A. G. Sulzberger on the Battles Within and Against the New York Times

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?

Source link