The ultra-liberal online opinion journal Slate.com just published “a lightly condensed and edited transcript” (sez them) of a 75-minute crisis meeting inside the NY Times. Most of this post is from that transcript. I wish I could take the space to print the whole transcript, though you can find it via https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/08/new-york-times-meeting-transcript.amp?__twitter_impression=true. Most of what I have left out is NYT policy and “housekeeping” stuff, but my purpose here is not to praise or bash The NY Times but to illustrate how subtle groupthink is.
The first sentence in Slate’s reveal quotes executive editor Dean Baquet: “What I’m saying is that our readers and some of our staff cheer us when we take on Donald Trump, but they jeer at us when we take on Joe Biden.” Baquet, in his remarks, seemed to fault the complaining readers, and the world, for their failure to understand the Times and its duties in the era of Trump. “They sometimes want us to pretend that he was not elected president, but he was elected president,” Baquet said. “And our job is to figure out why, and how, and to hold the administration to account. If you’re independent, that’s what you do.”
“Our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought, ‘Holy shit, Bob Mueller is not going to do it,’” Baquet said. “And Donald Trump got a little emboldened politically, I think. A lot of the stuff we’re talking about started to emerge like six or seven weeks ago. This is a really hard story, newsrooms haven’t confronted one like this since the 1960s. It got trickier after [inaudible] … went from being a story about whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia and obstruction of justice to being a more head-on story about the president’s character.” Whose decision? Is character analysis really a legitimate mission of a newspaper? “We built our newsroom to cover one story, and we did it truly well. Now we have to regroup, and shift resources and emphasis to take on a different story, a story about what it means to be an American in 2019. It is a story that requires deep investigation into people who peddle hatred” (what exactly does that mean?) “but it is also a story that requires imaginative use of all our muscles to write about race and class in a deeper way than we have in years. In the coming weeks, we’ll be assigning some new people to politics who can offer different ways of looking at the world. The newspaper will publish the 1619 Project, the most ambitious examination of the legacy of slavery ever undertaken in [inaudible] newspaper, to try to understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump. And that means trying to understand the segment of America that probably does not read us.”
Staffer: “Could you explain your decision not to more regularly use the word racist in reference to the president’s actions?” Staffer is typical of groupthink; already decided that Trump’s actions are racist, now wants the paper to solidify that perception.
Baquet: “Look, my own view is that the best way to capture a remark, like the kinds of remarks the president makes, is to use them, to lay it out in perspective. That is much more powerful than the use of a word. The weekend when some news organizations used the word racist, and I chose not to, we ran what I think is the most powerful story anybody ran that weekend. [inaudible] [chief White House correspondent] Peter Baker, who stepped back and took Trump’s remarks, looked at his whole history of using remarks like that, and I think it was more powerful than any one word. My own view is, you quote the actual remarks. I’m not saying we would never use the word racist. I’m talking about that weekend. The most powerful journalism I have ever read, and that I’ve ever witnessed, was when writers actually just described what they heard and put them in some perspective. I just think that’s more powerful.” I agree with him, that’s showing respect for your readers, let them decide what a person’s words mean rather than tagging them with a label.
Staffer: “But what is [inaudible] the use of a very clear word most people [inaudible]?” Staffer doesn’t agree, thinks “most people” are clear on the meaning of racism. They are not.
Baquet: “I think that that word it loses its power by the second or third time. I do. I think that these words—can I talk about the use of the word lie for one second?”
Staffer: “As long as you come back to my original question.”
Baquet: I will. I used the word lie once during the presidential campaign, used it a couple times after that. And it was pretty clear it was a lie, and we were the first ones to use it. But I fear that if we used it 20 times, 10 times, first, it would lose its power. And secondly, I thought we would find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of deciding which comment by which politician fit the word lie. I feel the same way about the word racist. I think that a bizarre sort of litmus test has been created: If you don’t use the word racist, you’re not quite capturing what the president said.” That sentence exposes the groupthink of most of the media. “I’m going to ask you to go back and read the most powerful journalism of the civil rights movement. The most powerful journalism of the civil rights movement—for instance Joe Lelyveld’s portrait of Philadelphia, Mississippi, after the murders of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman—were vivid descriptions of what people in Philadelphia, Mississippi, said and how they behaved. The lead of the story described an old white man sitting on his front porch, saying that the town wasn’t racist, saying that everybody lived peacefully in the town. And as he was saying that, a much older black man walked by, and the guy called him “boy.” That is 20 times more powerful, by my lights, than to use the word racist. If the lead of that story had been “Philadelphia, Mississippi, is a racist town,” it would have been true, but it wouldn’t have been as powerful. I don’t expect everybody to agree with me. In fact, some of the people who were in the discussion that weekend don’t agree with me, but that’s how I feel, strongly.”
Different Staffer: “Hi. You mentioned that there could be situations when we would use the word racist. What is that standard?” Baguet obviously understands the power of labeling, but many staffers are so self indoctrinated that they can’t see beyond their own prejudice.
“Baquet: “You know, we actually should have a written standard….I mean, it’s hard for me to answer, but yes, I do think there are instances when we would use it. It’s hard for me to articulate an example of it.” Yes, written standards, and what would yours be based on?
Staffer: “To come back to the discussion of the word racist for a second, I’m sensitive to how charged a word it is. I’m sensitive to not using labels. But I was struck a couple of years ago. I went to Little Rock for the 60th anniversary of Central High School. And I went back and I reread Homer Bigart’s story, you know, the day it happened, and it was a triple banner headline across the front page. And Homer Bigart, who was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, his lead was, ‘An impressive array of federal force cowed racist agitators outside Central High School.’ And I was thinking, wow, that’s blunt, it’s powerful, it’s simple, it’s direct. And I was thinking, I wonder if that would ever be the way we would do it today.”
Baquet: “But I think you’d also… In a weird way, I would argue that proves my point. That was such a powerful moment in American history. It still resonates in American history. It was such a powerful scene of the American South at that moment, that in that instance, to have not used the word would have been weak. And I think, to me, I would argue that that proves my point.”
Staffer: “But the part that got me a little bit worried about is, if you compare it to how we would cover Charlottesville (“Unite the Right” rally in 2017, clash with “counter-protesters) which is different, sometimes we use these other words that sound like euphemisms or like ‘white nationalists who are racially tinged’ or we use things that seem to normalize and clean up and sanitize an ugly reality.”
Baquet: “Yeah, I hate racially tinged, racially charged, too. I think those are worse. If you’re going to do what I said, if you’re gonna put your money where your mouth is and actually just describe it, you shouldn’t use sort of half-assed words like racially charged or racially tinged either. You should either say it when the moment comes or you should describe the scene. I agree with that.”
Different Staffer: “I have another question about racism. I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? Like these conversations about what is racist, what isn’t racist. I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting. And so, to me, it’s less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we’re thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all of the systems in the country. And I think particularly as we are launching a 1619 Project, I feel like that’s going to open us up to even more criticism from people who are like, ‘OK, well you’re saying this, and you’re producing this big project about this. But are you guys actually considering this in your daily reporting?'”
Baquet: “You know, it’s interesting, the argument you just made, to go back to the use of the word racist. I didn’t agree with all of this from Keith Woods, who I know from New Orleans and who’s the ombudsman for NPR. He wrote a piece about why he wouldn’t have used the word racist, and his argument, which is pretty provocative, boils down to this: Pretty much everything is racist. His view is that a huge percentage of American conversation is racist, so why isolate this one comment from Donald Trump? His argument is that he could cite things that people say in their everyday lives that we don’t characterize that way, which is always interesting. You know, I don’t know how to answer that, other than I do think that that race has always played a huge part in the American story.
“And I do think that race and understanding of race should be a part of how we cover the American story. Sometimes news organizations sort of forget that in the moment. But of course it should be. I mean, one reason we all signed off on the 1619 Project and made it so ambitious and expansive was to teach our readers to think a little bit more like that. Race in the next year—and I think this is, to be frank, what I would hope you come away from this discussion with—race in the next year is going to be a huge part of the American story. And I mean, race in terms of not only African Americans and their relationship with Donald Trump, but Latinos and immigration. And I think that one of the things I would love to come out of this with is for people to feel very comfortable coming to me and saying, here’s how I would like you to consider telling that story. Because the reason you have a diverse newsroom, to be frank, is so that you can have people pull together to try to tell that story. I think that’s the closest answer I can come.” The agenda of the Times and other opinion media (there is probably no straight reporting anymore in the media space) is revealed in his use of “teach readers to think a little bit more like that.”
Different Staffer: Hi, I actually wanted to raise a different issue, not to stop the discussion about language. About the push for social media and audience engagement, it’s very clear that the direction of the paper and of management is to incentivize and reward more engagement on social media. But then you have the things that get the most traffic on social media or something like people’s Twitter accounts, where it might push them to write inflammatory or stupid or ill-thought-out things. So we’re kind of incentivizing people to get eyes, but that also incentivizes people to say stupid things on social media.“
Okay, enough of that. What was clear to me is that none of these people are evil or ill-intentioned (in that they TOTALLY believein what they spew). The power of groupthink, of social circle indoctrination, is that once you accept your group’s presuppositions—whatever group that is—you have impaired your ability to perceive evidence to the contrary. Mr. Baquet eventually gave in to the group consensus that the paper should be less mild (i.e. factual) and more powerful (use racist label) in its headlines. Why? Notice what the different staffer said about the history of our country, that it’s essentially racism and white supremacy. This person has absolutely no knowledge of history beyond the headlines. My next post will delve into the 1619 project, their effort to “TEACH READERS HOW TO THINK” PROPERLY, which is to accept the view that racism and slavery EMBODY the USA. This is how freedom is lost.