Blue Skies, Free Speech
Thoughts on Erik Wemple's apology to James Bennet and to press integrity in general. Plus: Pilot's Glory, criminal justice reform, and Happy Birthday to me!
Good morning from a place where, 18 hours ago, the sky looked like this (and not much different now). If you look closely upper-center, you can see the corona of rainbow, though why we were seeing a rainbow when there’s been no rain in days, I am not educated enough to answer. Though I did learn this week about an optical phenomena called Pilot’s Glory, which sounds like a pretty good name for a band.
Those of us who live in the media bubble were left gobsmacked, happily so, when Ben Smith, former media columnist for the New York Times and one of the founders of the upcoming newsletter Semafor, ran a piece called “Inside the Identity Crisis at the New York Times,” in which he snagged an interview with James Bennet. Stay with me here. It’s a bit inside-baseball but also not as it affects the way the news is created and disseminated, which anyone who reads this newsletter (or whatever we are calling Substacks these days) knows I have some strong opinions about.
You can read the particulars of the James Bennet incident in the piece, but in a nutshell: in June 2020, Bennet was Opinion editor at the NYT (and rumored to be the paper’s next executive editor); the page ran a piece by Sen. Tom Cotton suggesting that President Trump send federal troops to quell unrest in American cities; a group of journalists inside the paper considered this beyond the pale; some of them invoked the specter of the piece making them physically unsafe; the publisher and various editors stood by the piece, then quailed and heads rolled, including Bennet’s.
“When push came to shove at the end, [publisher A.G. Sulzberger] set me on fire and threw me in the garbage and used my reverence for the institution against me,” Bennet told Smith. “This is why I was so bewildered for so long after I had what felt like all my colleagues treating me like an incompetent fascist.”
Many of us were incredulous and actually angry at what was going on at the paper at the time. We also had good friends there caught up in the maelstrom, including Bari Weiss, who would leave the Times soon after and, in her resignation letter to Sulzberger, make it extremely clear why the journalism the paper was practicing bode nothing good for those who believe, you must call things as you see them, that running a newspaper is not a goddamn popularity content:
All this bodes ill, especially for independent-minded young writers and editors paying close attention to what they’ll have to do to advance in their careers. Rule One: Speak your mind at your own peril. Rule Two: Never risk commissioning a story that goes against the narrative. Rule Three: Never believe an editor or publisher who urges you to go against the grain. Eventually, the publisher will cave to the mob, the editor will get fired or reassigned, and you’ll be hung out to dry.
This past Thursday, Erik Wemple, the media critic at the Washington Post, ran a column entitled, “James Bennet Was Right.” I have read it twice and still find myself almost breathless (in a good way) that this piece ran at all. A clip, which Wemple places right after Bennet’s “fascist” quote, above:
That might sound like the angst of a guy who’s still disgruntled at losing his job. And it is, for a compelling reason: Bennet is right. He’s right about Sulzberger, he’s right about the Cotton op-ed, and he’s right about the lessons that linger from his tumultuous final days at the Times.
The Erik Wemple Blog has asked about 30 Times staffers whether they still believe their “danger” tweets and whether there was any merit in Bennet’s retort. Not one of them replied with an on-the-record defense. Such was the depth of conviction behind a central argument in l’affaire Cotton.
Our criticism of the Twitter outburst comes 875 days too late. Although the hollowness of the internal uproar against Bennet was immediately apparent, we responded with an evenhanded critique of the Times’s flip-flop, not the unapologetic defense of journalism that the situation required. Our posture was one of cowardice and midcareer risk management. With that, we pile one more regret onto a controversy littered with them.
This piece astonished me in two ways: one, that someone who is the media critic for the one of the world’s biggest papers would cave (putting the truth to the phrase, “You had one job…”) and, two, that he would admit as much in print, if “875 days too late.” I commend Wemple for this, truly. It’s hard to say, “I was wrong, I hurt people.”
My public response I hope acknowledged both these astonishments, though I suspect might have shown some unkindness, which I thought about more when my Newsweek editor and friend Batya Ungar-Sargon tweeted this:
But yes, a lot of us did at the time call out this behavior, it was unbelievable that that the editors would fold, and yet it was far from the last time we would see it, a small if powerful group of Times staffers would, again and again, use the “this person’s writing or speech” makes me feel unsafe and thus, they need to go — or else. I would keep you here for hours if I linked all the YouTubes Matt Welch and I did about the head-rolling of Donald McNeil Jr. that happened six months later (oh, okay: 1, 2, 3, 4). You can have McNeil tell you himself and/or here’s a two minute summation and below that, Batya and I talking about it:
Is Bennet being willing to go on record a sign that the tide that swamped so much of media in 2020, is shifting? Are 30 journalists who felt sure they would en masse get they but are now, to a person, unwilling to defend their position, a sign of a sea change? I hope so, and as Batya said, many of us spoke up at the time and always will.
I am rounding out a feature with the working title, “When Do-Gooders Do Bad Things,” examining how policies put in place at the height of Trump Hysteria are having bad effects downstream. Several podcasts this week ask whether the changes to the criminal justice system in some cities have made things better or worse. I tend to think the latter but here are some smart people asking and answering important questions about violent crime in the U.S., including a murder rate that rose 30 percent.
So it’s my birthday tomorrow, and I am already anticipating the sweetness of seeing a few people at my apartment, not a party just a hang, including with my friend and podcast partner Sarah Hepola, who is flying in from Dallas. Our most recent episode, “Truth, Consequences, and S***ty Media Men,” addresses an issue much of the press was at the time terrified to address in any way but lock-step. From the show notes:
It’s hard to overstate the impact of the S****y Media Men List on the media landscape back in October 2017. If you’ve never heard of it, good for you (not said sarcastically). If you have, you know it was a Google spreadsheet where 70 women, who remained anonymous, input names of media colleagues and acquaintances along with their alleged misbehavior, from creepy DMs to rape. This was a week after the Harvey Weinstein bombshell in The New Yorker, and men on the list lost jobs, friends, and reputations. As #MeToo was exploding, the idea of fighting back wasn’t popular. Stephen Elliott did it anyway. The writer, filmmaker and founding editor of the literary site The Rumpus filed a defamation lawsuit against the woman behind the list, Moira Donegan.
In this week’s New York Magazine, journalist Lila Shapiro tackles the controversy and the personalities behind it as the legal battle heads toward court. Elliott, a friend of Nancy’s, was afraid the story would be a hit job. It wasn’t. Both Nancy and Sarah found it balanced, if favorable to the spirit of the list. Elliott agreed to come on the show to talk about his experience of being accused of rape, the personal and professional fallout, and whether these sorts of campaigns can ever (or eventually) have a positive impact.
You can listen to that here.
But I titled this post Blue Skies, and I mean it. I am amazed at the changes I am seeing, people unwilling to be quiet, to be unafraid whereas this time last year it just seemed too hot. Thanks everyone! That’s a good birthday present xx
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It’s good that more people are showing courage, and part of what makes that courage possible for some is the prior courage of others. If the world we want is one where truth-telling is ubiquitous, then a real path to get there is celebrating even lesser acts of bravery instead of breaking out a tape measurer to figure out who was braver than whom. I’m not saying I can’t also empathize with Batya for wanting an honest accounting. She and all of us should want that. It’s deserved. But I’m still celebrating that more and more people are speaking up. When the outcome might be more merciful than just, it helps to remember that virtue, in the end, is its own reward.
Well, here in Australia, it's already your birthday. So, Happy Birthday!