This past June, when the New York Times unceremoniously killed off its public editor position, publisher Arthur Sulzberger tried mightily to characterize the move as addition by subtraction. In a newsroom memo, he promised that a newly created “Reader Center” would make the paper’s reporting “more transparent” and its journalists “more responsive.” As FAIR (6/1/17) noted at the time, these excuses were disingenuous “rationalizations, not legitimate rationales,” and were more likely to make the paper less accountable and transparent in the long run. And this past weekend proved these fears were well-justified.
It started on Saturday, when the Times (11/25/17) ran a naive, normalizing profile of a Nazi sympathizer from the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio. Almost immediately, the paper (rightly) faced outraged comments online, as serious critiques of the piece’s flawed framing rolled in. As @magi_jay wrote in a detailed Twitter thread: “The Times failed in many respects, but, above all, they failed by enthusiastically allowing [Tony] Horvater to drive the narrative of his own white supremacy.”
Incredibly, even the writer of the profile, Richard Fausset, acknowledged in a companion piece (11/25/17) that his humanizing of a white supremacist was fundamentally flawed and failed to expose with necessary gravity his subject’s toxic racist and fascist beliefs. As the backlash boiled over, national editor Marc Lacey also wrote a response in the Times’ “Reader Center” (11/26/17) to further address the furor. To its credit, the paper appended both of these pieces to the top of the original story’s online version to give them more visibility.
Still, these attempts by the Times staff to engage with the tidal wave of external criticism were both insufficient and dismissive. The writer’s confessional was a relatively short column for the Times Insider section that betrayed a glaringly lazy approach and naive expectations for how to cover to a very difficult topic. In searching for the causes of bigotry in his subject, Fausset acknowledges that he “hoped the answer would fall in my lap” during his trip to interview the subject in person. Unsurprisingly, it did not, as this kind of parachuting in from afar to write a one-off story is the bane of intrepid journalism’s existence. While this approach might work for teeing up a celebrity promoting his or her latest summer blockbuster, forgoing real preparation and presuming a lack of complexity are a recipe for disaster when the subject involves our nation’s long, sordid history of enabling racism and white supremacy.
Fortunately for Fausset, his weak mea culpa would confront no further interrogation or questions from a Times public editor. Instead, he only faced hundreds of angry reader comments that he was free to—and did—ignore. As far as transparency and accountability goes, this amounted to a Kabuki version, offered purely on the writer’s terms. If an elected official had tried to orchestrate this kind of obvious, contrived damage control, the Times would be the first to cry foul—one hopes—and deservedly so. But when it comes to its own public mistakes, the Times’ editorial skin is as thin and as fragile as the paper on which it prints the news.
The “Reader Center” response by Lacey—who, as the paper’s national editor, assigned the story to Fausset—was no better. This too, should come as no great shock, unless you’re someone who has never heard the phrase “conflict of interest” before. Indeed, it was clear from the pugilistic headline—“Readers Accuse of Us of Normalizing a Nazi Sympathizer; We Respond”—that Lacey’s column was to be a defense of the story, the writer, his section and the paper itself.
In the smallest of victories, Lacey did agree that inexplicably including in the story a link to a right-wing website selling Nazi memorabilia was a bridge too far, and he had removed it. But that was about it for actual accountability. Though negative comments of the story dwarfed positive ones by a double-, triple- or even quadruple-digit ratio, Lacey was careful to cherry-pick a complimentary take to mitigate the outcry of the public’s overwhelming displeasure. And despite claiming he heard the thousands of critical comments “loud and clear,” Lacey nonetheless offered up a classic, blame-the-victim non-apology in a conclusion that was reminiscent of the worst of cable-news shout-fests, stooping to a patronizing false equivalence with an “agree-to-disagree, we’ll have to leave it there” takeaway:
We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers. We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.
This general dismissiveness and lack of engagement by the Times is utterly predictable. Institutions and the people that constitute them are rarely good at self-policing their own biases and blind spots. This reality of the human condition was the foundational reason for having an empowered, outside-looking-in public editor in the first place. To be truly transparent and accountable, news organization like the Times need someone who can fairly examine the paper’s coverage without being personally invested in it, and can also take a broader view of the problematic coverage beyond the paper’s margins.
In this case, the trend of mainstream media offering fawning profiles of far-right figures is already more than a year old (FAIR.org, 11/23/16). But by eschewing this internal due diligence, it’s a sure bet the Times and other corporate media organizations will keep repeating these failures when it comes to normalizing racism and fascism—and then keep failing to learn from them when they occur. Tragically, it is our democracy that will pay the price, as it continues to suffer along with the press’s negligence.