When newly-elected President Trump escalated his attacks on journalists as purveyors of "fake news" and an "enemy of the people," Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron didn't take the bait. "We're not at war," he said. "We're at work."
By the end of Trump's term, much of the liberal mainstream media seemed to relish its daily skirmishing, if not open warfare, with the 45th president. No longer confining its editorial views to the opinion pages, The New York Times devoted its entire pre-election "Review" section to essays on why Trump should not be reelected. Its ban on reporters' public expressions of private views about the officials or subjects they cover was routinely ignored. "Would you keep working for a boss who consistently refuses to distance himself from virulent racists, anti-Semites, and white supremacists?" a Times reporter tweeted about Trump White House officials, a violation of the paper's prohibition on such social-media pronouncements.
With Joe Biden's victory, if not before it, many of those same liberal reporters switched gears. Rather than ask tough questions of Biden, they quickly became his messengers. Only conservative media outlets have pressed Biden about how he will handle alleged efforts by his son, Hunter, to cash in on his father's clout, even after the younger Biden acknowledged he is being investigated for tax violations. Nor has the president-elect been grilled about his contradictory campaign promises, or why he has granted little access to the press. While the mainstream media published forests-worth of inaccurate stories about Trump and "Russiagate," the same reporters have demonstrated little curiosity about the Biden family's China business dealings.
Trump's unprecedented post-election assault on free elections and a peaceful transition of power — the bedrocks of democracy — has vindicated much of the media criticism of him. Yet, it has only temporarily diverted attention from the fact that both the left and right wings of American journalism have all but abdicated the longstanding goal of striving for some degree of neutrality. Many reporters have become not only partisan but virtual enablers — on the right, of Trump's dangerous effort to undermine democracy with the conspiracy theory that the election was rigged or stolen; on the left, not only of Team Biden but of "cancel culture" and the suppression of free speech that so many younger, more politicized journalists advocate.
Although Trump's presidency exacerbated the media's partisanship and politicization, it did not create it. While paying lip-service to objectivity, right- and left-leaning journalists began ditching that principle decades ago. The culprit is neither a single man nor party but, rather, the internet and social media, which disrupted the financial model that underpinned American journalism — print journalism in particular — for more than a century.
Nicco Mele, former director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, says that only a few decades ago newspaper subscriptions accounted for roughly 20 percent of revenue, and advertising for some 80 percent — but that ratio has now flipped, thanks largely to the internet. Because most papers have failed to find a viable alternative business model, and because free online competitors have driven 80 to 90 percent of online advertising dollars (an estimated $83 billion in 2017, largely to Google and Facebook), newspaper ad revenue has fallen 63 percent in the past decade while newspapers have lost nearly 40 percent of their daily circulation.
Buckling under such extraordinary financial and structural pressures, 60 percent of newspaper jobs vanished in the past 25 years, and more than one in five American papers has closed. A growing number of cities and rural communities — well over 1,200, a recent University of North Carolina study reports — now lack a single print outlet for reporting local news.
The resulting economic crunch, frantic competition for advertising dollars, and blind quest for digital clicks have prompted many media outlets to give consumers what editors think their audiences want, rather than what educated citizens need. Just as cat videos and celebrity lists generate more clicks than segments on voting requirements or climate change, news sites on politics that reinforce their readers' biases generate more traffic than those challenging them with uncomfortable facts.
As a result, many American newspapers and media outlets have returned to their historic roots — to the open partisanship that emerged during the American Revolution, when newspapers mobilized public opinion to rebel against England. Blatant partisanship endured well through the 1830s, when American newspapers openly mirrored political lines or aggressively pushed partisan content. That model weakened only after the rise of cheap, middle-class papers whose claims of editorial independence attracted growing numbers of readers and a financial base built upon advertising dollars that now have largely evaporated.
As the traditional mainstream outlets have weakened and disappeared, a new generation of highly partisan, mostly younger reporters and editors has been empowered within the surviving institutions. The bodies of their ideological victims are piling up.
Last June, Philadelphia Inquirer staff members outraged by the paper's coverage of civil unrest there forced the resignation of the paper's top editor of 10 years. Stan Wischnowski's journalistic mortal sin was publishing a headline on an article about the impact of civil unrest on the city's historic buildings. Entitled "Buildings Matter, Too," the headline's play on the "Black Lives Matter" slogan infuriated staff members and led the paper to apologize, calling the headline "unacceptable" because it "suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of Black Americans." Despite the apology, dozens of staff members staged a strike and sent an angry letter to the paper's leaders attacking, among other things, the very concept of journalistic neutrality. "We're tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of," over a dozen self-described "journalists of color" declared.
Also in June, Andrew Sullivan, the British-born anti-Trump conservative and former New Republic editor, resigned from New York Magazine after reportedly being banned from writing about the anti-racism protests gripping the country. In his last column, Sullivan wrote that "a critical mass of the staff and management ... no longer want to associate with me" given their apparent belief that "any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space." He accused colleagues of waging a campaign to suppress dissent from the view that America was "systemically racist, and a white-supremacist project from the start."
If only 1.46 percent of Harvard University's faculty call themselves conservative, he wrote, that was still "probably higher than the proportion of journalists who call themselves conservative at the New York Times or CNN or New York Magazine." And "conservative" in his case, he added, meant he "passionately opposed Donald J. Trump and pioneered marriage equality," would probably vote for Biden in November, and was among the "first journalists in established media to come out" as gay.
The list of journalism's cancel-culture victims and targets is likely to grow, given the reluctance or financial inability of many mainstream publications to resist pressure. The trend is particularly ominous at the Times, the paper for which I worked for some 28 years. But unlike other struggling papers, the Times, once the standard-bearer of objective journalism, cannot blame the internal cultural war on a shortage of resources. Becoming part of the "Resistance" to Trump worked well for it — at least financially. Subscriptions grew at 10 times their usual rate after Trump's election, from some 3 million subscribers in 2016 to more than 7 million in October; its stock has risen fourfold. The company now has more cash on hand than ever before — $800 million. Reporters do audio translation, podcasts, radio and TV shows; the news staff has grown from 1,200 to 1,700. Determined to diversify its staff, the paper has hired people it overlooked before: Some 40 percent of newsroom employees hired since 2016 have been people of color, New York Magazine reported in November.
It is this new, younger, more diverse, more progressive staff — the so-called insurrectionists — who increasingly demand that the Times abandon the neutrality which, for so long, made it the "paper of record."
Of course the Times was never "objective." Its overwhelmingly liberal staff ensured that, although its editors usually contained the most egregious examples of reportorial bias. Yet, the "institutionalists," the guardians of the paper's tradition and standards, suffered a blow when copy editors and mid-level editors were offered generous retirement buyouts to make room for a new digitally savvy generation.
Rhetorically, the paper has claimed to remain open to conservative essays. In June, however, publisher A.G. Sulzberger, a champion of digital journalism, pushed out his editorial page editor, James Bennet, and Bennet's deputy, veteran reporter James Dao, for publishing an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) arguing that the military should be deployed to U.S. cities to quell riots. While polls showed a majority of Americans agreed with Cotton, Times staffers (and many readers) protested giving him a platform.
To be sure, Bennet made mistakes. But before being ousted, he was subjected to a Soviet-style virtual "town hall" in which a series of young reporters and editors blasted him and the essay's publication; few colleagues defended him. Bennet, hired by Sulzberger specifically to broaden the paper's editorial range, was forced to confess the error of his ways and began to weep.
A month later, Bari Weiss, a Times contributing editor and writer, resigned under pressure. In a scathing open letter to the publisher, Weiss denounced the Times for failing to defend her against internal and external bullying for having strayed from an ideological orthodoxy. Because reporters and senior editors so often succumbed to the prevailing intolerance of far-left "mobs" on social media, she charged, Twitter had become the paper's "ultimate editor."
Of course, Twitter and other opinion sites sell. On a relative basis, the paper's Opinion section is also its most widely read. Reeves Wiedeman recently reported in New York Magazine that "Opinion" produces roughly 10 percent of the Times' output, while bringing in 20 percent of its pageviews. But opinions are no longer confined to the paper's editorial and op-ed pages. Its news sections increasingly are filled with adjectives and views that appall Times institutionalists. If Times readers, more than 90 percent of whom identify as Democrats, were shocked to see that 74 million Americans voted to reelect Trump, who can blame them after the thousands of anti-Trump news articles generated during his presidency. Some were accurate, others not. But the paper's decision to join the "Resistance" was deliberate. Carolyn Ryan, one of 14 Times masthead editors, told Wiedeman that executive editor Dean Baquet and other editors spent 45 minutes in September 2016 discussing whether to accuse Trump on the front page for the first time of "lying."
Other forays into opinionated news may have hurt the paper's credibility, however. Consider "The 1619 Project," a special issue of the Times Magazine arguing that American history should be re-centered around the stain of slavery. The paper won a Pulitzer for it, and expanded it into a podcast, a book and an elementary school curriculum. But the thesis has been criticized by some of the nation's leading historians — among them, Sean Wilentz, a liberal icon. In October, Bret Stephens, one of the paper's few conservative columnists, deftly skewered the project, prompting a defensive response by Sulzberger of both Stephens, for the paper's "self-criticism," and Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project's architect who reportedly threatened to quit if the Times backed away from her or her thesis.
Since Baquet is scheduled to retire in 2022, the culture war between millennial insurgents and the institutionalists seems likely to intensify, Trump or no Trump. The "Gray Lady" may soon need a new coat of paint — blue now seems more her style. Given the increasingly partisan, politicized media world, she will have lots of company.