What's going on at The New York Times?

From bad headlines to weak statements against antiracism, the paper of record takes many wrong steps.

There’s a lot of drama going on at the Gray Lady. From the reporting surrounding its previously lauded podcast Caliphate to the firing of freelance editor Lauren Wolfe, The New York Times and its internal workplace culture has been the subject of media scrutiny and gossip in recent weeks. 

The most recent of these involves 45-year New York Times veteran Donald McNeil, who became the paper’s lead coronavirus reporter and then exited the Times under a firestorm of controversy and complaints regarding his past behaviors, both inside and outside the newsroom. 

Here’s the TLDR

In 2019, McNeil took part in a “Student Journey” to Peru that was organized by the Times. The central topic was community health care, and McNeil served as a “subject guide” for the high school students on the trip. A Jan. 28 article from The Daily Beast revealed that several students and parents had made complaints about McNeil’s behavior, saying he made racist and sexist remarks during the trip, including the use of the n-word. The Times then conducted an investigation into McNeil’s behavior — it ended with only a verbal reprimand and a “harsh letter” added to his personnel file. Since The Daily Beast article was published, Times leadership scrambled to handle the situation, all while McNeil told a Washington Post reporter, “Don’t believe everything you read.” 

A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the Times, even received a letter on Feb. 3 signed by more than 150 Times staffers demanding further investigation into the 2019 Peru trip and an apology from McNeil. As newsroom leaders tried to handle the increasingly out-of-control situation, they heard more complaints, this time about McNeil being a colleague who was not always respectful to colleagues and was difficult to work with. So on Feb. 5, executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn sent out a memo to staff stating that McNeil would be leaving the publication. 

“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” the email reads. “We are committed to building a news report and company that reflect our core values of integrity and respect, and will work with urgency to create clearer guidelines and enforcement about conduct in the workplace, including red-line issues on racist language.”

You’d think the story would end with McNeil’s leaving the Times, right? Wrong. Because in today’s world, with controversy comes the hot takes and the opinions. And Bret Stephens, New York Times columnist, had an opinion. According to Dylan Byers, senior media reporter for NBC and MSNBC, Stephens said that Sulzberger “spiked” an upcoming column that criticized how the Times handled the McNeil case. 

Here’s exactly what Stephens took issue with: 

And here is the response from Baquet, who appears to completely walk back the previous statement:

Catching up on this whole debacle honestly feels like experiencing some form of whiplash. Are we really going to have this conversation, AGAIN? It’s the kind of discourse that is both never-ending and extremely repetitive: Media Guy exhibits bad behavior, media outlet bungles the basic process of looking into the situation, Media Guy parts from outlet, Media Outlet Executive issues statement about the importance of newsroom inclusivity, Media Opinion Writer disagrees with said statement and wants to opine about it, Media Opinion Writer is told no, Media Opinion Writer takes issue with being told no, and Media Outlet Executive issues another statement backtracking on the first. 

It’s the kind of media cycle that, frankly, is exhausting. But what makes it exhausting is that, for the most part, nothing substantive changes — only more press releases on the importance of diversity and combating racism in the newsroom are released, in hopes of appeasing both those inside the newsroom and those outside who have been clamoring for systemic, meaningful changes for years. It’s the equivalent of walking the walk but not talking the talk.

Baquet’s first statement, in which he states that the newsroom doesn’t tolerate racism, regardless of intent, was strong and promised tangible action. But the second statement completely strips that statement against racist language of its teeth. It’s soft and weak and promises nothing actionable, all from a newsroom that, for the most part, has aired out its problems with race, equity and inclusivity among staff in the public arena. 

The worst part about Baquet’s follow-up statement is that it capitulates to Stephens and those who are always happy to cry “but free speech!!” and “cancel culture!!” whenever a columnist doesn’t get their way. (And I’m just going to say here, it is completely within the job duties of opinion editors to choose not to run a commentary or a column — no one has a protected free speech right to be published in The New York Times). 

Instead of taking a strong stance against the use of racist language, the statement gives credence to bad-faith arguments and bad-faith actors, all at the expense of the staffers that have been working tirelessly to improve newsroom practices and newsroom culture. 

It shouldn’t be controversial for the leader of one of the biggest mainstream news outlets in the U.S. to say that the use of racist language by its journalists and staff members is unacceptable, period. In fact, that should just be the standard. That Baquet felt the need to walk that statement back after facing criticism showcases weakness and cowardice to stand up for the right principles — which, in this case, involves anti-racism in the newsroom. 

It shouldn’t even be controversial to promote and establish an expectation that racist language or behavior will not be tolerated among staff. It should be the bare minimum of any media organization that is actually serious about recruiting and cultivating a more diverse and inclusive newsroom and rebuilding trust with communities that have historically been marginalized by mainstream news outlets. 

The fact that it’s not at The New York Times reveals just how little newsroom leaders were willing to stick to those promises to anti-racism and “doing better.” Because despite last year’s much-needed reckonings around racism and the treatment of Black journalists and journalists of color, the Times has shown an unwillingness to move even an inch forward.

Bad Headline

There’s a common gripe among journalists about modern news consumers: that they only read the headline of a piece before opining about the actual contents of said article. That they don’t actually take the time to “read” a piece, that they’ll form an opinion based on the headline and a half-hearted skimming of the piece itself. I’ll admit that I’ve been guilty, of both making this gripe and perpetuating it. 

But this piece isn’t going to rail against the consumer that reads more headlines than actual articles — rather, it’s going to be a dissection of headlines themselves. In particular, I want to focus on this one headline from a recent New York Times story. Or, it’s not so much the headline per se, but the now publicized editing changes around it. 

Take this tweet from Editing the Gray Lady, @nyt_diff on Twitter, a bot that tracks and highlights changes in headlines and content on the main page of The New York Times:

Here’s the original headline on Jan. 22, 2021: “Why Workers Are on Strike: They Want $1-An-Hour-Raise” 

Here’s the modified version from the same day: “Strike at Largest U.S. Wholesale Produce Threatens Supply Chain” 

Here’s the newest version, changed to reflect the end of the strike: “Strike Ends at Largest U.S. Wholesale Produce Market”

(For the sake of this post, I’m only going to focus my analysis on the first two headlines) 

The contrast in framing between the first two headlines is so stark that they could easily be used for two different articles in two ideologically opposite publications. One headline centers the demands of workers on strike, while the other makes front and center the impacts of the strike on the company’s profits. One headline centers workers; the other erases them. One headline lifts up the demands of workers; the other prioritizes the bottom line of the business. 

Each headline prioritizes a different subject: one chooses the worker, the other chooses the supply chain. To read each headline separately is to get two contrasting narratives about the same news story: the strike of Hunts Point workers in New York City last month. But to look at those headlines as a process — in which a headline is first written and then edited and rewritten — showcases just how important they are in journalism. 

Headlines are what makes us click on an article link in the first place. It’s the first foray into the piece itself, a preview of what’s to come. Headlines are supposed to be informative yet engaging, not too “clickbaity” but eye-catching enough to warrant a click, creative but not vague, informative without giving everything away. 

The bottom line is that headlines are arguably just as important as the actual quality of the journalism that flows below it. They can communicate the entire gist of a piece, the why that spurred the piece in the first place. So when a headline that emphasizes the perspectives of workers on strike is heavily edited to instead reflect the concerns of the business owners, it completely changes the perception of the piece without even messing with the article’s actual contents. 

The headline changes also provide a big tell on who The New York Times chooses to prioritize in its framing of issues like a workers strike — it requires deciding who, exactly, is worth prioritizing in this news event. In this case, the answer is clear: it’s the business. But to make this deliberate change is to also communicate the publication’s own biases. No matter how much mainstream media like the Times tries to wax poetic on objectivity and neutrality in reporting, headlines can often betray that strategy. 

Just look at those two headlines again. Who is the main character in the original headline? The workers. The modified, second headline, centers a different main character: the producer. That Times editors made that change signals not-so-subtly what side the publication takes and whose perspectives they prioritize: the producer. 

It’s disappointing (albeit not all that surprising) that the Times would run in this direction. At the end of the day, a story about workers going on strike against a major wholesale producer in New York City should have a headline reflecting the workers instead of the business. Choosing the latter in this instance, as the Times did, does a disservice to the workers who were the center of the story. 

Top 5

Welcome to this new section, in which I’ll list the best articles, shows, movies, music, podcasts, recipes, and whatnots that I’ve consumed recently. 

  1. This podcast episode from Citations Needed about intellectual property, the COVID-19 vaccines, and the disparities between which countries have access to the vaccine and which do not. 

  2. This Associated Press story by Steve Peoples and Brian Slodysko about The Grifting Project. 

  3. This absolutely great essay in Study Hall by Allegra Hobbs about the anxiety-inducing yet necessary act of door knocking as a local reporter. 

  4. This New York Times piece by Ella Koeze about how the Reddit forum r/Unemployment has become a place of questions, answers, and community for unemployed people in the pandemic. 

  5. This delightful New York Times piece by Sabrina Imbler about lemurs

If you made it all the way here, thanks for reading! New Press Pass issues will be released every other week. If there’s any media news or media drama you think I should have my eye on, please feel free to let me know!

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