The New York Times entered the digital era under duress. In 2011, the Times erected a paywall in what it called a ‘subscription-first business model’. The gamble was that readers would want to pay for quality journalism. It was a risk, and at first it didn’t seem to be paying off: after a challenging 2014, the company shed 100 people from the newsroom in buyouts and layoffs.
A.G. Sulzberger, who was getting ready to replace his father as publisher, commissioned an in-house report, its title ‘Innovation’. The report made it very clear who was to blame. A journalist’s job, the report said, no longer ended with choosing, reporting and publishing the news. To compensate for the ‘steady decline’ in advertising revenue due to digitization, ‘the wall dividing the newsroom and business side’ had to come down. The ‘hard work of growing our audience falls squarely on the newsroom’, the report said, so the Times should be ‘encouraging reporters and editors to promote their stories’.
Of course, journalists have always been aware who their readers are and have catered to them, consciously and unconsciously. But it was something else entirely to suggest that journalists should be collaborating with their audience to produce ‘user-generated content’, as the report put it. ‘Innovation’ presaged a new direction for the paper of record: become digital-first or perish.
The Times invested in new subscription services like NYT Cooking and NYT Games, and introduced live events, conferences and foreign trips. The paper hired an ad agency to work in-house and began allowing brands to sponsor specific lines of reporting. Journalists were asked to accompany advertisers to conferences and were pushed to collaborate more closely with the business side, something many of the old-school editors were loath to do. The executive editor at the time, Jill Abramson, resisted strenuously. She was given the boot.
And then came Trump.
As a candidate, Trump attacked the press as ‘the enemy of the people’, used the term ‘fake news’ and called the Times the ‘failing New York Times’. But the relationship between the press and Trump was symbiotic: Trump capitalized on the widespread feeling that the journalists chronicling American life looked down on regular people (he was not wrong). As he trashed the class norms of politesse that the press expected from a presidential candidate, the liberal media couldn’t get enough of him.
Trump’s antics in the 2015-16 campaign were catnip for a flailing industry. Trump is estimated to have received free coverage worth around $2 billion, six times more than any of his rivals in the Republican primary received. This coverage planted the seeds of Trump’s 2016 victory — but he was not the only one to profit from it.
CBS’s executive chairman, Les Moonves, said that the Trump campaign ‘may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS’. In 2016, MSNBC was set to take a 30 percent hit if Hillary Clinton was elected; that hit was avoided when Donald Trump won. Leaked tapes revealed that the president of CNN, a channel that made a big show of opposing Trump, encouraged Trump to run and even offered him tips on how to win a CNN-sponsored debate.
Hating Trump drove massive amounts of engagement to previously floundering publications, channels and shows. And individual journalists didn’t need to be told by their bosses to promote Trump’s name: they could see firsthand how their opposition generated likes, retweets and exploding pageviews. With the incentives thus aligned, there was no need to break down the remains of the wall between advertising and editorial. It happened on its own.
The New York Times played a prominent role in the liberal media’s justification for its Trump strategy, pointing out over and over that he was not a ‘normal’ president. When Trump won, liberal media, sequestered in the most left-leaning districts in America, simply could not fathom that many Americans felt that Donald Trump was a better option than Hillary Clinton. So they came up with alternative explanations for his victory.
On November 16 2016, a BuzzFeed report found that in the last three months of the campaign, false news reports had generated more Facebook engagement — over a million more shares, reactions and comments — than the New York Times, Washington Post, the Huffington Post and NBC News combined. It was the perfect story for the liberal news media: it confirmed that those who disagreed with them were not only wrong but stupid, believing all kinds of nonsense. They were less keen to report that two out of three Democrats believed that Russia tampered with vote tallies on election day, something for which there exists no evidence whatsoever.
Russia would figure prominently in the coverage in other ways. Type the words ‘Trump’ and ‘Russia’ into the New York Times search bar and you’ll get over 15,000 results since 2015. At the Washington Post, this search will bring up 27,000 entries since 2015. The much-hyped narratives — that Trump was hostage to Russian kompromat showing him cavorting with escorts; that a group called Cambridge Analytica was selling ‘psychological profiles’ of Americans to the highest bidder; and even, as promised by the Times, that Trump’s tax returns would show deep ties to Russia and conflicts with national security — would just keep coming. All turned out to be either false or deeply misleading.
This was journalistic malpractice, but it was manna from heaven for the bottom line, especially at the New York Times. During the last three months of 2016, the Times added 276,000 digital subscribers: nearly 100,000 up on 2015. In 2017, the paper gained $340 million in online subscriptions: 46 percent up on 2016. Forty-six percent growth is what Facebook boasts, and double Google’s growth rate. In 2019, the Times added more than one million net digital-only subscribers, reaching a total of 5.2 million. Thanks to Trump, the company met its $800-million digital revenue target for 2020 a year early.
Trump allowed the Times to lean in to the business model pioneered by Facebook. In May 2020, the paper announced it would no longer use third-party marketing data, because it just didn’t need third parties anymore. The Times now holds enough first-party data (on age, generation, educational and marital status, interests, business industry and level, income and assets) to sell it directly to advertisers.
There was another equally important way that the Times was successfully imitating Facebook. In 2018, high on the success of the Trump era, the Data Science Group at the Times launched a project to understand and predict the emotional impact of the paper’s articles. They asked 1,200 readers to rate their emotional responses to articles, with options including boredom, hate, interest, fear, hope, love and happiness. These readers were young and well-educated — the target audience of many advertisers.
What the group found was perhaps not surprising: emotions drive engagement. ‘Across the board, articles that were top in emotional categories, such as love, sadness and fear, performed significantly better than articles that were not,’ the team reported. To monetize the insight, the Data Science Group created an artificial intelligence machine-learning algorithm to predict which emotions articles would evoke. The Times now sells this insight to advertisers, who can choose from 18 emotions, seven motivations and 100 topics they want readers to feel or think about when they encounter an ad.
‘By identifying connections between content and emotion, we’ve successfully driven ad engagement 6X more effectively than IAB benchmarks,’ the Times’s Advertising website proudly declares. ‘Brands can target ads to specific articles we predict will evoke particular emotions in our readers,’ it pitches. ‘Brands have the opportunity to target ads to articles we predict will motivate our readers to take a particular action.’ As of April 2019, Project Feels had generated 50 ad campaigns, more than 30 million impressions, and strong revenue results.
If you want to know what makes America’s educated liberal elites emotional, you only have to open the Times. Judging by the coverage of recent years, two things make them more emotional than anything else: Trump and racism.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, books like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy soared to the top of the bestseller list as blindsided liberals sought to understand how people could have voted for Trump. For a brief period, it seemed like the American mainstream might truly grapple with the question of class. But this quickly disappeared in favor of an easier explanation: Trump voters were racists.
Liberal news media pushed study after study allegedly ‘proving’ that the class narrative — that Trump’s voters had chosen him out of economic anxiety — was false. They were simply racists, we were told by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Atlantic and Vox. You could feel the relief seeping through the repetition: if Trump’s voters are racists, we no longer have to care about them! This line absolved journalists of the inner twinge of doubt that must come to any honest reporter when they realize that they are afflicting the afflicted. There is only one problem. It’s just not true.
Many of the white voters who proved most decisive for Trump had voted for President Obama, the first black president, in both 2008 and 2012. As the sociologist Musa al-Gharbi pointed out, if these voters were motivated by racism, why did they vote for Obama twice?
In fact, Trump failed to motivate whites to turn out in 2016. He won a smaller share of the white turnout than Mitt Romney had in 2012. And Trump did better with Hispanics and Asians than Romney had, and won the largest share of the black vote of any Republican since 2004. All these trends sustained a steep upward trajectory in 2020.
Trump’s racism was not a deal breaker for his supporters, many of whom expressed discomfort with the president’s ranting and raving. Polling from 2020 shows that even the most diehard Trump fans — those who believe that the 2020 election was stolen from him — would prefer ‘a hypothetical Trumpist politician with more respect for liberal democracy’ to Trump himself in 2024 as their candidate.
The truth is, the reasons people gave for voting for Trump were numerous —and legitimate. His promise to appoint conservative justices was a major motivating factor for antiabortion evangelicals. Others were swayed by his commitment to religious liberty, which gave him a lot of support in the Orthodox Jewish community. Independents especially appreciated his anti-war position. Lower-income voters were impressed by his opposition to America’s disastrous trade deals.
Anyone who talked to Trump voters knew their reasons for voting for him. But journalists at America’s leading publications did not know any Trump supporters socially, and that made it easy to caricature and misrepresent them. When New York Times reporters did venture into Trump country, they inevitably found some reason to tar the people they interviewed as racist.
This penchant was part and parcel of a larger dynamic that preceded Trump, in which liberal news media, increasingly reliant on digital advertising, subscriptions and memberships, have been mainstreaming an obsession with race, to the approval of their affluent readers. And what was once a business model built on a culture war has over the past few years devolved into a full-blown moral panic.
Any journalist working in the mainstream American press knows this, because the moral panic is enforced on social media in brutal shaming campaigns. They have happened to many journalists, but you don’t actually have to weed out every heretic to silence dissent. After a while, people silence themselves. Who would volunteer to be humiliated by thousands of strangers, when they could avoid it by staying quiet? The spectacle alone enforces compliance.
Once upon a time, telling the truth ‘without fear or favor’ was the job description of a New York Times journalist. Today, doing the job that way could very well cost a journalist his or her job. The people who are supposed to be in charge of the nation’s most august publications now routinely capitulate to the demands of the Twitter mob.
An early example occurred in September of 2018 when the guest list for the New Yorker magazine’s annual festival was announced. The roster included Hollywood celebrities Jim Carrey, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Judd Apatow — and Steve Bannon, the mastermind behind Trump’s 2016 victory, and the man who infamously bragged that his media outlet, Breitbart, was the platform of the racist, nativist ‘alt-right’.
‘I have every intention of asking him difficult questions and engaging in a serious and even combative conversation,’ David Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor in chief, told the Times. He would not get the chance. Within 30 minutes of a Times article announcing Bannon’s invitation, Apatow, Carrey and many others announced on social media that they would be boycotting the event in protest. Remnick canceled Bannon’s appearance less than 12 hours after it had been announced. The reaction on social media and the disapproval of staff members, Remnick explained in an in-house email, was just too intense.
The Economist disagreed. The day Remnick rescinded Bannon’s invitation, its editor in chief, Zanny Minton Beddoes, announced that Bannon would still be speaking at the magazine’s Open Future festival. ‘Mr Bannon stands for a world view that is antithetical to the liberal values the Economist has always espoused,’ Beddoes wrote. ‘The future of open societies will not be secured by like-minded people speaking to each other in an echo chamber, but by subjecting ideas and individuals from all sides to rigorous questioning and debate.’
But in American journalism, a dam had been broken. It is now normal for editors at legacy publications to capitulate to outrage not only from their readers, but from their own staff. That’s what’s so shocking about this censorious development in American journalism. It’s not that online activists would try to use their power to enforce their views. It’s that older journalists — people who should, who do, know better — now surrender to the pressure.
George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020 put this moral panic on steroids. Since then, liberal media outlets have fired writers, editors and even their founders to placate the woke left. The limits of acceptable discourse have shrunk. People have been fired for the crime of disagreeing with a person of color on Twitter, or for not promoting enough black women. In February 2021, the New York Times pushed out long-time science reporter Donald McNeil after staffers found out he had used the ‘n-word’ in response to a question from a student about whether it’s OK to use the ‘n-word’ as a joke. Instead of fighting for McNeil’s job, the NewsGuild, the Times’s staff union, observed that ‘there’s never a moment when harmful racist rhetoric is acceptable’.
The Washington Free Beacon, reporting how the union had failed to fight for McNeil’s job, noted how many Times staffers come from wealthy backgrounds and how few actually rely on the job security the union provides. It concluded that ‘defending workers has given way to defenestrating them, especially when they violate the taboos of well-to-do progressives’. It isn’t just a culture war anymore, between antiracist wokesters and the last old-school journalists committed to objectivity. It’s a class war between highly educated young elites and their older middle-class colleagues who offend their woke sensibilities and thus, they think, deserve to be fired.
Or take Bari Weiss. The Times hired her in 2017 with an explicit mandate: find and publish conservatives and heterodox voices. But over the course of the three years Weiss wrote and edited for the Times, this mandate became not just impossible but verboten. What changed was wokeness: an obsession with identity politics and a very narrow way of talking about it.
‘Identity is the only lens that there is and everything, no matter how unrelated, needs to tie back to race and gender,’ Weiss told me. Hired to challenge that orthodoxy, she faced social censure at the Times. Some colleagues refused to speak to her. Others would ‘subtweet’ her — publish tweets that were obviously about her without mentioning her name — from a few desks away. The censure escalated to outright bullying. Her colleagues called her a liar on Twitter. In Slack, an online workplace messaging board, someone posted an axe emoji next to her name.
And then came the Tom Cotton op-ed.
After George Floyd’s death, the streets filled with millions of protesters, horrified by the brutality they had witnessed. But that righteous horror quickly morphed into something else — a moral panic around race. Just as parents in the 1980s were convinced that the neighbor’s kid who played Dungeons & Dragons in their basement was actually a Satanist, so today’s affluent white liberals are persuaded by ‘experts’ like Robin DiAngelo that a deep-seated racism hides behind the smiles — and tears — of white people attending diversity, equity and inclusion seminars as they desperately try to prove they aren’t racists.
In fact, it was precisely because of the millions of Americans on the streets that the moral panic around race was possible. A moral panic, after all, is a form of mass hysteria that happens when people come to believe that some hostile force threatens their values and safety. But it requires some level of consensus about the evil represented by the hostile force. In other words, it was our newfound consensus about how evil racism is that turned wokeness from a cultural front to a moral panic.
The wall-to-wall disgust at the evil of Derek Chauvin’s actions, and his conviction for murder and manslaughter on all counts, are proofs of our new consensus — but the media drew the opposite conclusion. This should not surprise us: the media have always played a key role in moral panics by invention, exaggeration and distortion.
This bears repeating: there can be no moral panic without the media and the social consensus they create. The power of the press — despite its unpopularity — is still immense. And it has used that power over the past decade, and with exponential intensity over the past few years, to wage a culture war on its own behalf, notably by creating a moral panic around racism.
Nor is it surprising that the New York Times played an outsized role in shaping our moral panic. Its business model is deeply bound up with the mores of affluent white liberals. Inevitably, in the spring of 2020, it turned its wrath on its own. By the time the dust settled, five people would no longer work at the Times.
The George Floyd protests started out peacefully, but in late May they took a violent turn. Images of riots, looting and arson began to flood social media. On the nightly news you could catch devastating interviews of weeping business owners standing next to the burned-out buildings that were the remains of their life’s work. On May 31, a Sunday night, the rioting escalated violently across the nation. Early on June 1, reports emerged that even President Trump had been briefly taken to an underground bunker.
Around 8:30 the next morning, Sen. Tom Cotton, a Trump ally, went on Fox News to discuss the mass destruction. Cotton acknowledged how disturbing the footage of George Floyd’s death was, and insisted that he respected the right to peaceful protest. He also said that ‘we should have zero tolerance for anarchy and rioting and looting’, and that President Trump ‘should use the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty military forces to these cities, to support our local law enforcement and ensure this violence ends today’. Later, Cotton tweeted, ‘Anarchy, rioting, and looting needs to end tonight’ and ‘Whatever it takes to restore order. No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.’
Cotton’s ‘whatever it takes’ language was harsh, but the majority of Ameri- cans — including a large share of black Americans — agreed with him. This is why the Times’s Opinion section, which planned to run an editorial and two opinion columns opposing the use of the Insurrection Act, was also on the lookout for a piece defending it. When Cotton pitched an op-ed about how Twitter was threatening to lock him out of his account, a senior editor suggested he write up his thoughts on the Insurrection Act instead.
Cotton’s first draft was deemed strong by two senior editors at the Times. He excoriated defenses of looting as ‘built on a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters’. He insisted that the majority ‘who seek to protest peacefully’ shouldn’t be ‘confused with bands of miscreants’. He argued that the president had the authority to use the Insurrection Act to send in US troops if governors couldn’t quell the rioting and looting on their own.
The draft went through a series of edits — fact checks, line edits, clarifications and copyedits. There were several phone calls to the senator’s office. A few lines were deleted and some language clarified. By the time the piece was ready for publication, no fewer than seven editors had worked on it. Having been approved one final time by a senior Opinion editor, the piece was published on the Times website on June 3.
All hell broke loose. On Slack, a group called Black@NYT decided to say the column ‘endangered’ black staff members; language designed to ‘focus on the work’ of woke racial activism, Ben Smith reported. They began tweeting a screenshot of the Cotton op-ed along with a caption: ‘Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.’ Journalists from every New York Times department followed suit, tweeting the screenshot of Cotton’s headline along with the mantra. The NewsGuild later advised staffers that language that focused on workplace safety was legally protected.
Times journalists were joined on Twitter by thousands of others. Anyone who defended the Times’s decision to publish the op-ed had their Twitter mentions fill up with brand-name writers angrily calling them racist. More than a thousand Times employees signed a letter of protest to the Times’s publisher, A.G. Sulzberger. The newspaper suffered its highest-ever number of editorial cancellations in a single hour. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demanded answers.
People whose job it is to decipher fact from fiction, to think independently and make up their own minds based on the merits of a case, all joined in lockstep to tweet the exact same sentence — a sentence designed not to describe reality but to carefully circumvent workplace rules. The country’s most powerful and important journalists had completely ceded their critical-thinking skills to higher powers — the NewsGuild and the Twitter mob. By the time thousands of white reporters had retweeted these posts, zombie-like, on their own timelines, the distance from ‘This is union-approved language used to express our dissent’ to ‘This is the truth: Black journalists will die because of this op-ed’ shrank until it disappeared.
James Bennet, the chief of the editorial page, tried to explain the op-ed to his colleagues the next day, and then during an excruciating town hall meeting held over Zoom.
‘We published Cotton’s argument in part because we’ve committed to Times readers to provide a debate on important questions like this,’ Bennet wrote. ‘It would undermine the integrity and independence of The New York Times if we only published views that editors like me agreed with, and it would betray what I think of as our fundamental purpose — not to tell you what to think, but to help you think for yourself.’
The reactions on Twitter were brutal: ‘If he had written “Stop the N***ers” would you have published that?’ ‘Resign and advocate for a Black woman to take your place.’ ‘Where does this principle end? Would the Times publish an op-ed explaining the policy rationale for genocide?’ ‘We’re going to publish this op-ed entitled “Mein Kampf” by an up and coming politician so that our readers can be shown the counter-argument they so desperately need.’
The slippage from fact to delusion bled into the Times’s own coverage of the brouhaha in an article full of errors. The piece misstated the thesis of Cotton’s op-ed by claiming he wished to send in the military ‘to suppress protests,’ and failing to mention that he advised this only in cases where ‘the rioters still outnumber the police and Guard combined’. A 25-year-old junior editor was named as the sole editor of the piece: ‘The Op-Ed was edited by Adam Rubenstein, according to staff members in the editorial department… Several of them said they had not been aware of the article before it was published.’
The Times strung up Rubenstein as a lone malefactor, dangling his name like bait in front of the mob. The mob knew exactly what to do with that bait: the backlash against him was severe, and quickly descended into antisemitic slurs. The faulty Times report led to him being named in piece after piece as the sole editor behind the Cotton op-ed. For days, not one of the multiple senior editors who had signed off on it stood up for Rubenstein. It was a breathtaking dereliction of ethics — and the Times kept making it worse.
‘We’ve examined the piece and the process leading up to its publication,’ a Times spokeswoman claimed in a statement. ‘This review made clear that a rushed editorial process led to the publication of an Op-Ed that did not meet our standards.’ The fantasy that the piece contained errors, rather than the truth — that it simply put forth an opinion people didn’t like — grew from a lie into a mass delusion.
A.G. Sulzberger, the Times’s publisher, had initially stood by the piece. But he caved to the pressure during a town hall with his staff and apologized profusely to them. Dean Baquet, the executive editor, claimed to be proud of the solidarity the Times staffers had shown one another. A vast editor’s note was affixed to the top of Cotton’s piece: ‘After publication, this essay met strong criticism from many readers (and many Times colleagues), prompting editors to review the piece and the editing process,’ it began. ‘Based on that review, we have concluded that the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.’
By that evening, Bennet no longer worked at the Times. His deputy, Jim Dao, was moved to another department. Rubenstein left the Times six months later. The message was stark: publish opinions the left disagrees with at your own risk. Though six in 10 American voters, and 37 percent of black Americans, may agree, if the journalists on Twitter disagree, you will find yourself out of a job. Cotton may have been closer to the president who would decide whether or not to send in the troops, but Times staff will now decide whether a senator’s opinion should be published in what was once the paper of record. And if they had to force hundreds of thousands of people to affirm a fantastical version of reality as not only true but as a moral precept, that’s how it would go down.
The harm is not to those with the opinion that the military should invade our cities to assist police who are overwhelmed by rioters, but rather to the public sphere and the journalists whose job requires they have the humility to submit to the pursuit of fairness and truth. It’s public debate that bears the brunt of the damage. We are being denied the chance to hash out a controversy rather than hide from it.
These values are crucial not just to journalism but to democracy and to freedom. They used to be the values of the New York Times. Not anymore. The contretemps over Cotton’s op-ed ushered in a new era. He would be the last Republican official to grace the pages of the Opinion section for a long time. For the six months leading up to what the New York Times repeatedly said was the most important election of our lifetimes, we would not read a single op-ed by someone explaining why they were voting for Trump. Such an op-ed, a person familiar with the section told me, would now ‘face an insurmountable hurdle’.
In July 2020, Bari Weiss quit the Times with a blistering resignation letter. ‘Twitter is not on the masthead of the New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor,’ Weiss wrote. ‘Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.’ After describing the vicious bullying she’d faced from colleagues, Weiss concluded, ‘Nowadays, standing up for principle at the paper does not win plaudits. It puts a target on your back.’
And the hunt for insufficiently antiracist Americans has become its own genre. The Times has run articles declaring that wine and surfing are racist, and that it’s time to ‘decolonize botanical collections’ by ridding them of ‘structural racism’. It even ran an article about a 15-year-old girl who used the ‘N-word’ when she bragged about passing her driving test in a private video to a friend — which another student got his hands on and saved for three years until he could use it to get her kicked out of college.
Stories like this seem to attract an unlimited audience in the way stories of crime once did for Joseph Pulitzer’s papers. That’s because articles that offend the woke person are crime stories for the affluent: stories of people just like themselves who commit crimes of thought or speech, and lose everything when they fall on the wrong side of the reigning orthodoxy. As the Twitter mob pursues small infractions as avidly as it does large ones, and as the etiquette keeps shifting, who dares trust their own ability to judge right from wrong?
It’s how you know we’re in a moral panic: only the mob has the right to judge you. And too many journalists have ceded them that right. Indeed, a huge number of the mob are journalists — journalists from the most important newspapers in the country and the world, all tweeting the exact same meaningless sentence repeatedly. People who had been hired to think for themselves now mindlessly repeat a dogma like their jobs depended on it.
Well, they do.