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23 February 2023

How the New York Times became its own worst enemy

The paper’s divisions have been newly exposed as a dizzying array of letters are exchanged over its coverage of trans issues.

By William Turvill

Journalists in the New York Times newsroom are accustomed to seeing internal squabbles morph into furious public disputes. But even for the most hardened NYT staffer, the past week must have seemed dramatic as the Gray Lady took centre stage in the global debate over how trans issues are reported in the media. A dizzying array of angry letters have hurtled between writers, editors, campaign groups and unions. Reporters have been called out by name and had their work denounced by colleagues. Protests have been staged outside the Times’ HQ near Times Square. Internal Slack channels have become forums for heated debate. Some staff have vented their frustrations on Twitter; others have let off steam privately among colleagues over after-work drinks. The result is a newsroom divided.

At the heart of the tension is an open letter (the first of several) that was signed by hundreds of NYT contributors and sent to Philip Corbett, the Times’ associate managing editor for standards, last Wednesday (15 February). It accused the Times of “editorial bias” in its coverage of “transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people”. The letter likened current coverage of trans people, including the use of “pseudoscience and euphemistic, charged language”, to the NYT’s historic “track record of demonizing” homosexuality in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It called out several journalists and specific stories for criticism. On the same day, campaign groups led by GLAAD, an LGBT media advocacy organisation, published its own open letter accusing the Times of “irresponsible, biased coverage of transgender people”.

Two newsroom staffers I spoke to were torn over the merits of the contributors’ letter. “I think it took enormous courage for those contributors to put their names on the letter, essentially putting their association with the NYT and, potentially, a portion of their livelihoods at risk,” said one, before adding, though, that “if one of my co-workers had a substantial issue to raise with my coverage, I would want them to raise it with me first.” Another told me: “I am completely pro-trans rights and think the abuse and prejudice trans people face today – often fuelled by the media – is abhorrent. But I think the open letter veers into the dangerous territory of trying to stifle any vaguely critical or questioning debate and reporting around trans issues. The NYT is not an advocacy group. We are independent journalists who shouldn’t be made to feel afraid to cover a story or raise questions, however thorny or sensitive an issue it is.”

This, broadly, was the position of the NYT’s editorial leadership team. On Thursday (16 February) the NYT’s executive editor, Joseph Kahn, and opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, sent out a company-wide email rebuking signatories of the first letter for coordinating with the campaign groups and for publicly attacking their colleagues’ work. They said they would “not tolerate” such behaviour. The following day (17 February) Susan DeCarava, the New York president of the NewsGuild journalists union, wrote to its NYT members to say Kahn and Kingsbury were wrong to have intervened in this way and could not legally prevent their employees from speaking out about “workplace conditions”. In turn, this prompted a group of high-profile NYT journalists to – you guessed it – write a critical letter (private, but leaked to Vanity Fair this Tuesday, 21 February) to DeCarava, accusing the NewsGuild of having a “fundamental misunderstanding of our responsibilities as journalists”. They said that journalism produced “in accordance with Times standards does not create a hostile workplace”.

This is far from the only drama to have shaken the foundations of the New York Times newsroom in recent years. In June 2020, more than 800 members of staff were reported to have signed an open letter condemning the publication of an opinion article by Tom Cotton, a Republican senator, which called on the federal government to “send in the troops” to suppress anti-police protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. The opinion editor James Bennet resigned within days. The following month Bari Weiss, a high-profile writer and editor in the opinion department, quit the NYT, and alleged that she had been “the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views”. Donald McNeil, a long-serving health and science reporter whose Covid-19 coverage was widely lauded, resigned in February 2021 after it emerged that he had been accused of using a “racial slur” in front of students on a trip in 2019. More than 150 staff reportedly complained about the Times’ handling of an investigation into McNeil, who said he used the term as part of a discussion about whether a student should be suspended for using that word. In a 21,000-word essay, McNeil said his employer had “panicked” and that the NYT newsroom had become a “mean, spiteful, ven geful place where everyone is looking over his/her shoulder”. 

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[See also: Trans activists ask us to redefine what most consider to be truth]

Each of these cases involves different incidents and characters within the NYT newsroom. But the common theme running through them is that Times staffers have spoken out against either their employer or their colleagues. These incidents have also coincided with a rising union movement within the New York Times. In December the newspaper was hit by its largest strike action in 40 years after more than 1,000 employees walked out for 24 hours over pay. (Some members of staff fear that last week’s NewsGuild letter could divide the union’s members and hinder future negotiations with NYT management.) Industrial action is reasonably common in newsrooms, but outspoken attacks on employers and colleagues less so – even in the media world, where journalists tend to have public profiles and access to large audiences on social media.

I asked two insiders to explain the NYT‘s internal culture and why they thought so many staffers seemed determined and emboldened to speak out on issues like these. One said that rival US titles like the Wall Street Journal tend to have a “more buttoned-up culture”, whereas the NYT newsroom is “a little more raucous and opinionated”. The other pointed to the NYT’s size and prowess as a factor. “I think it’s a simple case of the bigger the family, the bigger the dysfunction,” they said. “The more opinions, the more egos, the more differences in perspective. There certainly doesn’t feel like there is a disproportionate number of conflicts compared to other big newsrooms. It feels like there have been a lot, sure, but I’m not sure an unusual amount for an organisation of this size.” They said that some of the disputes, like the Tom Cotton opinion piece “have been fuelled by management failings”. But, they added, “most of these conflicts are simply reflective of the conflicts and debates happening outside of the NYT: the trans rights debate is a prime example. It has become an incredibly toxic debate and [it is] impossible to have a calm and rational conversation around.”

A spokesperson for the New York Times has said their newspaper was “always open to feedback” but added: “We reject any claim that our coverage is biased.” They continued: the “news stories criticized… reported deeply and empathetically on issues of care and well-being for trans teens and adults. Our journalism strives to explore, interrogate and reflect the experiences, ideas and debates in society – to help readers understand them. Our reporting did exactly that and we’re proud of it.” A spokesperson for the New York branch of the NewsGuild said it was “committed to representing every member equally and fairly, regardless of reporting assignment. We take no position on the subject matter of editorial coverage and fight hard for every member’s right to work in a healthy and safe environment, free of harassment and discrimination.” 

There is an old adage in journalism, used on both sides of the Atlantic: don’t become the story. So far the heightened levels of tension afflicting the New York Times newsroom do not appear to have much undermined its journalism. The New York Times Company, which also owns the Athletic sport news website, has around 11 million digital and print subscriptions across the world, far more than any rival. The news group has more Pulitzers than any other and, journalistically, the NYT continues to go from strength to strength. Also, there is clearly value in New York Times journalists engaging in a transparent debate over how contentious issues are reported. But it is widely recognised among journalists that a newsroom under the public spotlight can become distracted and lose focus on its news-gathering function. Editors will no doubt be hoping for a neat resolution to the debate over how trans issues are covered before its divisiveness engulfs the newsroom any further. One week in, however, this controversy seems far from done.

Read more:

The Tories are right to debate the trans issue – it’s not a distraction

The New York Times is eating itself

Why the gender wars become so extreme

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