IN THE days following Donald Trump’s White House victory, The New York Times’s executive editor and its publisher signed an unusual joint letter to readers, promising in the wake of a startling election to report “without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you.”She proudly cites a new podcast that "often features voices from the heartland," and a story about an Ohio farmer whose two children died after developing heroin habits.
An admirable goal, considering the hermetic bubble that The Times and other news media are often accused of living in, one that blocked the sightline to a swelling despair in Middle America.
Now, as the 100-day mark of the Trump administration approaches, it’s time to ask: Is The Times following through on its promise to put an outstretched hand toward Red America? And, just as crucially, are readers ready for it?
Do Times readers have a problem with this? She says they do -- and as evidence she points to criticism of the paper's decision to hire Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal as an opinion writer:
At this particular moment in history, that doesn’t always go down easy. A day of reckoning along that path came earlier this month, when editorial page editor James Bennet did his part to broaden reader horizons by naming conservative Bret Stephens to the prestigious — and mostly liberal — roster of Times columnists.I'm not sure what the hiring of Stephens has to do with whether the Times audience appreciates stories about struggling heartlanders -- not only is Stephens a right-wing Trump critic, he has a biography that marks him as far more cosmopolitan and elitist than even many Times readers:
Stephens’s coronation produced a fiery revolt among readers and left-leaning critics.
Stephens was born in New York City, ... the son of Xenia and Charles J. Stephens, a former vice president of General Products, a chemical company in Mexico.... He was raised in Mexico City.... In his adolescence, he attended boarding school at Middlesex School in Massachusetts. Stephens received an undergraduate degree in political philosophy from the University of Chicago before earning a master's degree in comparative politics ... at the London School of Economics.Salt of the earth, this guy.
Stephens began his career at The Wall Street Journal as an op-ed editor in New York. He later worked as an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe, in Brussels....
In 2006, he took over the "Global View" column after George Melloan's retirement. In 2009, he was named deputy editorial page editor....
From 2002 to 2004, he was editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post.... Stephens was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.... He is also a frequent contributor to Commentary magazine.
Spayd is appalled at the narrow-mindedness of Stephens's critics:
They rummaged through his columns for proof that he is a climate change denier, a bigot or maybe a misogynist.They rummaged! How dare they! What an appallingly narrow-minded thing to do -- judging an opinion writer on the opinions he's expressed!
Spayd wags her finger at Stephens's critics for several paragraphs. Then she writes:
After reading many of his past columns I, too, am wary about some of his more inflammatory language on climate change, Muslims, even campus rape. Are we to consider his more intemperate phrases “rhetorical flourishes,” or does he really mean them?I'm reminded of the Monty Python sketch about the gangster siblings known as the Pirahna Brothers:
Interviewer: I've been told Dinsdale Piranha nailed your head to the floor.
Stig: No. Never. He was a smashing bloke. He used to buy his mother flowers and that. He was like a brother to me.
Interviewer: But the police have film of Dinsdale actually nailing your head to the floor.
Stig: (pause) Oh yeah, he did that....
Interviewer: I understand he also nailed your wife's head to a coffee table....
Stig: Well he did do that, yeah. He was a hard man. Vicious but fair.
Spayd also scolds the Times audience for failing to appreciate an interview with a Harlan County coal miner featured in one of the paper's podcasts:
Another flash point in this debate came after a recent episode of The Daily, the highly popular podcast anchored by Michael Barbaro, a former Times political writer. The subject of the podcast was climate change and the guest was Mark Gray, who spent 38 years of his life working in the coal mines of southern Kentucky.To Spayd, this segment is beyond criticism, and any complaints are clearly efforts to silence non-liberal views. But listen to the segment, which begins at 8:46 of the podcast. Magratten is absolutely correct: Barbaro does let Mark Gray, who mined coal for 38 years in Harlan County, Kentucky, make "assertions about the economics of the industry and regulations unchallenged." Here's Gray explaining thew decline of coal in Harlan County:
Gray has black lung, and you can hear him struggling to breathe as he defends the Appalachian coal industry against what he sees as efforts by environmentalists to shut it down. As the conversation continues, Gray asks Barbaro whether he has ever stepped foot in a coal plant. Thinking about that question, Barbaro chokes with emotion, and listeners hear several seconds of silence before the host speaks again.
It was a powerful 12 minutes of audio, sentimental and empathetic toward a Trump voter to a degree one might not expect from The Times. Too sentimental for some listeners, who took after Barbaro on social media, on blogs and in my inbox.
Here’s one complaint from Drew Magratten of New York City: “Barbaro lets a coal miner spout assertions about the economics of the industry and regulations unchallenged. I can almost hear the NYT’s East Coast liberal guilt guiding the kid-glove treatment of a white, blue collar man who proudly voted for Trump.”
BARBARO: What was the big turning point where it all started to seem to go down?Here are the facts about coal mining in Harlan County:
GRAY: The big turning point was when the Obama administration put out regulations on coal. They just put restrictions on coal so hard that the companies couldn't mine it, and it was either shut down or go broke, you know?
Demand dropped after the railroads stopped using coal to drive locomotives, and factories switched to oil and natural gas for their needs.So employment in the industry was 13% of what it was in 1950 the year Obama took office. He didn't cause coal's decline in Harlan County.
Production in Harlan County fell throughout the 1950s, hitting a near 50-year low in 1960 of 1.3 million tons...
Employment in Kentucky's underground mines fell 70 percent from 1950 to 1965; in Harlan County, mining employment dropped from 13,619 to 2,433 in that time....
A Middle Eastern oil embargo caused a spike in coal demand during the 1970s and 80s, and mining employment rose to 4,419 in 1981, the most recent employment peak.
There were 1,780 people employed in mining in the county in 2009....
Barbaro does object that Obama's regulations were never even put into effect. But Gray is adamant: It's all the fault of Obama's EPA. And there the matter rests.
Later, Gray insists that the government uniquely targeted coal for regulation:
GRAY: How many cars have you got out on the United States right now? How many cars have you got out here that you're throwing out carbon dioxide and throwing out the stuff that people are saying that's so dangerous? They picked on one thing, specific thing -- that was coal. They picked on coal. They didn't go ahead and pick on the oil companies, saying, "Oh, look, do this, do that" for oil. They didn't do that. Coal.Well, they did do that, with fuel efficiency standards and restrictions on oil drilling and pipelines. But Gray just gets to say this. Later he gets to say that, yes, coal absolutely can make a comeback -- as if mining coal makes him an expert on energy economics. Is Barbaro, or Spayd for that matter, an expert on media economics? Do we all automatically develop this sort of expertise just by being grunts in our industries?
Of course he's proud of the work he did. Of course he defends his way of life. Of course he has hope for a renewal of what he recalls as a better past (even if the industry he praises is literally killing him). But none of this gives him insights into the bigger picture -- the science of climate change, the economics and politcs of energy. So why do I have to applaud the Times for this story?