don’t know the ratings.
No. But would you say that it is one of the great American success stories, at risk of towering over the industry?
I would not, but I think I know where this is going.
How about Paramount+?
I think we would both describe them as also-rans. Paramount+ currently has forty million subscribers. I believe that Peacock has about twenty million, give or take. The New York Times is approaching ten million subscribers right now. And we’ve worked hard at it, as you say. We were at a point that felt really perilous less than a decade ago.
You were cutting, cutting, cutting, and selling off businesses.
That’s right. And, eight years ago, when I started getting deeply involved in shaping the modern strategy of the New York Times, one of our biggest challenges and our highest aspirations was to make a market for great journalism in this country. You’ll remember that the skeptics thought it was ridiculous to try to make a paid market for journalism. We were widely ridiculed for launching a paywall, for asking people to subscribe to our digital news report.
The consultants who helped us launch it told us that, if we did everything exactly right, we might be able to get six hundred and fifty thousand subscribers. That was going to be our ceiling. Today we’re almost at ten million. But one of the things I’m proudest of is we didn’t just make a market for ourselves. The Washington Post has more subscribers than it’s ever had in its history. I’ve heard anything from two and a half to three million.
Although slipping lately.
Two and a half to three million is nothing to sneeze at. I think The New Yorker has more subscribers than at any time in your history. I think The Atlantic has more subscribers than at any time in its history. The Wall Street Journal has more subscribers than any time in their history. What do all those have in common? Those are the institutions that are still investing in the really resource-intensive reporting.
There is a problem, though, that comes with that. The Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Journal—they’re not cheap to get, and they are considered by many, you’ll forgive me, “élite media.”
Can I push you on that?
Of course you can. But hang on. The concern is that there’s also a widening gulf in the realm of information. Just as there’s an income-inequality problem in this country that gets worse and worse, there’s an informational divide. I’m not saying that A. G. Sulzberger can be responsible for it and make it all better with a stroke, but there is that problem.
I disagree with the hypothesis. I think there is an information problem, but I think it’s about the collapse of local news. I think that that is an American tragedy, a dangerous and insidious force in American life.
Do you have any responsibility as an ascendant—
Responsibility? Let me get to that. At the peak of COVID, half of Americans were using the New York Times to get essential information about how to navigate the pandemic. On Election Day, we typically have more than a third of the country using the New York Times. We have fewer than ten million subscribers. “The Daily” reaches far more people than our front page and is free. The morning newsletter, which lands in six million mailboxes every morning, is free. Why am I saying this? Because I think there’s often sort of an imaginary person who wants to read these sources but is being boxed out of reading quality news because of the cost. I really don’t believe that is a real population in any significant number.
I assume your hope, though, is that people who do avail themselves of those free services will subscribe.
I think it is so interesting that our industry is obsessed with making the news free, even though the news is so expensive to create. The New York Times was the only newspaper that had a full-time presence in Iraq and Afghanistan every day of those conflicts and still has a full-time presence in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Think about the implication of that. Had the New York Times not borne the cost of covering this war on behalf of the American public, we would’ve had a conflict where American troops were on the ground, but no American journalists to hold them to account, to bring the reality of the conflict back to the American people. I think there’s been this hangover from the terrible conventional wisdom of the early Internet that “information wants to be free.”
Let’s go to a painful moment. In June, 2020, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the Op-Ed page published a piece by Senator Tom Cotton. [The piece, headlined “Send in the Troops,” argued that the federal government ought to put down the “orgy” of violence that Cotton said was being led by nihilists and “antifa.” Many readers and staff readers thought the piece was inflammatory, racist, and rife with inaccuracy. Following an emotional town-hall meeting held over Zoom, James Bennet, the editor of the editorial pages, was forced to resign, and eventually went to work as a columnist for The Economist. He later said that he had been treated by some colleagues like an “incompetent fascist.” Another editor and columnist, Bari Weiss, soon left the paper and, in her resignation letter, said an “illiberal” atmosphere prevailed at the paper, where, if you “go against the grain. . . . Eventually, the publisher will cave to the mob, the editor will get fired or reassigned, and you’ll be hung out to dry.”] How do you look back at that episode?
As you say, it was a painful episode. I’ve had an unusually eventful six years in the role. I would say it is among the most challenging moments of my tenure. I was named to this role just before Trump’s election. I was there for the pandemic, and I was going fully remote. So, yes, this was a difficult moment—one that, as you can imagine, I’ve reflected on a ton. A lot of people wanted that episode to basically be a proxy for our view on this principle of independence and the very particular way the principle of independence manifests on the Op-Ed page—or in our Opinion pages, as we now call them.
The thing the episode underscored more than anything else was: of course principle matters—it’s the first and most important thing. But process matters. And execution matters. I don’t want to go into too much detail because I have so much respect for all the folks who are involved. I don’t want to reopen what I’m sure, for many, is a really difficult episode. But, as an editor, if you had looked at this piece, you would’ve said, This is going to be one of the most controversial pieces I’m going to run all year. And if you had decided that it was an important piece and that it met your standards, you would’ve put it through the ringer to make sure that you got everything nailed down. You would’ve thought about the headline and the presentation. You would’ve made sure that every bit of it was perfectly fact-checked the same way that when, you know, the newsroom counterparts have a giant investigation into, say, when we got Trump’s taxes, which he had been hiding from the public for years. Dean [Baquet, the former executive editor] was involved in every single step. His closest deputies were involved. There are a lot of cooks in that kitchen. You put it through a lot of steps, but, as was widely reported at the time, this piece was rushed in, and it showed. So my main takeaway is that the disciplines of the journalistic process are essential to supporting the underlying principle of independence. It’s not enough just to have the principle and wave it around. You also have to execute on it, especially in an era in which that principle is frontally under attack.
One of the arguments was that Cotton’s piece somehow endangered the lives of Times reporters, particularly Times reporters of color. Did you believe that was true?
You have to remember when that argument was being made and the context in which it was being made. It was five months into the pandemic, when everyone had been locked inside for this whole time. People were dying all over New York City. The ambulances never stopped. And then we saw the eruption of the single largest social-justice protest movement in this country in a half century.
Sparked by a hideous murder.
And in that context I’m sympathetic to how folks felt. Going back to the principle, some folks wondered if this marked a retreat for the Times from independence or a commitment to having a wide range of controversial views on our Op-Ed page. I’d point to the thing we did, not just, like, months later but that very week, which is we ran a series of pieces attacking the New York Times for its handling of that piece, attacking me in the Times, for our handling of that piece in our own pages from the left, right, and center. Some folks pushed back, saying we should never have run the piece at all. And some folks pushed back that we should have stood behind it and defended it at every turn.
A broader thought about Opinion: I would just say, look, three years after that episode, do you feel that, on the Times Opinion pages, are you regularly seeing pieces from every side of the political spectrum on the abortion debate? On business and economic questions? Social and political questions? I think you do. I’d argue that, under Katie [Kingsbury, who replaced Bennet], you’re seeing more of them than ever. I think you see that she’s just hired another conservative columnist, our first evangelical columnist, also a military veteran.
David French, who’s done extraordinary work for us so far. She’s worked hard to broaden the number of voices coming into the Op-Ed page.
Would you hire a Trumpist on the Op-Ed page?
This is a question I’ve been getting now for six years, and it’s a really tricky one. It’s trickier than it sounds, and I bet you have a suspicion on why. It is harder than you’d think to find the Trumpist who hasn’t, at some point, said, “The 2020 election was rigged, and Donald Trump won the election.”
I get it. But a huge number, tens of millions of people, either tolerate that point of view or believe it.
Yeah. But independence is not about “both sides.”
So you would not have a Trumpist who said that at some point writing on your Op-Ed page?
We would not have anyone who—
But you’d have guest columnists like Tom Cotton—
We certainly would not have a columnist who has a track record of saying things that are demonstrably untrue.
But a guest column—you would publish Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, anybody running for President for the Republican Party nomination?
That’s a tricky one, because I literally don’t know what our process of fact-checking everything that every person who’s running a guest essay is. We certainly would never let someone who’s written a guest essay say anything demonstrably untrue.
The Times published a column by Vladimir Putin.
Yeah. We’ve published a column by the head of the part of the Taliban that kidnapped one of our own journalists.
I’m not suggesting you’d hire Vladimir Putin as your foreign-affairs columnist or anything of the like, but you’re trying to do something else. I think, by publishing such a column, you’re trying to represent—I’m trying to give the rationale—the viewpoint of someone who has enormous influence.
I think that Katie would probably describe her job as trying to help steer readers through the ideas and perspectives that are shaping the world right now. I don’t think you can do that by only presenting a certain section of views and ideas. I often hear that people’s favorite columnist is the one that they agree with the least, because it’s the one who challenges them. They may almost never agree, but they’ll always learn something.
In the wake of the Cotton column and what followed, Bari Weiss resigned from the paper, and, in a letter to you that she made public, she said that the paper was now ceding control to forces that ranged from Twitter to people in the newsroom who, in fact, did not agree with you or your great-great-grandfather’s notion of an “independent” newspaper. Did gestures like hers, her letter, help drive you to write this reassertion of what the Times should be all about?
This wasn’t a response to any event, and I certainly didn’t agree with that characterization. I wanted to join a conversation that our profession has been having for years about its purpose and posture, one that I increasingly felt would benefit from a robust defense of this core value of journalistic independence. Given that the Times—and my family—has committed itself to this value for well over a century, I felt well situated to make such a case. As unfashionable as it may seem, I continue to believe that society—and particularly a diverse, democratic society like ours—needs truly independent actors committed above all else to seeking the truth and fostering understanding.
Maureen Dowd recently published a column lamenting the decline of the old-style newsroom as a place you came to every day and where there was a lot of interaction and it was noisy and busy. From everything I hear, whether it’s in the Washington bureau of the Times or [in the office] on West Fortieth Street, it’s a lot less populated than it used to be. Do you agree with Maureen Dowd’s depiction of this?
I think hybrid has value, and I think it’s here to stay. To put it in personal perspective for a second, I had this crushing moment, two weeks into the pandemic, when my wife turned to me and said, “You’ve now had dinner more times with your two-year-old than all the other nights of her life combined.”
That was a hard one to hear, right? Babies go to bed early, and folks with jobs like mine stay at work late, and I have a long subway commute back to Brooklyn. The hybrid model has real advantages. One of the advantages is there’s a certain type of work where it’s sort of nice to lock yourself in a room and focus, such as writing or thinking. I think all of us need to make more time to do that. So I believe in the hybrid model, but I really believe in the in-person part of the hybrid.
To another controversial moment. Recently, leaders of the Times were not at all pleased with a letter criticizing the paper’s coverage of trans issues. Regardless of your objections to the way that letter was handled, or that specific reporters were singled out, did you find any of the criticisms to be valid?
Look, we’ve listened deeply. Joe Kahn and his senior editing team have met with a bunch of groups—inside groups, outside groups—who have raised concerns about the coverage. I want to say unequivocally that I think the accusation that the Times’ coverage has been anti-trans is just demonstrably untrue. I’d encourage anyone who has the slightest bit of skepticism of that just to type in the phrase “transgender issues New York Times” and go to the landing page that’s populated with everything we’ve written. You will find hundreds of stories there doing the very thing that we’ve been accused of not doing right. We’re chronicling the dismaying rise of prejudice and bigotry and attacks that the trans community is facing, and all the efforts at the state level to undermine trans rights.
But part of our job is also to write the stories that society is working through—stories that are less cut-and-dried. We’ve never written a story that questions whether trans people exist or should exist, which is an accusation I’ve heard from many corners. That is just factually untrue. But it is our journalistic responsibility as an independent news organization to reflect, for example, the very real debates happening in the medical community, and even among trans people and parents of trans people, about what type of medical intervention should happen for minors, and when the risk of not acting outweighs the risk of acting. These are questions that the medical community is actively working through. There’s an active debate there. Our critics have effectively asked us to pretend that debate is not happening for fear that the information could be misused. That fear is legitimate, that some of this information will be misused. There are all sorts of bad-faith actors who are trying to undermine trans people and attack trans rights in this country.
You’re saying that there’s nothing in the critique that you thought, O.K., they have a point here or there?
On the story I’m citing right now, I know we did make a correction, but—
What I was building toward is that those folks, people within the trans community, people who have dedicated their lives to caring for people within the trans community, have written us notes at times begging us not to stop this reporting. What they’ve said is that their greatest fear is that they get to a world in which the only information they have is in talking points of various groups: the talking points that people want to crack down on trans people and the talking points of trans advocates, who are trying to make the strongest case for trans rights in this country. What they’ve said is, these are life-and-death decisions. These are decisions involving personal health. We need information we can trust. And, if there’s a debate happening in the medical community, we don’t want that hidden from us.
A. G., are you willing to say what your own politics are? I worked for Len Downie, who was the executive editor of the Washington Post after Ben Bradlee. Len not only wouldn’t reveal his politics; he didn’t vote. You grew up and live in New York City. You went to Brown. Everything tells me that you’re pulling the Democratic Party lever—if not every single time, then ninety-odd per cent of the time. Why not say it and still be committed to independent journalism?
The thing I feel most passionately about in the world is that society needs independent actors and independent journalists. I just believe it. There is nothing I feel more strongly than that. I do not believe any one person will ever have the full truth.
I get that. But does that require you to avoid saying anything about your politics?
I was really struck, as I’ve learned about the Red Cross, that everyone, particularly Western nations, wants the Red Cross to declare an allegiance in [the Russia-Ukraine] conflict. They want the Red Cross to say that Ukraine is right. The Red Cross is stubbornly asserting that the world needs an independent actor to enforce the laws of war—and that, if they say [that Ukraine is the victim and Russia the aggressor], that it’s going to be harder for them to get access to the prisoners on the Russian side, it’s going to be harder for them to push the Russian government. Their belief is that society benefits when you have independent actors who are committed to this sort of classically liberal ideal. The classical liberal ideals of rule of law, of the international order. And I believe that that’s the case. I believe that’s the case with the judiciary. I believe that’s the case with medicine. I believe that there are these parts of the world where we want independent actors.
So it must irritate you that some of your reporters go on television or social media and very blatantly declare their politics. I mean, without naming anybody, it’s very clear that must fly in the face of this kind of Red Cross model of at least the appearance of—what would you call it?
Independence. I’m aware of how old-fashioned this sounds, but I guess what I would ask you is this: In this hyper-politicized, hyper-polarized moment, is society benefitting from every single player getting louder and louder about declaring their personal allegiances and loyalties and preferences? Or do you think there’s space for some actors who are really committed just to serving the public with the full story, let the facts fall where they may?
The media business is, over-all, an unpredictable one. As we said earlier, it wasn’t so long ago that common wisdom was that the prospect for the Times was perilous, and you have said as much; now the common wisdom is, and it seems completely true, that the Times has not only found real stability, it is thriving, journalistically and financially. What concerns you most about the future for the Times in a generally unpredictable business? If being in your position is partly a matter of trying to anticipate things, what worries you financially, technologically, or editorially?
As you may be able to tell, I’m generally skeptical of conventional wisdom, especially when it comes to predicting the future of journalism. There is not a great track record over the last couple of decades.
It’s certainly true that quality national news organizations like the Times, the Post, the Journal—or The New Yorker, for that matter—are in a much stronger position than they were a decade ago, when it looked like many would simply be swept away by the digital tides. But it’s also true that the environment we operate in continues to grow more challenging by the day.
Trust in the media continues to crater to new lows. Attacks on journalists are getting worse. We’re seeing startlingly direct efforts to undermine core press freedoms that seemed secure just a few years ago. Those trends are existential. Then there is the business challenge of making enough money to scale the original reporting that I believe society depends on—including accountability reporting—to refill the vacuum that emerged across the country in the last two decades, particularly at the local level, where a heartbreaking number of reporter and editor jobs continue to disappear. And behind all this looms artificial intelligence, which may represent an even larger disruptive force on our industry and the broader information ecosystem than the arrival of the Internet.
So this is all to say that no one in our industry should be complacent or think we have anything figured out. This is a perilous time for the free press. That reality should animate anyone who understands its central importance in a healthy democracy. ♦