Published On: Ned, sij 24th, 2021

Slouching Toward Post-Journalism

Traditional newspapers never sold news; they sold an audience to advertisers. To a considerable degree, this commercial imperative determined the journalistic style, with its impersonal voice and pretense of objectivity. The aim was to herd the audience into a passive consumerist mass. Opinion, which divided readers, was treated like a volatile substance and fenced off from “factual” reporting.

The digital age exploded this business model. Advertisers fled to online platforms, never to return. For most newspapers, no alternative sources of revenue existed: as circulation plummets to the lowest numbers on record, more than 2,000 dailies have gone silent since the turn of the century. The survival of the rest remains an open question.

Led by the New York Times, a few prominent brand names moved to a model that sought to squeeze revenue from digital subscribers lured behind a paywall. This approach carried its own risks. The amount of information in the world was, for practical purposes, infinite. As supply vastly outstripped demand, the news now chased the reader, rather than the other way around. Today, nobody under 85 would look for news in a newspaper. Under such circumstances, what commodity could be offered for sale?

During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Times stumbled onto a possible answer. It entailed a wrenching pivot from a journalism of fact to a “post-journalism” of opinion—a term coined, in his book of that title, by media scholar Andrey Mir. Rather than news, the paper began to sell what was, in effect, a creed, an agenda, to a congregation of like-minded souls. Post-journalism “mixes open ideological intentions with a hidden business necessity required for the media to survive,” Mir observes. The new business model required a new style of reporting. Its language aimed to commodify polarization and threat: journalists had to “scare the audience to make it donate.” At stake was survival in the digital storm.

The experiment proved controversial. It sparked a melodrama over standards at the Times, featuring a conflict between radical young reporters and befuddled middle-aged editors. In a crucible of proclamations, disputes, and meetings, the requirements of the newspaper as an institution collided with the post-journalistic call for an explicit struggle against injustice.

The battleground was the treatment of race and racism in America. But the story began, as it seemingly must, with that inescapable character: Donald Trump.

In August 2016, as the presidential race ground grimly onward, the New York Times laid down a marker regarding the manner in which it would be covered. The paper declared the prevalence of media opinion to be an irresistible fact, like the weather. Or, as Jim Rutenberg phrased it in a prominent front-page story: “If you view a Trump presidency as something that is potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that.” Objectivity was discarded in favor of an “oppositional” stance. This was not an anti-Trump opinion piece. It was an obituary for the values of a lost era. Rutenberg, who covered the media beat, had authored a factual report about the death of factual reporting—the sort of paradox often encountered among the murky categories of post-journalism.

The article touched on the fraught issue of race and racism. Trump opponents take his racism for granted—he stands accused of appealing to the worst instincts of the American public, and those who wish to debate the point immediately fall under suspicion of being racists themselves. The dilemma, therefore, was not whether Trump was racist (that was a fact) or why he flaunted his racist views (he was a dangerous demagogue) but, rather, how to report on his racism under the strictures of commercial journalism. Once objectivity was sacrificed, an immense field of subjective possibilities presented themselves. A vision of the journalist as arbiter of racial justice would soon divide the generations inside the New York Times newsroom.

Rutenberg made his point through hypothetical-rhetorical questions that, at times, verged on satire: “If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?” Rutenberg assumed that “working journalists” shared the same opinion of Trump—that wasn’t perceived as problematic. A second assumption concerned the intelligence of readers: they couldn’t be trusted to process the facts. The answer to Rutenberg’s loaded question, therefore, could only be to “throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of a half-century” and leap vigorously into advocacy. Trump could not safely be covered; he had to be opposed.

The old media had needed happy customers. The goal of post-journalism, according to Mir, is to “produce angry citizens.” The August 2016 article marked the point of no return in the spiritual journey of the New York Times from newspaper of record to Vatican of liberal political furor. While the impulse originated in partisan herd instinct, the discovery of a profit motive would make the change irrevocable. Rutenberg professed to find the new approach “uncomfortable” and, “by normal standards, untenable”—but the fault, he made clear, lay entirely with the “abnormal” Trump, whose toxic personality had contaminated journalism. He was the active principle in the headline “The Challenge Trump Poses to Objectivity.”

“The goal of post-journalism, according to media scholar Andrey Mir, is to ‘produce angry citizens.’”

A cynic (or a conservative) might argue that objectivity in political reporting was more an empty boast than a professional standard and that the newspaper, in pandering to its audience, had long favored an urban agenda, liberal causes, and Democratic candidates. This interpretation misses the transformation in the depths that post-journalism involved. The flagship American newspaper had turned in a direction that came close to propaganda. The oppositional stance, as Mir has noted, cannot coexist with newsroom independence: writers and editors were soon to be punished for straying from the cause. The news agenda became narrower and more repetitive as journalists focused on a handful of partisan controversies—an effect that Mir labeled “discourse concentration.” The New York Times, as a purveyor of information and a political institution, had cut itself loose from its own history.

Rutenberg glimpsed, dimly, the nature of the transfiguration he was describing. “Do normal standards apply? And if they don’t, what should take their place?” he wondered. Even if rhetorically framed, these were remarkable questions. Over the next four years, the need for answers would feed the drama in the Times newsroom.

There’s reason to suspect that Rutenberg and his colleagues regarded the abandonment of objectivity as a temporary emergency measure. Hillary Clinton was heavily favored in opinion polls; on election day, the Times gave her an 84 percent chance of victory. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency was a moment of profound disorientation for establishment media generally, and for the Times in particular.

Not only had the newspaper failed at the new mission of advocacy; it had also failed, egregiously, at the old mission of mediating between the public and the elite sport of politics. In a somber column published the morning after, Liz Spayd, public editor, announced that the Times had entered “a period of self-reflection” and expressed the hope that “its editors will think hard about the half of America the paper too seldom covers.”

The reflective mood quickly passed. Within weeks, the Washington Post connected the Trump campaign with fake news on Facebook planted by Russian operatives. By May 2017, less than four months into the new administration, Robert Mueller had been appointed special counsel to investigate potential crimes by Trump or his staff associated with Russian interference in the elections. So began one of the most extraordinary episodes in American politics—and the first sustained excursion into post-journalism by the American news media, led every step of the way by the New York Times.

Future media historians may hold the Trump-Russia story to be a laboratory-perfect specimen of discourse concentration. For nearly two years, it towered over the information landscape and devoured the attention of the media and the public. The total number of articles on the topic produced by the Times is difficult to measure, but a Google search suggests that it was more than 3,000—the equivalent, if accurate, of multiple articles per day for the period in question. This was journalism as if conducted under the impulse of an obsessive-compulsive personality. Virtually every report either implied or proclaimed culpability. Every day in the news marked the beginning of the Trumpian End Times.

The sum of all this sound and fury was . . . zero. The most intensively covered story in history turned out to be empty of content. Mueller’s investigation “did not identify evidence that any US persons conspired or coordinated” with the Russians. Mueller’s halting television appearance in July 2019 convinced even the most vehement partisans that he was not the knight to slay the dragon in the White House. After two years of media frenzy came an awkward moment. The New York Times had reorganized its newsroom to pursue this single story—yet, just as it had missed Trump’s coming, the paper failed to see that Trump would stay.

Yet what looked like journalistic failure was, in fact, an astonishing post-journalistic success. The intent of post-journalism was never to represent reality or inform the public but to arouse enough political fervor in readers that they wished to enter the paywall in support of the cause. This was ideology by the numbers—and the numbers were striking. Digital subscriptions to the New York Times, which had been stagnant, nearly doubled in the first year of Trump’s presidency. By August 2020, the paper had 6 million digital subscribers—six times the number on Election Day 2016 and the most in the world for any newspaper. The Russian collusion story, though refuted objectively, had been validated subjectively, by the growth in the congregation of the paying faithful.

In throwing out the old textbook, post-journalism made transgression inevitable. In July 2019, Jonathan Weisman, who covered Congress for the Times and happened to be white, questioned on Twitter the legitimacy of leftist members of the House who happened to be black. Following criticism, Weisman deleted the offending tweets and apologized elaborately, but he was demoted nonetheless.

Then, in August, the print edition of the newspaper covered a presidential statement under the headline “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.” Before that could be changed, a storm of outrage swept over social media and penetrated into the Times’s newsroom. Condemnation of Trump as the avatar of American racism was as close to a canonical doctrine as the new style of reporting possessed. Deviation was cause for scandal. Internal turmoil forced Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, to hold a “town hall” meeting with his newsroom staff, the transcript of which was obtained and published by Slate.

The dramatic confrontation had been triggered by Weisman’s tweets and the heretical headline but was really about the boundaries of expression—what was allowed and what was taboo—in a post-objective, post-journalistic time. On the contentious subjects of Trump and race, managers and reporters at the paper appeared to hold similar opinions. No one in the room defended Trump as a normal politician whose views deserved a hearing. No one questioned the notion that the United States, having elected Trump, was a fundamentally racist country. But as Baquet fielded long and pointed questions from his staff, it became clear that management and newsroom—which translated roughly to middle age and youth—held radically divergent visions of the post-journalism future.

Baquet and his editors wished to pursue an institutional approach to advocacy. The influence that the New York Times wields was a function of its standing among other powerful American institutions: so if you wanted to defeat Donald Trump, you needed to maintain the proper tone. In his answers, Baquet, who was 62, often compared the Times favorably to other news organizations and referred to its storied past. When asked repeatedly why, if everyone agreed that Trump was a racist, the use of the word itself was taboo, Baquet turned to the history of the civil rights movement. The best reporters who covered that struggle, he said, by describing injustice had delivered a message “more powerful” than any epithet.

Baquet admitted that the survival of Trump after the Mueller investigation had caught the newspaper “a tiny little bit flat-footed.” “Our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought, ‘Holy shit, Bob Mueller is not going to do it.’ ” Given the business model, a new scheme of polarization was needed. Baquet proposed to cover “race and class in a deeper way than we have in years.”

The <i>Times</i> published more than 3,000 stories on the Robert Mueller–led investigation of Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia, though the former FBI director found no evidence of a conspiracy.  SUSAN WALSH/AP PHOTO

The Times published more than 3,000 stories on the Robert Mueller–led investigation of Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia, though the former FBI director found no evidence of a conspiracy.  (SUSAN WALSH/AP PHOTO)

To the young warriors of the newsroom, this probably sounded like rank hypocrisy. Many belonged to a generation uninterested in history that perceived social life in terms of a cosmic conflict against injustice. Their questions suggested that post-journalism, to them, meant telling the unvarnished truth—which happened to be identical to their political convictions. If Trump lied or made racist statements, journalists had a moral duty to call him out as a liar and a racist. This principle was absolute and extended to all subjects. Since, as one of them put it, “racism and white supremacy” had been “sort of the foundation of this country,” the consequences should be reported explicitly. “I just feel like racism is in everything,” this questioner asserted. “It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting.”

Unlike management, the reporters were active on social media, where they had to face the most militant elements of the subscriber base. In this way, they represented the forces driving the information agenda. Baquet had disparaged Twitter and insisted that the Times would not be edited by social media. He was mistaken. The unrest in the newsroom had been propelled by outrage on the web, and the paper had quickly responded. Generational attitudes, displayed on social media, allowed no space for institutional loyalty. Baquet had demoted Weisman because of his inappropriate behavior—but the newsroom turned against him because he had picked a fight with the wrong enemy.

To the sectarian mind, all institutions are sinful. “I am concerned,” warned a staffer at the town hall meeting, “that the Times is failing to rise to the challenge of a historical moment.” In the final act of the drama, that concern would explode into revolt. When the young reporters proclaimed that racism was everywhere, they were casting a judgmental eye on their bosses.

Two days after the town hall meeting, the New York Times inaugurated, in its magazine section, the “1619 Project”—an attempt, said Baquet, “to try to understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump.” Rather than dig deep into the “half of America” that had voted for the president, the newspaper chose to blame the events of 2016 on the country’s pervasive racism, not only here and now but everywhere and always.

The 1619 Project rode the social-justice ambitions of the newsroom to commodify racial polarization—and, not incidentally, to fill the void left by Robert Mueller’s failure to launch. The project showed little interest in investigative reporting or any other form of old-school journalism. It produced no exposés of present-day injustice. Instead, it sold agenda-setting on a grand scale: the stated mission was to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of our national narrative.” The reportorial crunch implicit in this high-minded posture might be summarized as “All the news that’s fit to reframe history.”

The guiding spirit behind the 1619 Project was Nikole Hannah-Jones, a rising star at the Times and a practitioner of the prosecutorial school of post-journalism. In a long essay that introduced the project, Hannah-Jones placed American history in the defendant’s docket and found it guilty of unrelieved injustice and oppression. The cast of thousands and multiple plot twists of that story were quite literally reduced to black and white, with whites eternally the villains and falsifiers—not even Lincoln came off looking good—and blacks as redeemers of the nation. “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written,” the article began. “Black Americans have fought to make them true.”

The 1619 Project has come under fire for its extreme statements and many historical inaccuracies. Yet critics missed the point of the exercise, which was to stake out polarizing positions in the mode of post-truth: opinions could be transformed into facts if held passionately enough. The project became another post-journalistic triumph for the Times. Public school systems around the country have included the material in their curricula. Hannah-Jones received a Pulitzer Prize for her “sweeping, provocative, and personal essay”—possibly the first award offered for excellence in post-journalism. The focus on race propelled the Times to the vanguard of establishment opinion during the convulsions that followed the death of George Floyd under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.

That episode replaced the Russia collusion story as the prime manufacturer of “angry citizens” and added an element of inflexibility to the usual rigors of post-journalism. Times coverage of antipolice protests was generally sympathetic to the protesters. Trump was, of course, vilified for “fanning the strife.” But the significant change came in the severe tightening of discourse: the reframing imperative now controlled the presentation of news. Reporting minimized the violence that attended the protests, for example, and sought to keep the two phenomena sharply segregated.

News out of step with the reframing mission was exiled to the opinion pages—a loophole that would bring to a climax the family melodrama within the organization. Less than two weeks after Floyd’s death, amid spreading lawlessness in many American cities, the paper posted an opinion piece by Republican senator Tom Cotton in its online op-ed section, titled “Time to Send in the Troops.” It called for “an overwhelming show of force” to pacify troubled urban areas. To many loyal to the New York Times, including staff, allowing Cotton his pitch smacked of treason. Led by young black reporters, the newsroom rebelled.

Once again, the mutiny began on Twitter. Many reporters had large followings; they could appeal directly to readers. In the way of social media, the most excited voices dominated among subscribers. As the base roared, the rebels moved to confront their employer.

The day after the Cotton op-ed appeared online, Times employees sent a letter to Times decision makers, expressing “deep concern” over the piece. This document marked the logical culmination of the process that Rutenberg’s article had begun four years earlier. Objectivity now jettisoned, the question at hand was whose subjective will should control the news agenda.

The letter’s authors made a number of striking assumptions. First, the backdrop was an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil, a story “that does not have a direct precedent in our lifetimes.” The place of the New York Times in that struggle was at issue. Second, some opinions were dangerous—physically so. Cotton’s opinion fell into that category. “Choosing to present this point of view without added context leaves members of the American public . . . vulnerable to harm” while also jeopardizing “our reporters’ ability to work safely and effectively.” Third, the duty of the newspaper was less to inform than to protect such “vulnerable” readers from harmful opinions. By allowing Cotton inside the tent, the Times had failed its readership.

This was the essence of post-journalism: informational “protection”—polarization—sold as a commodity. Objectivity had crumbled before the dangerous Trump. On the question of who decided the danger of any given piece, the newsroom rebels presented a number of broad demands. Future opinion pieces needed to be vetted “across the desk’s diverse staff before publication,” while readers should be invited to “express themselves.” The young reporters felt that they had a better fix on what readers wanted than did their elders. Given the generational divide on social media, this was almost certainly true.

“Revolutions tend to radicalization. The same is true of social media mobs: they grow more extreme until they explode.”

The letter triggered yet another town hall meeting, this time with opinion-page editor James Bennet. It did not go well. Two days later, Bennet was fired. As the rebels demanded, the Cotton op-ed was detoxified with a long-winded editor’s note. The op-ed never appeared in the Times’s print edition. The influence over the news agenda of the younger, more radical, newsroom voices, we can infer, was now large and growing. Older reporters and editors were unlikely to confront them: none wished to share Bennet’s fate.

The history-reframing mission is now in the hands of a deeply self-righteous group that has trouble discerning the many human stopping places between true and false, good and evil, objective and subjective. According to one poll, a majority of Americans shared the opinion that Cotton expressed in his op-ed. That had no bearing on the discussion. In the letter and the town hall meetings, the rebels wielded the word “truth” as if they owned it. By their lights, Cotton had lied, and the fact that the public approved of his lies was precisely what made his piece dangerous.

Two weeks after the Cotton controversy, the Times published an essay by Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize–winning black reporter, titled “A Reckoning over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists.” Equating objectivity with “whiteness,” Lowery called for “moral clarity, which will require both editors and reporters to stop doing things like reflexively hiding behind euphemisms to obfuscate the truth.” The Trump administration and the Republican Party, Lowery urged, should be labeled as what they are: a “refuge to white supremacist rhetoric and policies.” In the post-Bennet moment of post-journalism, editors at the paper were inclined to agree.

Revolutions tend to radicalization. The same is true of social media mobs: they grow ever more extreme until they explode. But the New York Times is neither of these things—it’s a business, and post-journalism is now its business model. The demand for moral clarity, pressed by those who own the truth, must increasingly resemble a quest for radical conformism; but for nonideological reasons, the demand cannot afford to leave subscriber opinion too far behind. Radicalization must balance with the bottom line.

The final paradox of post-journalism is that the generation most likely to share the moralistic attitude of the newsroom rebels is the least likely to read a newspaper. Andrey Mir, who first defined the concept, sees post-journalism as a desperate gamble, doomed in the end by demographics. For newspapers and their multiple art forms developed over a 400-year history, Mir writes, the collision with the digital tsunami was never going to be a challenge to surmount but rather “an extinction-level event.”

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