When Joe Kahn succeeded Dean Baquet as the top editor of the New York Times, many of us who’d been critical of the organization’s truly wretched political coverage hoped against hope that Kahn would make vital changes. At the top of my personal list was the desperate need for the Times to recognize, given its vast influence in our culture, that our democracy is in dire jeopardy — and that continuing the Times’ business-as-usual political journalism would play into the hands of those who want dictatorship.

No such luck. As a new interview with Kahn conclusively demonstrates, the Times — still a great news organization in so many other ways — has chosen to stick with political business as usual. For people who care about journalism’s essential role at this pivotal moment in America’s history, this is demoralizing. For America’s democracy, it is a body blow.

Ben Smith at Semafor was the interviewer, and his questions weren’t exactly an example of journalistic hardball. But at least he did ask, directly, whether Kahn believes it’s crucial for a news organization — which depends on democracy’s survival to function — to do what it can to prevent a would-be dictator from taking control.

Not a chance, said Kahn. Here’s an extended quote:

To say that the threats of democracy are so great that the media is going to abandon its central role as a source of impartial information to help people vote — that’s essentially saying that the news media should become a propaganda arm for a single candidate, because we prefer that candidate’s agenda. It is true that Biden’s agenda is more in sync with traditional establishment parties and candidates. And we’re reporting on that and making it very clear.

It’s also true that Trump could win this election in a popular vote. Given that Trump’s not in office, it will probably be fair. And there’s a very good chance, based on our polling and other independent polling, that he will win that election in a popular vote. So there are people out there in the world who may decide, based on their democratic rights, to elect Donald Trump as president. It is not the job of the news media to prevent that from happening. It’s the job of Biden and the people around Biden to prevent that from happening.

It’s our job to cover the full range of issues that people have. At the moment, democracy is one of them. But it’s not the top one — immigration happens to be the top [of polls], and the economy and inflation is the second. Should we stop covering those things because they’re favorable to Trump and minimize them?

The last part of that is genuinely shocking to me — apart from the implication that polls are decisive in newsroom decision-making.

One of the key reasons democracy is not the top issue in polls is that our news media — starting with the New York Times — have refused to take the threats to democracy seriously. Meanwhile, they’ve done stenography for the Republicans’ apocalyptic framing of immigration and inflation, serious issues indeed and needing serious coverage. Regarding inflation, which has slowed dramatically, there is zero context in most coverage; U.S. inflation is much less severe than in other major economies, but you’ll almost never see that in the Times’ (or any other organizations’) articles on the subject.

Of course the Times (which, to be fair, occasionally does excellent political journalism) should cover the full range of issues. But the prospect of fascism in America dwarfs the others, or should, for any news organization that understands journalism’s most crucial role.

Hell, journalists should see this as a matter of self-preservation if nothing else. End democracy, and you end the system that protects (most of the time) freedom of expression and, by extension, freedom of the press.

So let’s really be “very clear”: Kahn’s ducking of journalistic responsibility boils down to this: News media have no core responsibility to democracy itself, even when one of the two major-party candidates and his cult-like following have said out loud that they support democracy only if it produces the result they want, namely a Donald Trump regime with extreme right-wing policies.

Kahn’s stance — shared, pathetically, by the rest of Big Journalism though rarely so plainly — is journalistic abdication in the face of an emergency. It is shameful.

Given the Times’ recent history, the situation is even worse than that. Even as the Times refuses to take an essential stand in its newsroom, it has persisted (as have basically all major media outlets) in treating Trump and the extreme right that now controls the Republican Party as “one side” of a normal debate.

The Times has consistently and willfully normalized the extremists over the past eight years (and longer). The Times gives endless attention to extremists’ anger, treating even Nazis with the utmost respect on its news pages. The Times, again like other media organizations, has done consistent stenography for blatantly bad-faith right-wing propaganda, letting Trump and his acolytes act almost as an assignment desk. Hey, it’s just another part of being balanced — and the horse race, right?

When Kahn says it’s “not the job” of the news media to help preserve democracy, he is refusing to look even a single day past the fall elections. Whether this is a calculation, or mere cowardice, is irrelevant.

If fascism overtakes America in the next few years, the Times will cover the fascists ever so respectfully. It will be business as usual, until it’s too late.

7 thoughts on “NY Times editor: Democracy is good, but we won’t actively defend it

  1. Neutral is no longer ok in any field in my opinion.
    Absurdly wrong of The Times.

    , referring to victims of genocide: “Let us remember: what hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.”
    Elie Wiesel

  2. Dan, let me suggest again “show, not tell”. Take a NYT article, this should be the headline, first paragraph, etc.

    But to be “very clear” – aren’t you actually arguing that it IS “the job of the news media to prevent” “elect[ing] Donald Trump as president”? Doesn’t this logically require “the news media should become a propaganda arm for a single candidate”? How could it not? If it’s necessary to “do what it can to prevent a would-be dictator from taking control”, then how could any negative coverage of the savior candidate be acceptable to that goal? It seems to me obvious – any negative coverage, anywhere, might tip the election – which would then result in LOSE OUR DEMOCRACY! And one never knows what might make difference. So again, if IT’S AN EMERGENCY!! – doesn’t every single article need to make sure to absolutely pound home the message of (one joke? please?) HITLER NAZI GENOCIDE!!!

    Note, I’m not arguing your assumptions are wrong. My point is, if one follows them, don’t they inevitably end up in a very bad place due to a repeated purity spiral? (i.e. requiring being more and more strident due to it never being enough – the “beatings will continue until morale improves”).

    • I am arguing that it is the job of journalists to help protect democracy. Yes, it should be a propaganda arm — for democracy.

      Not taking a stand in this election — when one major party candidate and his followers have made clear their contempt for democracy (unless they win), and their intention to create an authoritarian-to-fascist regime — is to abandon a principle that should matter more than journalistic neutrality. It also means abandoning journalism itself, since one certain outcome under a dictatorship is stomping out meaningful journalism.

      Observing Biden’s (and Democrats’) flaws is hardly out of bounds, and in fact has been the rule among political journalism. Doing it with context? I’m joking; journalists don’t do context. Maybe they could try some this year. It would help.

      Being a propaganda arm for democracy does inevitably mean, in this election, doing whatever is possible to stop the would-be dictator and cult from taking control. That doesn’t solely mean shouting from the rooftops, though some of that is important. Urgency is more important, by far, than stridency. Grasping the urgency of the moment and trying to address it also means, among other things, doing whatever is possible to enhance voting rights — the right to vote in a free and fair election,and have the vote counted — by helping to register eligible voters and see that they get to the polls, as well as doing the utmost to prevent voter suppression, and more.

      Journalism can’t save democracy by itself, and being propagandists for democracy might not move the needle even enough to notice. But there’s no excuse for not trying.

      • The question is not if “doing whatever is possible to stop the would-be dictator and cult from taking control” can also include reasonable nice nominally neutral things like “voting rights”. It’s if does include a requirement that all stories be evaluated as to their potential political partisan implications (“the stakes”), and written as strongly as possible against the disfavored political party.

        Thus if you say: “Observing Biden’s (and Democrats’) flaws is hardly out of bounds”

        How do you justify this against your framework? Seriously, why shouldn’t that completely out of bounds under the assumptions, because IT’S AN EMERGENCY! What do you reply to the more-radical-than-thou who asserts: “This article about Biden’s (and Democrats’) flaws should not be written, because it might help Trump be elected, and all journalists will then be sent to concentration camps as Enemies Of The MAGA State. Don’t you grasp how much we’re on a razor’s edge of FASCISM? In normal times, it would be OK to write articles like that. But this is not normal! For the duration of the extraordinary threat to the country, not to mention our very lives, such articles are helping to sign the death warrant of democracy”.

        As someone who defends the idea of objective truth though I know it’s a philosophical problem, I sometimes advocate “We could do much better before reaching the philosophical limit”. But here, I think history shows that spiraling group-dynamics starting reaching the philosophical limit (“No criticizing Democrats else it’s GENOCIDE!”) very, very, quickly.

          • I think that’s an unfair characterization. This is essentially the free-speech/hate-speech debate:

            HS: Hate speech should be banned, because Nazis lead to Fascism, death, etc.
            FS: How do you stop “hate speech” from becoming merely “stuff YOU don’t like?”

            If FS’s have to defend their view that they’re supporting the rights of horrific Nazis, etc, then it’s entirely fair that HS’s have to defend against setting themselves up as Thought Police.

            One common social-media reply these days is for HS’s to say to FS’s something like: “Stop being a reply-guy sealion who is Just Asking Questions” (this is why I have a somewhat baleful view of Community Moderation and such, I’ve seen such ideological spirals happen too many times).

            Applied to the NYT in specific, remember incidents such as the Tom Cotton “Troops” Op-Ed, which led to a reaction of claiming “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger”. I actually understood the logic of the claim, and it’s structurally similar to what I outlined (i.e. this article could contribute to Bad Outcome, therefore it’s a *danger*).

            Given all the above, I believe I’m asking a very fair question – what stops a race to the bottom of the most zealous (we-are-in-danger) turning every political article into pro-Dem/anti-Rep propaganda?.

            Now, as to “a way forward” – well, sadly, I really don’t know, and I’m humbled by all my failures. If I get into such expected-negative-value situations like this thread, how can I ever reasonably expect to have an effect on much larger issues? Sardonically, if my tribe thinks the main solution is “Scream ORANGE MAN BAD! really really loudly, all the time”, and I say something like “No, that’s annoying and off-putting, we must focus on an extensive reform program with aggressive benefit outreach to other tribes, attempting to win them to our side” – it’s not like I’m the only person ever to have that idea, and there’s reasons screaming is the popular option (it’s very easy, for one). It’s kind of the disheartening part of the question of “What would you have done in US Slavery/WWII Germany/whatever?” – the stories we get told of then-activists can be pure survivorship bias, arguably the vast majority of them had no effect at all.

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