When most newspapers get a new publisher, few people know or care. It gets a shrug, except by those directly affected.
But when Arthur Sulzberger took over this week as the top boss at The New York Times, even President Trump took notice, blurting out a tweet that managed to be simultaneously insulting, congratulatory and divisive. (“The Failing New York Times has a new publisher, A.G. Sulzberger. Congratulations! Here is a last chance for the Times to fulfill the vision of its Founder, Adolph Ochs, ’to give the news impartially, without fear or FAVOR, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.”)
And all sorts of other bystanders — liberals, conservatives, First Amendment champions and media-haters alike — had advice (some of it venomous) to offer the 37-year-old publishing scion.
“Criticizing The New York Times is a form of performance art,” journalist Felix Salmon observed in 2012, early in my four-year stint as the paper’s public editor, or internal watchdog, a position abolished in 2017.
Yes, everyone wants to take a shot at the nation’s so-called paper of record (a misnomer, but useful shorthand for describing its singular prominence) — partly because doing so tends to gather a cheering horde. If you crave attention, as the president so often does, this is a dependable way to get your fix.
But there’s another reason, too: What the Times does really matters, affecting the whole media and political ecosystem. When it exerts its muscle, it can change the course of history. And when it errs — in fact or in judgment — the consequences can be monumental. And err it does.
So bashing the Times is inevitable, but social media has provided some new stages for the show that never ends.
In recent weeks, volleys of criticism — often well-warranted — have blasted the paper almost daily.
A late-November profile of a white supremacist (“the Nazi sympathizer next door”) brought days of condemnation because it normalized the subject by describing his everyday life (he’s a big “Seinfeld” fan!) without getting at the heart of his evil beliefs.
The December decision not to fire star reporter Glenn Thrush for alleged sexual misconduct (instead suspending him and taking him off the White House beat) was greeted with scorching criticism, especially from women. How, they demanded, could the Times tolerate any hint of this on their staff when its own female journalists had led the world-changing reporting of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s abuses?
Last weekend, a reporting coup by the ubiquitous Michael S. Schmidt of the Times Washington bureau — who scored a surprise Trump interview at Mar-a-Lago — brought more howls of outrage. These attacked Schmidt’s decision to let Trump ramble for 30 falsehood-infested minutes, and not challenge him with immediate fact-checks or assertive follow-up questions.
And a startling year-end story, about the roots, in May 2016, of the Justice Department’s Trump-Russia inquiry, reminded astute readers of a Times story, a week before the presidential election, that seemed to let candidate Trump off the hook for any Russia misdeeds — even as the paper was pounding Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, for her email practices.
As politics grows more divisive and angry, criticism of the Times only ramps up. If these things had happened anywhere else, even CNN or The Washington Post, they would have received only a fraction of the attention.
Sulzberger has inherited the tough task of running an essential — and distinctively flawed — institution, and doing so under klieg lights. (Not to mention the severe economic challenges to an industry whose longtime business model has disintegrated.)
What are these distinctive flaws?
With unique access to power, the Times is addicted to it — too-often allowing those at the top of government and business to seize its megaphone, sometimes while wearing the invisibility cloak of anonymity.
Under constant attack from all quarters, the Times often reacts self-protectively, with “both-sides” reporting and presentation, giving equal weight to unequal claims.
And the Times is distinctively defensive. Often great and sometimes wrong, it mostly likes to talk about that first part, and has trouble acknowledging the second, which may be one reason its public-editor position lasted less than 14 years.
That’s why it was encouraging to see, in Sulzberger’s note to readers published earlier this week, this line: “We will continue to put the fairness and accuracy of everything we publish above all else — and in the inevitable moments we fall short, we will continue to own up to our mistakes, and we’ll strive to do better.”
That’s admirable, and it’s hard.
Because Sulzberger’s leadership matters, ever so much, we all should wish the new Times publisher and his newspaper the best — but more sincerely than the president did.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her hometown paper.