Don't Be Surprised if the New York Times Axes Its Executive Editor

Don't Be Surprised if the New York Times Axes Its Executive Editor

Who’d be surprised if, one day soon, there arises a quiet effort to replace Dean Baquet as executive editor of the New York Times? It could happen because it’s a certainty that there are current and former Timesmen, from reporters and editors to members of the controlling Ochs-Sulzberger family, who see and rue what has happened to the paper on Baquet’s watch.

The two most recent editorial catastrophes have been the Times’ errant and malicious accusations against Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh, and the launch of the papers’ so-called “1619 Project,” an attempt to rewrite American history as the story of slavery and racism, then and now.

That these things have come about since Donald Trump’s election is not, of course, a coincidence. In company with outlets like CNN, MSNBC, and the Washington Post, the Times has been running on Trump Derangement Syndrome since the moment the gentleman was elected president. And this affliction isn’t the worst thing about the paper. The worst is that they’ve eviscerated journalism worth its salt, using every section of their publication, online and print, to introduce opinion into so-called news and feature stories.

In doing so, the Times hasn’t just trashed its own reputation (which has always been a little overrated), it has acted as the leader of the journalistic pack in the abandonment of the only real virtue news organizations have in a democracy: the reporting of facts, objectively derived and presented.

In her book, “Merchants of Truth,“ the former executive editor of the Times, Jill Abramson, castigates the paper for its “unmistakably anti-Trump” bias, and suggests that the reason for it is management’s perceived need to keep and attract liberal readers, through online subscriptions especially…a business plan that has, in fact, succeeded in bringing the paper millions of new online subscribers even as it has undermined its credibility among the general public. 

And not just the general public. Speaking in March of this year at a program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ted Koppel lamented the front-page positioning of commentary in the New York Times, adding “I’m terribly concerned that when you talk about the New York Times these days, when you talk about the Washington Post these days, we’re not talking about the New York Times of 50 years ago. We’re talking about organizations that, I believe, have in fact decided that Donald Trump is bad for the United States.”

More recently, Damon Linker has expressed, in the pages of The Week, his reservations about the 1619 Project: “The point (of the Project) is to ‘reframe American history’ so that this appalling history stands at the very center of who we are as a country. Achieving that goal has required the Times to treat history in a highly sensationalistic, reductionistic, and tendentious way, with the cumulative result resembling agitprop more than responsible journalism or scholarship.”   

Even George Packer’s much-discussed piece in the Atlantic, “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids,” could, by his criticism of race and identity-based educational practices, be seen as an indictment of the Times’ 1619 Project. Consider, for example, these excerpts from his piece:

The politics of identity starts out with the universal principles of equality, dignity, and freedom, but in practice it becomes an end in itself—often a dead end, a trap from which there’s no easy escape and maybe no desire for escape…

The atmosphere of mental constriction in progressive milieus, the self-censorship and fear of public shaming, the intolerance of dissent—these are qualities of an illiberal politics…

It took me a long time to see that the new progressivism didn’t just carry my own politics further than I liked. It was actually hostile to principles without which I don’t believe democracy can survive.

It would, perhaps, be of arguably less significance if the people quoted above were conservatives of one stripe or another, but in fact they are all liberals, and that is why Dean Baquet may have a day of reckoning coming his way. These are the kind of people, liberal but not progressive, who constitute the responsible Left, the historic and natural home of the New York Times, and their concerns are certain to be heard, and shared by, others who are close to the Times.

There is one other reason why the long knives may come for Baquet: In the alternative, they’d have to come for the current chairman and former publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., who in 2014 fired Abramson and hired Baquet, and who, amidst criticism of the paper’s editorial practices by the paper’s “public editors,” fired the last of them, Liz Spayd, and eliminated the position altogether in 2017.

Patrick Maines is President Emeritus of The Media Institute, one of the country’s leading First Amendment think tanks.

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