Fast Times at Eighth Avenue High

Column: Our adolescent media

New York Times building
February 7, 2014

You are an accomplished adult, at the top of your field, working in the heart of the greatest city in the world. Important people answer your emails and phone calls. Yet there is one person in the office who bugs you, whose demeanor you find obnoxious. You want to take a stand, to let this individual know his behavior is uncalled for, imperious, despotic even. And so you do the only thing a mature and levelheaded man in your position can do: You refuse to sit with him at lunch.

Such is the case of an unnamed reporter at the New York Times, who is so upset at editorial and op-ed page editor Andrew Rosenthal that "he will literally not allow Mr. Rosenthal to join their lunch table in the cafeteria."

I learned of this amazing passive-aggressive episode in an article by Ken Kurson, "The Tyranny and Lethargy of the Times Editorial Page," which appeared this week in the New York Observer. Kurson interviewed "more than two-dozen current and former Times staffers," who heaped insult atop insult on Rosenthal and his columnist Thomas L. Friedman, accusing them of laziness, pettiness, arrogance, belligerence, nosiness, unoriginality, and ineptitude. I suppose it takes one to know one.

On the most superficial level, the article is a delight. The experience of reading it is like watching a colony of red ants turn against each other—a violent and morbidly fascinating event towards which one is completely apathetic. It reminded me of the practice of some high school teachers who, having intercepted gossipy notes passed between students, read the messages aloud to the entire class. Except in this case the students gave their teacher the notes.

High school is an apt metaphor for the shenanigans inside the Times’ $850 million skyscraper at the corner of Fortieth Street and Eighth Avenue. The Times portrayed in Kurson's article is not the established, serious, and competent institution of the liberal imagination. It is the Beverly Hills High School in Clueless, a cliquey and catty war of all against all, where the self-importance of the occupants masks deep insecurities. The next time our reporters and producers and anchors and bloggers affect an air of moral or social superiority, the next time they pretend to know the answers to every political and economic and cultural question, remember this: They are basically teenagers.

And yet as I read the story I could not help feeling, despite my better instincts, a twinge of sympathy for Rosenthal and his editorial staff. The "tyranny and pettiness" ascribed to the op-ed editor seems to me to apply equally to the behavior of a gossipy newsroom reeking of self-importance and snarky jibes. Nor are the specific complaints lodged against him any more compelling: Bad bosses are part of the human condition, and as a longtime subscriber I find it less than surprising that it can be difficult to get along with the people who produce the New York Times.

The rest of the case against Rosenthal is unintentionally revealing. "The growing dissatisfaction," Kurson says, "stems from a commitment to excellence that has lifted the rest of the Times, which is viewed by every staffer The Observer spoke to as rapidly and dramatically improving." But "commitment to excellence" are not the words I would choose to describe a paper whose coverage is increasingly liberal and silly, devoted to sniffing out racism and sexism and to identifying trends significant only to a select few, a paper that in the last month devoted not one but two articles to the subject of female pubic hair, that loads its news copy with opinion through mealy-mouthed phrases like "some say" and "has long been viewed," that uses its pages as a Democratic fundraising apparatus, that thinks a $1,700 dollar suit is a sign of mayoral populism, that specializes in publishing articles detrimental to national security, that treats the president as a courtier treats a king, that is so eager to disqualify a potential challenger to Hillary Clinton that it initially misrepresented its latest "scoop." One source tells Kurson the problem with Rosenthal "really isn’t about politics, because I land more to the left than I do the right." You don’t say.

The New York Observer piece is a case study in psychological projection. Many people told Kurson they dislike Rosenthal’s habit of emailing news writers whose copy contains the word "should." Rosenthal’s contention is that "should" belongs only in the editorial section of a newspaper. So what these reporters and editors are saying is that the opinion editor is trying to make news copy less opinionated. Ought that really to disturb us?

Another source says of the editorial pages, "There’s almost nothing light-hearted or whimsical or sprightly about them, nothing to gladden the soul. They’re horribly doctrinaire, down the line." Are the other sections of the Times less doctrinaire in their politics and worldview? When was the last time a five-part series on urban poverty, an attack on the Koch Brothers, a 5,000-word article on polygamy gladdened your soul?

At least when Rosenthal has a problem with someone he lets that person know. Others at the Times specialize in the cutting remark muttered under one’s breath, the subtle message of exclusion from a particular social circle. Reading Kurson’s article, one notices parallels between the interpersonal behavior of New York Times employees and the conduct of liberal internationalists on the world stage: open conflict is always avoided, and retaliation confined to harsh words, meaningless gestures, appeals to impotent authorities.

Profiles in Courage this is not. In this vicious takedown, only two people risk going on the record: Joe LaPointe, a sportswriter who left the paper in 2010, and Timothy L. O’Brien, who left that year for Bloomberg View. And both of them are supportive of Rosenthal.

The nasty and meaty quotes all come from the newsroom equivalent of Internet trolls, commenters whose vitriol rises in direct proportion to the degree of anonymity that they enjoy: "A current Times writer," "one staffer," "one writer," "one current Times staffer," "another Times reporter," "another former Times writer," "yet another former Times writer," "one former business reporter," "a veteran reporter," "one current staffer," "another current staffer," "another reporter," and "one veteran reporter." I like to think of these anonymous sources as constituting an amoeba, a sort of monstrous, blob-like super-source, known only as "one another veteran former Times business current writer reporter staffer." Whoever he is, don’t get in his way.

But I should not joke. This is no laughing matter. Anger with Rosenthal has reached such a pitch, Kurson says, that the "very fabric of the institution" is threatened. Imagine: The prospect lies before us of a civil war between the Times’s 1,250 newsroom staff, with Front Page crashing Weddings / Celebrations, International barrel-bombing New York, Dining feasting on the remains of the Book Review, Sports Wednesday sacking Business Day, Science Times dissecting Corrections, and Automobiles hijacked by a fabulously attired Sunday Styles. The horror! The horror!

Published under: New York Times