The Tyranny and Lethargy of the Times Editorial Page

Reporters in ‘semi-open revolt’ against Andrew Rosenthal

Illustration by Torren Thomas.

Illustration by Torren Thomas.

IT’S WELL KNOWN AMONG THE SMALL WORLD of people who pay attention to such things that the liberal-leaning reporters at The Wall Street Journal resent the conservative-leaning editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. What’s less well known—and about to break into the open, threatening the very fabric of the institution—is how deeply the liberal-leaning reporters at The New York Times resent the liberal-leaning editorial page of The New York Times.

The New York Observer has learned over the course of interviews with more than two-dozen current and former Times staffers that the situation has “reached the boiling point” in the words of one current Times reporter. Only two people interviewed for this story agreed to be identified, given the fears of retaliation by someone they criticize as petty and vindictive.

The blame here, in the eyes of most Times reporters to whom The Observer spoke, belongs to Andrew Rosenthal, who as editorial page editor leads both the paper’s opinion pages and opinion postings online, as well as overseeing the editorial board and the letters, columnists and op-ed departments. Mr. Rosenthal is accused of both tyranny and pettiness, by the majority of the Times staffers interviewed for this story. And the growing dissatisfaction with Mr. Rosenthal 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.

“He runs the show and is lazy as all get-out,” says a current Times writer, and one can almost hear the Times-ness in his controlled anger (who but a Timesman uses the phrase “as all get-out” these days?). Laziness and bossiness are unattractive qualities in any superior, but they seem particularly galling at a time when the Times continues to pare valued staffers via unending buyouts.

The Times declined to provide exact staffing numbers, but that too is a source of resentment. Said one staffer, “Andy’s got 14 or 15 people plus a whole bevy of assistants working on these three unsigned editorials every day. They’re completely reflexively liberal, utterly predictable, usually poorly written and totally ineffectual. I mean, just try and remember the last time that anybody was talking about one of those editorials. You know, I can think of one time recently, which is with the [Edward] Snowden stuff, but mostly nobody pays attention, and millions of dollars is being spent on that stuff.”

Asked by The Observer for hard evidence supporting a loss of influence of the vaunted editorial page, the same Times staffer fired back, “You know, the editorials are never on the most emailed list; they’re never on the most read list. People just are not paying attention, and they don’t care. It’s a waste of money.”

Andrew Rosenthal. (Photo via Patrick McMullan)

Andrew Rosenthal. (Photo via Patrick McMullan)

Multiple attempts to reach Mr. Rosenthal were rebuffed, and emails directly to him were responded to instead by the Times publicity operation. A Times spokesperson defended the page, telling The Observer, “The power of the editorial page is in the strength of the ideas it expresses. Some editorials are read more widely than others, but virtually all generate discussion and response among our readers, policy-makers and thought leaders. Recently, the editorial series on STEM Education and the editorial on Mr. Snowden sparked a great deal of discussion among readers and policy-makers.” Asked for data, she added, “We do not share statistics or traffic numbers at the individual article or section level.” In a list of 2013’s most read stories the Times sent over, no editorials or columnists appeared (two guest editorials, from Angelina Jolie and Vladimir Putin, did make the cut).

Another sign of a loss of influence may have been revealed this past fall. A member of then Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s inner circle who remained in City Hall until the end of Mr. Bloomberg’s term told The Observer that the entire administration was “shocked” by the Times’ inability to drag its endorsed candidates over the goal line, referring to Christine Quinn in the mayoral primary and Dan Garodnick in the City Council speaker race. “When was the last time The New York Times lost both? Those are both essentially Democratic primaries, and the Times couldn’t carry any water.” The Times also endorsed Dan Squadron for advocate; he was defeated by Letitia James.

This charge was amplified by a different member of Mr. Bloomberg’s kitchen cabinet who left the administration a few years ago. He reports that Ms. Quinn’s political team viewed the Times endorsement as “critical” to her cementing the nomination, which led them to allow the Times to follow Ms. Quinn around making a documentary. What resulted was Hers To Lose, a behind-the-scenes look that was clearly supposed to show the historic win of an out lesbian but instead turned into an awkward and sometimes excruciating look at a campaign that finished in third place, despite the Times endorsement.

According to this source, “Chris worked very hard to get the endorsement. Ask yourself: Why did she allow the Times movie? Why would any campaign ever do that? They were so focused on the editorial [endorsement] that when Executive Editor Jill Abramson personally called over and asked Chris to do the movie, it was seen within the Quinn campaign as something they’d better say ‘yes’ to in order to get the endorsement.”

As for the charges that Mr. Rosenthal is a despot, one writer provided a funny example that others interviewed for this story immediately recognized. “Rosenthal himself is like a petty tyrant, like anytime anyone on the news pages uses the word ‘should’ in their copy, you know, he sends nasty emails around kind of CCing the world. The word ‘should’ belongs to him and his people.”

Also coming in for intense criticism were the opinion-page columnists, always a juicy target. Particularly strong criticism, to the point of resentful (some might say jealous), was directed at Thomas Friedman, the three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize who writes mostly about foreign affairs and the environment.

One current Times staffer told The Observer, “Tom Friedman is an embarrassment. I mean there are multiple blogs and Tumblrs and Twitter feeds that exist solely to make fun of his sort of blowhardy bullshit.” (Gawker has been particularly hard on Mr. Friedman, with Hamilton Nolan memorably skewering him in a column entitled “Tom Friedman Travels the World to Find Incredibly Uninteresting Platitudes,” as a “mustachioed soothsaying simpleton”; another column was titled “Tom Friedman Does Not Know What’s Happening Here,” and the @firetomfriedman Twitter account has more than 1,800 followers.)

From left, Joe Nocera, Thomas L. Friedman, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Carmen Reinhart, Andrew Rosenthal, Paul Krugman.

From left, Joe Nocera, Thomas L. Friedman, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Carmen Reinhart, Andrew Rosenthal, Paul Krugman. (Photo by Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com)

Another Times reporter brought up Mr. Friedman, unsolicited, toward the end of a conversation that was generally positive about the editorial page: “I never got a note from Andy or anything like that. But I will say, regarding Friedman, there’s the sense that he’s on cruise control now that he’s his own brand. And no one is saying, ‘Hey, did you see the latest Friedman column?’ in the way they’ll talk about ‘Hey, Gail [Collins] was really funny today.’”

Asked if this stirring resentment toward the editorial page might not just be garden variety news vs. edit stuff or even the leanings of a conservative news reporter toward a liberal editorial page, one current Times staffer said, “It really isn’t about politics, because I land more to the left than I do to the right. I just find it …”

He paused for a long time before continuing and then, unprompted, returned to Mr. Friedman. “I just think it’s bad, and nobody is acknowledging that they suck, but everybody in the newsroom knows it, and we really are embarrassed by what goes on with Friedman. I mean anybody who knows anything about most of what he’s writing about understands that he’s, like, literally mailing it in from wherever he is on the globe. He’s a travel reporter. A joke. The guy gets $75,000 for speeches and probably charges the paper for his first-class airfare.”

Another former Times writer, someone who has gone on to great success elsewhere, expressed similar contempt (and even used the word “embarrass”) and says it’s longstanding.

“I think the editorials are viewed by most reporters as largely irrelevant, and there’s not a lot of respect for the editorial page. The editorials are dull, and that’s a cardinal sin. They aren’t getting any less dull. As for the columnists, Friedman is the worst. He hasn’t had an original thought in 20 years; he’s an embarrassment. He’s perceived as an idiot who has been wrong about every major issue for 20 years, from favoring the invasion of Iraq to the notion that green energy is the most important topic in the world even as the financial markets were imploding. Then there’s Maureen Dowd, who has been writing the same column since George H. W. Bush was president.”

Yet another former Times writer concurred. “Andy is a wrecking ball, a lot like his father but without the gravitas. What strikes me about the editorial and op-ed pages is that they have become relentlessly grim. With very few exceptions, there’s almost nothing light-hearted or whimsical or sprightly about them, nothing to gladden the soul. They’re horribly doctrinaire, down the line, and that goes for the couple of conservatives in the bunch. It wasn’t always like that on those pages.”

THIS VIEW IS NOT unanimous. Joe LaPointe, who spent 20 years covering sports for the Times before taking a buyout in 2010, views the page and its maestro more positively. “The editorial page certainly has changed. It used to be bland, wishy-washy. Now it’s strident. It has more energy and bite. Rosenthal’s voice rings very loud, and I read it closer than I ever had. It’s definitely a left-wing, progressive page, but I find the editorials very interesting. And my brief dealings with Andy have been very pleasant.”

Arhut Sulzberger Jr. (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/GettyImages)

Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
(Photo via Getty Images)

Timothy L. O’Brien, the publisher of Bloomberg View and a former New York Times editor and reporter, also has nice things to say about an institution that is now a competitor. “While all opinion pages have hard work to do to stand out on the digital landscape, the Times is still a very singular and weighty player and never easily discounted.”

So just how widespread is the impression of laziness and tyranny within the opinion section?

One former business reporter remarked that the entire business section viewed the editorial page as “irrelevant” and went on to say, “Their business editorials were relatively rare and really bad. Floyd Norris went up there to make the business editorials better and eventually just left because he got tired of trying to explain economics to them.”

A veteran reporter brought up the Sunday Review section, which falls under Mr. Rosenthal’s purview. “When it stopped being called Week in Review, I don’t know anyone in the newsroom who thinks it got better, and almost everyone thinks it got worse. Everyone I know thinks it’s less fun and more pointless. It just reaffirms the idea that he’s an empire builder. He wanted this expanded authority and Arthur’s giving it to him. He’s not the least bit answerable to Jill. Even as the newsroom has cut its staff and budget, Andy’s has grown.”

One current staffer pointed to the lack of diversity on the editorial page—the exact kind of charge for which one could imagine the Times filleting another institution. She declined to be quoted, even anonymously, but noted that Mr. Rosenthal seemed to view the editorial board akin to the way the Supreme Court was once viewed: There was a “minority seat” and a “female seat.” Of the 32 people who are either columnists or members of the editorial board, 26 are white, and 23 are male; 19 are—egad!—white males. (During the race for City Council speaker, NY1 Noticias reporter Juan Manuel Benítez tweeted at Times columnist Michael Powell, “Are there any Latinos in the edit board?” Mr. Powell replied, “Just looking, appears none.”)

Another current staffer blamed the same lack of imagination for a recent Times loss. When Times writer Catherine Rampell was snatched by The Washington Post to become an op-ed columnist, this reporter emailed The Observer, “It would never even occur to [Andy] to take a 33-year-old economics reporter and make her an op-ed columnist, but it’s just the kind of jolt his page needs.”

Another reporter told a story in which he had a “scared-y cat editor who had been so frightened by the vitriol that Andy spews around the newsroom about the word ‘should’ that [the editor] literally took it out of my copy every time I used the word when it was applied to an entity or a government institution, as opposed to something an individual should do. She literally just removed it so I didn’t have an opportunity to get into it with them, because she just wouldn’t allow it in my copy.”

Yet another reporter described the exact same obsession with “should” by saying of Mr. Rosenthal, “You know, I think he literally had a Google alert for the word ‘should’ and, like, goes reading through the entire newspaper for it, and that’s what he does all day instead of improving his section.”

The resentment extends beyond the policing of words and into a fight over resources.

Jill Abramson.

Jill Abramson. (Photo via Getty Images)

“They continue to own the top right of the home page, even in the redesign, which is a really, really important place for eyeballs. That probably translates into a lot of readers, but it’s only because they have that guaranteed placement, which they do not deserve, so it’s just a source of real annoyance. At a time when resources are diminished and people fight over them, it’s also a source of aggravation.”

Given the near universality of the view within the Times that the opinion pages have grown tired and irrelevant, it’s a wonder that nothing has been done to address the problem, especially as the paper has trimmed and restructured in every department. (The Times has made cuts to its roster of columnists, including Clyde Haberman and Verlyn Klinkenborg). According to the Times spokesperson, “We have a relatively small editorial staff that has remained steady over the past 10 years.”

The difficulty comes in part from the way the Times is structured. Andrew Rosenthal reports not to Executive Editor Jill Abramson but directly to publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. One source claims that Mr. Sulzberger is “afraid” of Mr. Rosenthal, possibly because of a perceived debt that the Sulzberger family owes to Mr. Rosenthal’s father, A. M. “Abe” Rosenthal, for the elder Mr. Rosenthal’s half century of service to the Sulzberger family.

Andrew Rosenthal now inhabits perhaps the most important opinion perch in the world, at a time in which the media is awash in opinion. During his long career at the Times—a career that has included stints as assistant managing editor and foreign editor, as well as some time at the Associated Press—he has consolidated hold on that perch and answers only to Mr. Sulzberger, himself facing the challenge of filling his father’s big shoes.

One veteran reporter who has been at the paper for more than 20 years said, “‘Bullying’ and ‘petty’ are Andy’s middle name. He’s very smart, he’s very funny. But any place he’s gone where he’s had a position of authority, he’s bullying and petty. For a time in 2000, he was essentially running the Washington bureau, though I don’t think he had the title of bureau chief. Dean Baquet was the national editor and left for the L.A. Times, and they put Andy in as sort of acting national editor for the duration of the 2000 coverage. During the 2000 campaign, he developed a very personal, gut-level animus toward Al Gore. And it showed in our coverage. And then he was the assistant managing editor under Howell [Raines], and the consensus was that as he rose he became nastier. He had the reputation as Howell’s hatchet man. When Howell was tossed out and Andy was sent to the editorial page, there were a lot of people breathing a sigh of relief that they didn’t have to deal with Andy anymore. That’s not an exaggeration. He had made himself extremely unpopular.”

There is suddenly evidence that the festering dissatisfaction with the edit page has broken into what one reporter dubbed “semi-open revolt.” One reporter says that he literally will not allow Mr. Rosenthal to join their lunch table in the cafeteria.

The Observer heard from two different sources about a posting created by respected health reporter Catherine Saint Louis and shared among her friends that pointed out a bevy of bad thinking made by the editorial page in a recent editorial related to the Affordable Care Act. In it, Ms. Saint Louis detailed the many errors in the piece’s coverage and asserted that “the basic premise is wrong.” (The Observer agreed not to share the post itself, since the person who shared it with The Observer did not have permission from Ms. Saint Louis to do so.)

Confronted with the charge that the reporters might simply be envious that resources don’t seem to be bleeding from the edit page the way they have throughout the rest of the institution, one reporter hit back hard at that notion.

“It’s so obvious that people on the news side find what the people on the opinion side are doing to be less than optimal. And it’s not that we want their money; we want them to be awesome. The fact of the matter is the Wall Street Journal editorial page just kicks our editorial page’s ass. I mean there’s just no contest, from top to bottom, and it’s disappointing. You know, we hold ourselves to incredibly high standards on the news side, and we meet them more often than not. Methodically, for the last 10 years, you’ve seen various editors march through and dispatch with mediocrity in many places where it had been allowed to fester for years, from the book review to the feature pages. And so to see it persist and persist and persist on the editorial page with nobody having the guts to retire some of the people or things that are not only not working but have become caricatures of themselves is just a huge bummer.”

UPDATE: After this piece was published on Tuesday afternoon, several New York Times reporters The Observer had not originally interviewed have been in touch. One texted the author simply, “Thank you.” Another emailed to say, “I saw opinion people storming around the newsroom. … Especially nice to see Andy get the focus.” Finally, Catherine Saint Louis, whose post critical of the editorial page’s take on health care was cited in the story, contacted The Observer to take issue with the characterization of the impact of her post: “I think these paragraphs err in leaving the impression that a single Facebook post by me constitutes “evidence that the festering dissatisfaction with the edit page has broken into … ‘semi-open revolt.’ ” It does not. Such a post would at most constitute evidence that one reporter disagreed with a single editorial. As it happens, I have no objection to the way op-ed conducts business.”