There was a time when The New York Times never had to say anything back. If the newspaper caught hell for a story in the popular media, editors at the paper could rely on the time-tested formulation: “The story speaks for itself.” When critics carped about the newspapers’ editorial vision, business plan, or financial position, it was once enough for Arthur Sulzberger or Janet Robinson to just sort of roll their eyes and move along. At the end of the day, The New York Times was still The New York Times.
Back in October, executive editor Bill Keller held one of his regular “state of the newsroom” meetings (“Throw Stuff at Bill,” they are informally called even by Mr. Keller himself). At this one he addressed a notorious and much-maligned story about John McCain’s “friendship” with a certain lobbyist.
“In one case, the famous McCain and the lobbyist story, if I had to do it over again, the one thing I would do differently: I think I would have planned for the blowback better,” he told the staff, according to a recording of the proceedings obtained by The Observer. “It really took a day and a half to decide that we just weren’t going to let the story speak for itself—we were going to speak for ourselves. And by then, they had defined what the story was and, with Fox News as their megaphone, the world now believes it was a story about McCain sleeping with a lobbyist, which it was not. That one I’d wish we did differently.”
Nowadays The Times is showing no such hesitation.
In January, Michael Hirschorn wrote a well-circulated piece in The Atlantic about the Times’ ostensibly crumbling empire. The Times, arguably the most powerful news institution in the country, had been accustomed to unsticking spitballs from its cheek over the course of decades of unflattering feature stories, books, and news items published here and elsewhere. It goes with the territory. Not this time.
Catherine Mathis, the paper’s spokeswoman, shot off a letter to the editor of The Atlantic: “Your article “End Times,” which speculates on whether The New York Times can survive the death of journalism, leaves a lot to be desired from the standpoint of . . . well, journalism.” Yow! She denigrated the piece as “uninformed speculation,” and ridiculed what she characterized as the factual errors in the piece.
This week, Mark Bowden wrote a giant, 11,000-word profile of Arthur Sulzberger for Vanity Fair. There wasn’t a lot of new stuff here (anyone who has read Tifft and Jones or follows The Times regularly can tell you that). But it certainly was no kinder than Mr. Hirschorn’s piece. A chief theme: Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is unqualified to lead the organization into its digital future.
Bill Keller himself wrote a letter to the magazine: aside from the “bombast, the recycled anecdotes and the mistakes an elementary fact-checking” Mr. Bowden hadn’t written much of a story. The Times has 1,300 staffers in its newsroom, Mr. Keller pointed out in the letter, not 1,300 reporters, as Mr. Bowden wrote. And he defended Mr. Sulzberger’s strategic vision for how The Times can flourish in the digital era: “I’ll bet on Arthur Sulzberger finding the answer to that question before Mark Bowden does.”
And that wasn’t all! Vivian Schiller, former general manager of nytimes.com and the current president of National Public Radio, fired off a letter to the editor of Vanity Fair calling the piece “wildly imbalanced,” and concluding the letter thusly: “The business model for Internet news in general is indeed in flux and uncertain, but I am sure that if anyone can figure it out, it is The New York Times of Sulzberger.”
Letters like this are new enough for The Times; as we here know, personal correspondence with reporters and editors about these kinds of stories are not rare, but they are rarely written for public consumption. But even publication in the letters section of Vanity Fair, which would not have appeared in the magazine until its July issue because of lead-time, according to a spokesperson for the magazine, was not enough. And so both letters were also sent to Jim Romenesko, the Poynter institute blogger whose links to media news stories constitute the trade home page of the American media industry. Both were published, and both are setting off sparks.
Unflattering features have been written countless times about The Times. But at a moment when every bit of news seems critical to establishing public opinion about the institution—and perhaps more essentially, investors’ confidence in the company—The Times is sticking up for itself. That it has to at all is, we think, news fit to print, or at least to publish online.
By the way, according to the Vanity Fair spokesperson, that detail about the number of reporters at The Times will be the subject of a correction in July editions of the magazine; it takes a long time to print and distribute a big volume of glossy paper.
And you won’t find one right now on vanityfair.com.
Update 11:20 a.m.: A VF spokesperson clarifies that the story has been changed on the Web, and a proper correction will be forthcoming in the magazine.