Good-Bye New York Times

The letter my wife and I sent to the New York Times this morning after we cancelled our very long-term subscription.

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Dear Mr. Dean Baquet, Ms. Liz Spayd, Mr. James Bennet:

We have been reading the New York Times for most of our lives. Both of us read you when we were children, teenagers, college students together. We subscribed as one of our first acts as a married couple in the late 1980s and we have carried that subscription ever since, with a few minor interruptions on various moves. It is a 40-year plus fixture in our lives.

We’re kicking you out. And it’s not us, it’s you. Yes, we’ll probably still read you here and there, likely at our place of work. But we’re tired of the relationship. We’re tired of your bad decisions, which have accumulated steadily over the years. We’re tired of you making bad decisions right now when so much is at stake, not just politically, but for the survival of journalism in the face of digitization.

The New York Times has always been more enamored of its relationship to power than it ought to be. Yes, you published the Pentagon Papers (and then floated on those reluctantly-decided laurels for decades). But you also let your editors variously become handmaidens to various ideological fads. One pursued anti-Communism to the point of removing a reporter who dared report honestly from El Salvador (his reportage later upheld by other investigators). Later your editor-in-chief Bill Keller became so desperate to prove the paper’s patriotism that he became a servant to the cause of an unnecessary war founded on lies. Occasionally you’ve apologized, as Keller did. Mostly you haven’t.

We forgave. To err is human. There is no simple objectivity. We would rather have a strong sense of committed vision, even one we don’t entirely agree with, than bland faux-objectivity. But still, that kind of dishonesty—altering coverage, suppressing reportage—is hard to forgive. We want honesty, aggression in the pursuit of truth, the willingness to say something dangerous or unpopular. If it’s true. If it’s compelling. If it’s complex and thoughtfully observed.

We want something interesting. In some ways the Times has been adroit in its adaptation to an era of ubiquitous free content. You’re thinking hard about how to provide in-depth coverage that no one else has. We appreciate that. We’ll miss it. You’re thinking hard about how to explain how your coverage works, how stories were made, to provide perspective. We’ll miss it.

In other ways, you have been poor at adapting. Your cultural coverage is still mostly slow, dull and timid. You still have laughably weird attention to the real estate dilemmas of 28-year old recent college graduates who have $50 million trust funds.

These are minor issues.

What is not minor is the continuing catastrophic misjudgments in your news coverage of American politics. You were not alone in underestimating and misreporting the rise of Donald Trump, nor were you alone in paying bizarrely intense attention to Hillary Clinton’s emails. We say that as people who didn’t even particularly care for Clinton. You just missed the story, badly, because someone in your chain of command had some white whales to catch and you missed what was really going on. You’re still missing a lot, almost every other day, with news coverage and analysis that seems almost desperate to find a reason to compliment the President.

What is not minor is your continuing timidity of your coverage of foreign affairs, your compliant reproduction of conventional wisdom and diplomatic gossip—we hear and read coverage a thousand times more interesting and detailed and daring and observant and on-the-ground real than yours from the BBC, from various European newspapers, from freelance columnists, from bloggers, from many sources. Trying to follow the world just from reading the New York Times is difficult at best.

Even that is minor compared to your opinion columnists. That’s where the New York Times’ historical weaknesses meet up with the failures of our present-day public sphere and create an inexcusable disaster. There are a thousand writers online of all ideologies that we would rather read than any of your columnists. Your columnists are largely boring, predictable, incurious, and stylistically inert at best. Almost none of them bother to talk to anyone outside their own circles, research beyond what they already know (or think they know), think in unexpected ways, or engage the public culture as it stands. They are not even clickbait in the ordinary sense: they mostly get linked in social media by readers exasperated with the timidity, inaccuracy and dullness of what they say. You have vastly better opinion and analysis writers associated with the digital version of the paper, like Natalie Angier, so it is not as if your editors are unaware of what’s out there in the wider public sphere.

Now you’ve hired a columnist who thinks the height of thinking outside the box is to question whether climate change is real and whose idea of argument is to shadowbox every strawman caricature that he can hastily erect. (His interview with Vox is jaw-dropping in that respect, so much so that his interviewer actually calls him on it mid-way through.) That’s the best you can do in adding a new voice: hollow sophistry of an utterly familiar kind from yet another white male.

That’s what “defending free speech” in the sense of finding an unorthodox opinion means to you, in an era where the culture overflows with unorthodox thinkers who have honed their craft through online writing. Both in terms of how you use the influence that your long history and reputation still retain and about how we are entertained and engaged as readers, we demand something better. We demand something that is at least equal to what we presently read online through a variety of blogs, microblogs, Twitter streams, Facebook feeds and the like. Something more imaginative, more surprising, more diverse, more honest. More introspective and self-doubting. More factual. More thoughtful. We don’t want to read any more columns where we could write the rest of the column ourselves after reading the first two sentences. Where an algorithm could write the column with a few simple lines of code. Where the argument consists of lazy exaggerations and strawmen. We want you to demand more of the writers you hire and to hire writers who are more demanding of us.

We don’t even know who exactly you’re trying to kiss up to by hiring Mr. Stephens. Whomever it is, it’s not us, your formerly patient and forgiving readers.

We believe in journalism. We believe in insightful public opinion. We believe in free speech, and in diversity of viewpoints. We wish you did more than you do. Good-bye. We wish you the best.

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4 Responses to Good-Bye New York Times

  1. Terrific — I will think about doing the same (though not so eloquently). In the third paragraph, but w/r/t to the history of NYT opinion writers in general: they also cancelled Sydney Schanberg’s op-ed column in 1985 because he had the temerity to note, correctly, that all three major NYC papers (but not Newsday, where he wound up!) were in the tank for the bullshit Westway project. I remarked at the time that Schanberg survived the killing fields of Cambodia but not the New York Times’ connections to real estate developers.

  2. I had never heard of Stephens until I read this post. So I looked him up and read what appears so far to be his only op-ed at NYT. It didn’t strike me as denialist but more as a warning that we need to balance how much science can teach us against the value decisions we must make as members of a polity.

    My knee jerks in the direction of being sympathetic to Stephens’s argument against an “overweening scientism.” So perhaps I should be suspicious of my own motives here. And I’ll concede two points regarding Stephens. 1) That op-ed is the only thing I’ve read and therefore I might be missing a context here. 2) I imagine that a good number of actual denialists engage in the “I’m not a denialist, just someone who questions the extremists.”

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    So as you can see from this piece, my complaint with the Times is a bit larger than Stephens. Stephens represents a habit, a trend, a pattern with the Times.

    As you may know, I’m quite willing to talk about the dangers of overweening scientism and about the sometimes troubled fit between scientific knowledge and public policy. The problem with Stephens’ one column here is that he makes the point and applies it in a bizarrely specific way, and with an essentially inaccurate and manipulative invocation of “probability” against other things which are certain. It reminds me very much of how creationists manipulate the word “theory” to try to convince people that evolution isn’t really a “fact”. Either his point about probability and certainty applies to virtually everything we do that’s rests on some theory of near and medium-term trends and predictions, not just to climate change, or it has to argue that the probabilities of climate change specifically are far more tentative than almost anything else in scientific or social scientific knowledge. Neither of which he does.

    If you want a sense of why I’m sure this kind of tendentious, manipulative junk is a habit with him, try this: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/4/26/15413718/bret-stephens-new-york-times

  4. You’re right that you listed other reasons, in addition to Stephens. I neglected to acknowledge that, and I should have. I’ll need to read that vox article you linked to. I’m sure it will clarify better where you’re coming from.

    I still think I see this issue a bit differently from how you do. I’m not a regular NYT reader. (I almost never use up my monthly allotment of 10 “free” articles.) But I appreciate you clarifying what you mean.

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