The Times’ Latest Woke Kerfuffle

A.G. Sulzberger
Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty
Dylan Byers
March 18, 2022

One quirk of living on the West Coast is that, waking up three hours behind New York and Washington, I often arrive at the media fracas du jour from the extremity of its outrage radius, and then have to work my way toward the epicenter. The first thing I read on Friday morning, at 6:15 a.m., was a tweet from Adam Davidson, the podcasting pioneer and journalist, who wrote a much-heralded column for the Times Magazine during the height of the Hugo Lindgren era. “If I still worked at the NYT,” Davidson tweeted, “I would seriously think about quitting today.” 

I then noticed that my friend and fellow Puck partner, Peter Hamby, had offered a characteristically savvy macro-view on “the debate over the NYT editorial” (essentially, that it didn’t really matter). Finally, after perusing some more tweets from Blue-Check Media, most of them quite critical of whatever apparently egregious crime the New York Times editorial board had just committed, I arrived at the scene of the purported original sin: A lengthy editorial arguing that Americans “are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.”

Whatever your views on the state of public discourse these days, the editorial left itself vulnerable to criticism from the outset. On some level, it seemed at times like one of those ambitiously lofty pieces, written by multiple people, which never quite articulated whatever it had been truly intended to posit, and instead pissed off everyone with its facile platitudes that read like a corporate dispatch from the Mount Olympus of hyper-privileged liberal democracy. Its tone occasionally gave off the whiff of annoyed Dalton alums who worry that they can no longer say whatever the hell they want—without proper recognition that many have long been deprived of that right in the first place.

There is, of course, no “fundamental right” in the U.S. Constitution that protects a citizen from being shunned or shamed—and indeed, the acts of shunning and shaming, like speaking your mind in public, are equally protected by the Constitution by virtue of not being mentioned at all. This is a point the editorial board itself finally takes into account, halfway down the piece, when noting the distinction “between what the First Amendment protects,” which is “freedom from government restrictions on expression,” and “the affirmative right to speak your mind in public, on which the law is silent.” The editorial also declined to cite any examples of canceled individuals and instead relied almost entirely on recent polling of public sentiment, including its own national survey showing that 84 percent of adults think it’s a problem that Americans “do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.”

Presumably the editorial was conceived as a well-meaning attempt to suggest what many already know—that our culture is divided, that our rhetoric is filled with contempt and animosity, and that the best solution (perhaps the only one) is free, open, non-judgmental communication, empathy, and attempts at acceptance in all forms. Regardless, it turned out more like the first draft of a Laura Ingraham A-block monologue than many on the left would have liked. And that, in part, is what had Media Twitter, which watches The Times like a rare bird, all in a twist.

My own informal survey of Times staff, media executives and other news media insiders yielded the following consensus on the Times piece: the thesis was loosely, perhaps directionally, right, but the delivery was misguided. American culture certainly feels more censorious now than in decades past—not in a Putin can put you in jail for 15 years for criticizing the Russian military sort of way, of course, but at least in a you might lose your job, or your invitation to speak at a college campus, for saying something un-P.C. sort of way. In fact, the piece goes out of its way to explain significant hypocrisies on the right. The Republican legislative efforts to “gag discussion of certain topics,” as the Times put it, such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” also provides a strong example of “cancel culture” from the side that is usually the most adamant about the dangers of “cancel culture.” 

At the same time, the insistence that the core American value of “speaking freely” is under threat, without much evidence of individuals or institutions that have been banished to cultural Siberia, seemed less than comprehensive, especially when some of our most notable cultural figures—Joe Rogan, Tucker Carlson, etc.—are rewarded and supported for having ever-more incendiary points of view.

Whatever the case, what I found most notable about the editorial was not what it said about “cancel culture,” but what it said about the Times, and the direction of American media institutions generally. The editorial, I learned today from sources familiar with the matter, was effectively commissioned by the paper’s publisher A.G. Sulzberger, and had been in the works for several months. This is doubly notable given that Sulzberger has made an effort to pull back on unsigned editorials, an arguably archaic practice that some newsrooms have done away with entirely. The Times used to publish about 20 of these a week; it now averages one to two. In conversation, Sulzberger has at least entertained the rationale for doing away with unsigned editorials altogether, sources who have spoken with him told me.

While the Ochs-Sulzberger dynasty has articulated a more than century-long commitment to “the fearless exchange of information and ideas,” this most recent iteration of that argument can’t be divorced from the Times’ own internal politics, and its own recent run-ins with “cancel culture.” In recent years, Opinion editor and presumptive Dean Baquet successor James Bennet was pushed out after his desk published an extremely unpopular piece by Senator Tom Cotton urging military intervention during America’s latest, and overdue, racial awakening in the summer of 2020. Bari Weiss, who had been hired by Bennet to express views outside of the Times’ typical center-left sweet spot, left in a huff after accusing her colleagues of essentially mean-girling her out of the building over her politics. Each exit has its own unique backstory, of course, with more going on behind the scenes than a mere affront to political sensitivities. Nevertheless, it’s clear the Times remains on awkward footing when it comes to hosting views from the right. 

The Times is the core asset of a large publicly-traded company that is filled with thousands of journalists, many of whom have large followings and healthy egos. It also has legions of observers and detractors. Sometimes the shit will hit the fan. But perhaps what is most interesting here is a microcosm of what CNN is going through. Like many media organizations, the Times held Donald Trump’s feet to the fire from 2016 to 2020, and in the process it greatly expanded, inadvertently or otherwise, its unprecedented street cred as the culture product of the Left. But Republicans buy subscriptions, too, and more importantly, they also play a role in the discourse. To their immense credit, the Sulzberger family has never wanted to become some MSNBC-styled liberal media organization. But in the tribalized America of 2022, it can be tricky.

In this climate, the Sulzberger-commissioned editorial can also be read not just as a declaration of the Times’ commitment to long-standing values, but as something of a declaration of resistance against “wokeness” and some of the most censorious impulses of its left-leaning staff members, who have been able to exert significant pressure on the Times both internally and via Twitter. In Friday’s piece, the editorial board said it “plans to identify a wide range of threats to freedom of speech in the coming months, and to offer possible solutions.” It will be interesting to see what happens if and when the threat emanates from inside the building.

It’s notable that this pull toward long-held institutional values is happening right now. As noted above, America’s other global news brand, CNN, is moving to tone down progressive opinion and analysis and tack back toward a more news-oriented center. Across the media ecosystem, in the wake of Trump’s presidency, major news brands have been grappling with how to rebalance their reporting product after four years of principled but often self-righteous coverage that left large swaths of the population alienated by their leftward tilt and more distrusting of media institutions. Even MSNBC, the longtime home of liberal icons like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes, is now leaning back toward the center with another hour of former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough in the morning and a former Bush aide, Nicolle Wallace, as a likely successor to Maddow. 

Earlier this week, John Harris, the founding editor of Politico, noted with approval that the Times had decided not to cancel its reporter Matthew Rosenberg after he was caught in a Project Veritas video sting saying that left-leaning “woke” reporters and editors at the Times were making “too big a deal” out of the Jan. 6, 2021 riot—comments which had incited an uproar among many of his colleagues. Harris half-hoped, half-predicted that “this episode may be a small step in the early phase of a larger trend—the gradual dissipation of ‘cancel culture,’ and the increasingly dreary debate over people getting in trouble for saying things that offend prevailing sensibilities.”

It’s too soon to tell whether Harris’s thesis will bear out. But recent behavior from the Times and CNN, two of America’s most influential media outlets, does seem to suggest some trend away from the wokest days of American journalism.