Money and the New York Times: The problem of journalism as a public good

I won’t say much regarding the controversial firing of Jill Abramson from the New York Times. There appears to be a prima facie case of sexism, whether on how much Abramson was paid or in a claim that she was “pushy,” against the Times’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.,[1] which he has utterly failed to refute,[2] and his abysmal handling of the matter raises severe questions as to whether he should continue to run the paper.[3] The problem here seems to be that Abramson—notice that the blame falls on her—did not get along with the family that owns the paper,[4] meaning that at the very least, Sulzberger could not tolerate an editor whom Nate Silver has been quoted claiming “did a hell of a lot more good for the New York Times than the upper management there,” who oversaw a news operation that brought in eight Pulitzer awards during her rather short tenure.[5]

Sulzberger claims the problem was a conflict between Dean Baquet, an assistant managing editor, over the possible addition of Janine Gibson, currently at the Guardian. Baquet had apparently given Sulzberger an ultimatum: Abramson or him. Abramson didn’t issue that ultimatum; he did, but she’s the one given the heave-ho,[6] apparently because

Baquet himself had earlier been offered a job at Bloomberg News. Now, Sulzberger worried that Baquet might leave. “At that point, we risked losing Dean, and we risked losing more than Dean,” Sulzberger said. “It would have been a flood, and a flood of some of our best digital people.”[7]

In short, the man was judged more valuable than the woman, because Sulzberger thought he’d lose more with the man than he would with the woman. Even though Abramson was Baquet’s boss. Even though we have no real evidence that the “flood of some of our best digital people”[8] would in fact have materialized—it was Baquet who had the offer from Bloomberg, but there’s no word on what, if anything, they had been offered. Even though what this particular tiff was really about was Baquet’s ego—the prospect that Gibson, another woman, might be brought in as an equal apparently infuriated him.[9]

Ultimately, however, I am far less concerned about this particular incident, troubling as it is, than I am for what it—and the coverage surrounding it—say about the condition of news operations in the United States.

We have an ideology that journalists play a “watchdog” role, alerting the public to elite malfeasance. In truth, this is a considerably compromised role; exposés are very much the exception rather than the rule because there are multiple forms of leverage at multiple levels that compel news operations to limit their muckraking and some of these constraints originate even within the ownership and control of the operations themselves.[10] That the idea of heroic investigative reporters on a crusade to root out evil-doing is mostly a myth does not alter the need for an effective “watchdog,” but rather suggests that we have been inadequately served by those who are presently in that role.

Hence the attention to a personnel problem at the New York Times. We need good journalism and so we need papers like the Times, and really a lot more like the Times to provide that journalism. We need news gathering and investigative operations to be stronger than they are, rather than weakened by clashes over executive egos. But as Ezra Klein points out, the Times is a family-run paper.[11]

Better that, one might say, than a corporate-run paper, and while I might agree, this does not mean I am satisfied. News operations are a public good, indeed a public necessity.

Even the famous capitalist libertarian Friedrich Hayek acknowledged that public goods should be subsidized by the government when the profit motive was insufficient.[12] The challenges of going digital—and making it pay—seem to underlie much of the clash at the Times,[13] suggesting that now, even more than ever, the profit motive is insufficient for the task of providing the essential public good of journalism. But government support for news operations is nearly as problematic as corporate support; conservatives hate the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio, and seek to strip their funding in part because neoliberal ideology assumes that news should be just one more market good and in part because conservatives don’t like the reporting that these operations do.

Once again, money—the “filthy lucre”—is the problem. It is the same problem that keeps students from getting the classes they need to graduate, while teachers who could teach those classes are unemployed.[14] It is the same problem that keeps many homeless people homeless, while houses are vacant. It is, in fact, a principal reason for crime, as we refuse to face the fact that in this society, basic human needs are not being met, and that we prefer to stigmatize and imprison people rather than to address their needs.[15] But despite the manifest failure of this economic system, we cling to it as if it were the only alternative. Or more likely, because it keeps some people very comfortable and enough of the rest of us comfortable enough.

And so we go on this way, even as elites, who pretend to have earned their wealth and power based on merit, and whose positions are secured by this system, prove massively incompetent and corrupt,[16] which one might notice, is one of the very reasons we need journalism so badly to begin with.

  1. [1]Ken Auletta, “Why Jill Abramson Was Fired,” New Yorker, May 14, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/05/why-jill-abramson-was-fired.html; Ken Auletta, “Jill Abramson and the Times: What went wrong?,” New Yorker, May 15, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2014/05/jill-abramson-and-the-times-what-went-wrong.html; Ken Auletta, “Why Jill Abramson Was Fired: Part Three,” New Yorker, May 18, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/05/why-jill-abramson-was-fired-part-three.html; Ezra Klein, “There’s a simple explanation for Abramson’s ouster that the Times can’t give,” Vox, May 18, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/5/18/5727432/theres-a-simple-explanation-for-abramsons-ouster-that-the-times-cant; Tom McCarthy, “New York Times boss denies row over pay led to Abramson dismissal,” Guardian, May 15, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/may/15/new-york-times-jill-abramson-exit; Katie McDonough, “Jill Abramson was right to get a lawyer: “Pushy” women get paid,” Salon, May 16, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/05/16/jill_abramson_was_right_to_get_a_lawyer_pushy_women_get_paid/; Ed Pilkington and Jessica Glenza, “Jill Abramson forced out as New York Times executive editor,” New York Times, May 14, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/may/14/new-york-times-jill-abramson-forced-out; Catherine Thompson, “NYT Demands New Yorker Correct Its Story About Abramson’s Pay,” Talking Points Memo, May 16, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/nyt-demands-correction-new-yorker-jill-abramson; Catherine Thompson, “NYT Fired Abramson Right After Asking Her To ‘Sign On For Some More Years’,” Talking Points Memo, May 16, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/nyt-asked-jill-abramson-serve-more-time
  2. [2]Sarah Ellison, “Arthur Sulzberger’s First Interview About the Turmoil at The New York Times: ‘I Would Have Done It Differently’,” Vanity Fair, May 20, 2014, http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2014/05/arthur-sulzberger-interview-jill-abramson-firing; Josh Marshall, “Sulzberger Speaks!” Talking Points Memo, May 20, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/sulzberger-speaks; Reuters, “Arthur Sulzberger: why Jill Abramson had to leave the New York Times,” Guardian, May 17, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/may/18/arthur-sulzberger-jill-abramson-new-york-time; Ravi Somaiya, “Times Co. Chief Addresses Executive Editor’s Firing,” New York Times, May 16, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/17/business/media/times-co-chief-addresses-executive-editors-firing.html; Ravi Somaiya, “After Criticism, Times Publisher Details Decision to Oust Top Editor,” New York Times, May 17, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/business/times-publisher-denies-gender-figured-in-top-editors-dismissal.html
  3. [3]Ken Auletta, “Why Jill Abramson Was Fired: Part Three,” New Yorker, May 18, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/05/why-jill-abramson-was-fired-part-three.html; Sarah Ellison, “Arthur Sulzberger’s First Interview About the Turmoil at The New York Times: ‘I Would Have Done It Differently’,” Vanity Fair, May 20, 2014, http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2014/05/arthur-sulzberger-interview-jill-abramson-firing; Josh Marshall, “Sulzberger Speaks!” Talking Points Memo, May 20, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/sulzberger-speaks
  4. [4]Ezra Klein, “There’s a simple explanation for Abramson’s ouster that the Times can’t give,” Vox, May 18, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/5/18/5727432/theres-a-simple-explanation-for-abramsons-ouster-that-the-times-cant
  5. [5]Ed Pilkington and Jessica Glenza, “Jill Abramson forced out as New York Times executive editor,” New York Times, May 14, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/may/14/new-york-times-jill-abramson-forced-out
  6. [6]Sarah Ellison, “Arthur Sulzberger’s First Interview About the Turmoil at The New York Times: ‘I Would Have Done It Differently’,” Vanity Fair, May 20, 2014, http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2014/05/arthur-sulzberger-interview-jill-abramson-firing
  7. [7]Sarah Ellison, “Arthur Sulzberger’s First Interview About the Turmoil at The New York Times: ‘I Would Have Done It Differently’,” Vanity Fair, May 20, 2014, http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2014/05/arthur-sulzberger-interview-jill-abramson-firing
  8. [8]Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., quoted in Sarah Ellison, “Arthur Sulzberger’s First Interview About the Turmoil at The New York Times: ‘I Would Have Done It Differently’,” Vanity Fair, May 20, 2014, http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2014/05/arthur-sulzberger-interview-jill-abramson-firing
  9. [9]Ken Auletta, “Jill Abramson and the Times: What went wrong?,” New Yorker, May 15, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2014/05/jill-abramson-and-the-times-what-went-wrong.html; Ken Auletta, “Why Jill Abramson Was Fired: Part Three,” New Yorker, May 18, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/05/why-jill-abramson-was-fired-part-three.html; Dylan Byers, “New details on the Jill Abramson firing,” New York Times, May 18, 2014, http://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2014/05/new-details-on-the-jill-abramson-firing-188759.html; Sarah Ellison, “Arthur Sulzberger’s First Interview About the Turmoil at The New York Times: ‘I Would Have Done It Differently’,” Vanity Fair, May 20, 2014, http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2014/05/arthur-sulzberger-interview-jill-abramson-firing; Ed Pilkington and Jessica Glenza, “Jill Abramson forced out as New York Times executive editor,” New York Times, May 14, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/may/14/new-york-times-jill-abramson-forced-out; Ravi Somaiya, “Times Co. Chief Addresses Executive Editor’s Firing,” New York Times, May 16, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/17/business/media/times-co-chief-addresses-executive-editors-firing.html; Catherine Thompson, “NYT Fired Abramson Right After Asking Her To ‘Sign On For Some More Years’,” Talking Points Memo, May 16, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/nyt-asked-jill-abramson-serve-more-time
  10. [10]J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power: The Media and Public Policy, 2nd ed. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995); Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (Boston: South End, 1989); David Croteau and William Hoynes, Media/Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2003); David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2000); Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 2002).
  11. [11]Ezra Klein, “There’s a simple explanation for Abramson’s ouster that the Times can’t give,” Vox, May 18, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/5/18/5727432/theres-a-simple-explanation-for-abramsons-ouster-that-the-times-cant
  12. [12]F. A. Hayek, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, ed. Bruce Caldwell, vol. 2, The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents; The Definitive Edition (1944; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007).
  13. [13]Ken Auletta, “Why Jill Abramson Was Fired,” New Yorker, May 14, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/05/why-jill-abramson-was-fired.html; Ken Auletta, “Jill Abramson and the Times: What went wrong?,” New Yorker, May 15, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2014/05/jill-abramson-and-the-times-what-went-wrong.html; Ken Auletta, “Why Jill Abramson Was Fired: Part Three,” New Yorker, May 18, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/05/why-jill-abramson-was-fired-part-three.html; Dylan Byers, “New details on the Jill Abramson firing,” New York Times, May 18, 2014, http://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2014/05/new-details-on-the-jill-abramson-firing-188759.html; Sarah Ellison, “Arthur Sulzberger’s First Interview About the Turmoil at The New York Times: ‘I Would Have Done It Differently’,” Vanity Fair, May 20, 2014, http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2014/05/arthur-sulzberger-interview-jill-abramson-firing; Ed Pilkington and Jessica Glenza, “Jill Abramson forced out as New York Times executive editor,” New York Times, May 14, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/may/14/new-york-times-jill-abramson-forced-out; Ravi Somaiya, “Times Co. Chief Addresses Executive Editor’s Firing,” New York Times, May 16, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/17/business/media/times-co-chief-addresses-executive-editors-firing.html
  14. [14]Jason Song, “More community college students completing remedial courses, data show,” Los Angeles Times, April 16, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-community-college-remedial-20140416,0,6300769.story
  15. [15]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons: the Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America (New York: New, 2011); Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  16. [16]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012).

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