New York Times staff complain of ‘unwillingness to tolerate dissent’

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The Scoop

New York Times reporters are circulating a draft of a letter to Joe Kahn, criticizing the paper’s top editor over comments they said were dismissive of young reporters.

In a series of recent interviews with outlets including Semafor and The Wall Street Journal, Kahn weighed in on President Joe Biden’s criticism of the Times’ reporting on his administration and campaign.

But the executive editor also raised what he saw as some of the challenges of hiring younger journalists, who he said are not “fully prepared for what we are asking our people to do, which is to commit themselves to the idea of independent journalism.”

“Young adults who are coming up through the education system are less accustomed to this sort of open debate, this sort of robust exchange of views around issues they feel strongly about may have been the case in the past,” Kahn told the Journal.

Expanding on the comments, he told Semafor that the newsroom was “not a safe space.”

In a draft note shared with Semafor, staff said Kahn’s comments were “broad generalizations that reflect a poor understanding of the people who make up your newsroom.” Further, staff said that they felt that there were actually fewer opportunities for an exchange of ideas, and argued that a diverse pool of perspectives was “needed to protect not just the independence but also the empathy of our journalism.”

“Instead of engaging in robust exchange, we are increasingly discouraged from speaking up at all,” staff wrote. “We are told that it is only appropriate to express concerns or even earnest questions in one-on-one conversations with people who outrank us.”

The letter continued: “Far from open mindedness, this policy communicates the opposite: an unwillingness to tolerate dissent. Your staff is not full of activists trying to impose their views on the report. Rather than tribalism or ideology, those who voice concerns do so in the interest of accuracy and fairness — to make The New York Times into the best version of itself.”

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Max’s view

Kahn’s comments, and the reaction to them, are a snapshot of the ideological tug of war inside America’s most important newspaper.

During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in 2020, the Times was beset by internal turmoil that seemed to push management into conceding to views from some staff that were more aligned with liberals and the Left. After I broke the news that then-Times science reporter Donald McNeil was the subject of parental complaints over arguments with high school kids about race and offensive language, a staff outcry led management to seek his resignation. Complaints from Times journalists also prompted the resignation of opinion editor James Bennet after he published an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton that the paper said was not up to its editorial standards.

The Times’ management is now sending a message that it is less likely to bow to employee pressure, particularly from the Left. After The Intercept reported on a heated internal debate over an episode of the paper’s podcast, The Daily, that focused on the war in Gaza, instead of tiptoeing carefully around the topic, the Times launched a leak hunt to find the reporters who gave information to the progressive news site.

Kahn told Semafor in his interview that he wants to correct what he saw as the excess of journalism during the first Trump administration, in which he said that the press leaned into its image as the crucial check on the president and his values.

“I think it went too far. It was overly simplistic,” he said. “And I think the big push that you’re seeing us make and reestablish our norms and emphasize independent journalism and build a more resilient culture comes out of some of the excesses of that period.”

He continued: “We’re looking more closely and asking more questions and doing more interviews… We’ve actually asked people, “What happens if you got an assignment to go and report on some people that have said some nasty things and that you don’t like, what would you do?” And some people say, “I’d reject the assignment.” Okay, well, then you should work somewhere else.”

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  • Some liberal pundits and pro-Biden commentators were incensed by Kahn’s comments about the paper’s coverage of the president. In The New Republic, Greg Sargent wrote that Kahn’s view of the Times’ coverage was “stunning in its simplistic rendering of the dilemma raised by Trump’s hostility to democracy and its resolute lack of awareness of what many liberal critics have actually argued about the Times, the media, and the democracy question.”

  • Democratic communications strategist and podcast host Dan Pfeiffer said he doesn’t think “raging at the media is always a constructive use” of Democrats’ time. “Working the refs can be effective. Every once in a while, they will change a story or a headline. They might cover a topic that we think isn’t getting enough coverage. I just think we can never win the war because they have no interest in being who we want them to be,” he wrote in response to Kahn’s interview.

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