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Weekend reads: The great unravelling
The false consensus is fraying - and things are getting interesting
I’ve been saying for some time that the tide is turning. And this week, we got more indications that this is the case.
A number of topics once considered radioactive are suddenly … not.
That list includes pandemic school closures (with new data regularly emerging), the lab leak theory (with a big investigation from Vanity Fair and ProPublica out this week, highlighting a new U.S. Senate committee report concluding the pandemic was “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident”), and cancel culture (with The New York Times and The Atlantic giving the irrational cancellation of filmmaker Meg Smaker thoughtful, nuanced treatment).
But the development I’d like to focus on today is south of the border — with the unravelling of the narrative on the 2020 internal uprising at The New York Times, which resulted in editorial page editor James Bennet losing his job — since it is such a significant one for journalism as a whole.
For those who may not recall: During the protests in the summer of 2020, The New York Times opinion section ran a piece by Republican Senator Tom Cotton calling for military intervention to restore order. A revolt from Times staffers ensued, which involved many tweeting that the piece put the lives of Black employees at risk. The Times swiftly reviewed it, announced that it fell short of editorial standards, attached a lengthy editors’ note, and parted ways with James Bennet.
Former Times media columnist Ben Smith, now helming the news startup Semafor, landed the first interview with him.
In that piece, Smith starts by surveying the current landscape at the Times, and taking stock of institutional policies put in place to ensure that a 2020-style uprising does not happen again:
… dull memos announced changes to policy for Slack and social media aimed at ending freewheeling internal debates. That seems to have worked. When the linguist John McWhorter wrote in a column this Saturday that accounts of “especially stark and unfiltered racist abuse” are often hoaxes and should be taken “with a grain of salt,” there was no visible internal protest.
It’s worth emphasizing that reading this McWhorter column in The Times would have been unimaginable, back in 2020.
Yet, in 2022, it seems to have generated relatively little pushback.
Still, this passage is probably the most telling one in the Semafor piece:
“There’s a lot of stuff I’m reading in Bari Weiss and then I’m reading in the Times,” said one Times journalist, referring to the former opinion editor who quit amid the internal conflicts of 2020 and started her own outlet, Common Sense.
More on this in a moment.
But first, the Bennet interview itself is as spicy as you’d hope (containing a particularly hilarious quote about Times subscribers expecting the paper to be “Mother Jones on steroids”).
Here is what Bennet had to say about his departure, and publisher A.G. Sulzberger:
“I actually knew what it meant to have a target on your back when you’re reporting for the New York Times,” he said, referring to incidents in the West Bank and Gaza.
“None of that mattered, and none of it mattered to AG. When push came to shove at the end, he set me on fire and threw me in the garbage and used my reverence for the institution against me,” Bennet said. “This is why I was so bewildered for so long after I had what felt like all my colleagues treating me like an incompetent fascist.”
Bennet has obviously not minced words here. And his truth-telling seems to have inspired others to follow suit.
This week, the media critic for The Washington Post, Erik Wemple, publicly admitted that Bennet had been right all along:
His outburst in Semafor furnishes a toehold for reassessing one of the most consequential journalism fights in decades. To date, the lesson from the set-to — that publishing a senator arguing that federal troops could be deployed against rioters is unacceptable — will forever circumscribe what issues opinion sections are allowed to address. It’s also long past time to ask why more people who claim to uphold journalism and free expression — including, um, the Erik Wemple Blog — didn’t speak out then in Bennet’s defense.
It’s because we were afraid to.
This — “it’s because we were afraid to” — is a pretty stunning admission. Even if absolutely everyone in the business already knew it.
But what follows is even more stunning:
Our criticism of the Twitter outburst comes 875 days too late. Although the hollowness of the internal uproar against Bennet was immediately apparent, we responded with an evenhanded critique of the Times’s flip-flop, not the unapologetic defense of journalism that the situation required. Our posture was one of cowardice and midcareer risk management. With that, we pile one more regret onto a controversy littered with them.
Wemple’s mea culpa is, to his credit, followed up with action — in this case, actual reporting. And that reporting reveals, again, what everyone knew. That the Twitter revolt was performative:
The Erik Wemple Blog has asked about 30 Times staffers whether they still believe their “danger” tweets and whether there was any merit in Bennet’s retort. Not one of them replied with an on-the-record defense. Such was the depth of conviction behind a central argument in l’affaire Cotton.
And with those three sentences, the consensus on this story officially falls apart.
Meanwhile, those who stood up for journalistic principles at the time — see Bari Weiss — have not only won the respect of the public, but likely that of many colleagues, who took years to summon a modicum of the courage that she showed in the eye of the storm.
Expect the floodgates to now open.
This was all on my mind this week, reading Jesse Singal’s analysis of the rise of independent media, “They Hate Us Because They Ain’t Us, Except They Could Be Us.”
Singal excavates a recurring dynamic within the industry — one that sees members of the mainstream press resenting the success of Substack journalists.
Singal offers a simple, and convincing, explanation for why some Substack journalists are currently lapping the legacy press:
As Wemple said, it took 875 days for him to get this right. He’s punctual compared to a lot of other pundits and journalists, who have steadfastly refused to acknowledge that there was any “there” there, or that it was straightforwardly ridiculous to claim an opinion column endangered the lives of black staffers.
Katie and I have observed a similar pattern whenever something controversial that sits in one of our wheelhouses has occurred in the last two and a half years. Mainstream outlets are almost always terrible at capturing the controversy with any genuine nuance or complexity — mostly, we think, because journalists are simply scared of getting yelled at on Twitter, or perhaps worried about the professional consequences that have befallen targets like Bennet in a few outlying cases.
This paragraph is one that every mainstream journalist should read and reflect on:
So we find ourselves wandering through a lush forest replete with low-hanging fruit. We pluck the fruit and people give us money — probably, we think, because they can’t find exactly what we’re doing elsewhere, given that mainstream media has become a pockmarked moonscape of tired takes and 25-year-old activists posing as journalists who are granted far too much power by their terrified Gen X and Boomer bosses.
Our coverage of the Times brouhaha was one example. We were able to provide a generally accurate description of the situation years before many others did, simply because it didn’t matter to us if people flipped out as a result.
These days, so many of the big stories out there are ripe for the picking — and you often have little competition covering them. With the exception of a dozen or so fellow heretics, almost nobody wants to touch them.
I have to say, this makes my job surprisingly easy.
Simply being willing to ignore Twitter, as Singal points out, allows you to consider facts, follow evidence and make obvious, straightforward observations — something that many peers, at least on third rail stories, are still frequently afraid to do.
It’s a significant professional advantage. And mainstream journalists know it.
Singal drives this home in his essay:
I guess what I’m saying is simple: As a journalist, you have no right to be mad at successful Substackers if you’re chronically 2–5 years behind them on every hot-button subject. If people come to me for my take on these controversies, and they ignore you, that could be because you are terrified of enraging the Twitter masses, and therefore your work is becoming increasingly uninteresting and indistinguishable from all the other partisan takes out there.
Nothing we’re doing is particularly fancy, nor does it require sky-high intelligence or talent or any other rare qualities. We’ve just stopped caring about angry people on Twitter. That’s really most of the equation. And because our ongoing employment does not rely on close relationships with any particular mainstream institution, we can afford not to care when the angry people get angry. Because what happens when they do? Very little.
Once again, the superpower at work here is no secret: Just stop caring about Twitter.
The consensus is falling apart anyway. What have you got to lose?
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