Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Ayn Rand's _Fountainhead_ and the New York Times

One of the subplots in Rand's novel involves a conflict between the wealthy owner of a major newspaper and his staff. The owner wants the paper to support the novel's protagonist, an architect who, having provided the design for a housing project on condition that nothing be changed, destroyed the project when that condition was violated. The staff, left wingers, probably young, under the intellectual influence of the novel's villain, want the paper to take the opposite position.

The staff wins.

I was reminded of that by news stories about the conflict on the New York Times over the decision to publish an op-ed by a Republican senator arguing for the use of troops in response to rioting. That position is apparently supported by about half the population, but was viewed by the more woke members of the Time's staff as not merely worth disputing but so far wrong that it should not have been permitted to pollute paper's pages, even as a signed op-ed. They won, the paper apologized for having published the op-ed, and the editor responsible resigned, presumably under pressure.

It sounds from news stories as though the conflict was between older staff members with conventional liberal views, including the view that the appropriate response to positions you disagreed with was to argue with them, and younger staff members who preferred that such positions never be seen at all. We don't know what the view of the paper's owner was or to what degree the decision was due to pressure by staff members, to what degree by the belief that it would gain more subscribers than it lost.

But it was still similar enough to remind me of a story I must have read some fifty years ago.

7 Comments:

At 4:11 PM, June 30, 2020, Blogger MikeK said...

A fun layer is that it was published on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Likely not something those who approve of military response here are great fans of. Sounds like everyone–including Republicans–are Maoists these days :>

 
At 5:54 PM, June 30, 2020, Blogger Benjamin Cole said...

Mikek: well, the troops were called out at Tiananmen Square to quash nonviolent political protesters.

The US senator wanted troops called out to protect innocent civilians and businesses from violent rioters.

Like anyone, I am suspicious of big government. But in recent years, it is not government but private-sector activists who are silencing free speech.

 
At 6:18 AM, July 01, 2020, Anonymous John Schilling said...

There has been a strong tradition of editorial independence in American (and other first-world) newspapers for I think about a century, which is now baked into the system at a level that makes it impractical for a newspaper's owners to dictate its coverage. The owners can fire reporters or editors who don't go along with their demands, but those reporters/editors can sink the credibility and thus the profitability of the paper. Mutual assured destruction, except that the "hero reporters" who blow the whistle on the "evil suits" will find new jobs before the owner rebuilds the credibility of the paper.

Only the founder of a paper can beat this dynamic, and even then they have to get it right at the start. A paper or other journalistic institution can have any ideology its founder wants baked in at the start - including "objective gatherer of facts" or "blatant hacks repeating what the boss wants" - but this cannot then be easily changed except by a slow drift towards the consensus of the rest of the journalistic community.

So, I think Rand got it right, and I think it was inevitable that the NYT was going to cave on the Cotton editorial - though I hadn't noticed the similarity until now, so thank you for that.

 
At 9:43 PM, July 02, 2020, Blogger Bloggophereo said...

John Schilling... I am not so sure that this control is baked in as deep as you think. Could a very rich owner exhibit subtle pressure in hiring decisions, promotions, tiny edits here and there to influence the entire paper? I think someone could.

Is this happening in the case of the NYT? I couldn't say, but I can say that people don't just worry about favouritism, but also the perception of favouritism for this reason.

The reliance on what you hope to be mutual assured destruction doesn't give me any confidence whatsoever, as a novice like me can think of a lot of ways to exert subtle pressure in a newspaper's direction, and I assume someone as Machiavellian as a billionaire could come up with much more covert and much more effective measures.

-Bobboccio

 
At 5:07 PM, July 03, 2020, Anonymous Anonymousskimmer said...

"It sounds from news stories as though the conflict was between older staff members with conventional liberal views, including the view that the appropriate response to positions you disagreed with was to argue with them, and younger staff members who preferred that such positions never be seen at all."

The NYT, like any newspaper, has limited space. The default is not to include the vast majority of positions, or even the vast majority of issues. When the editors do decide to include an issue or a position they are making the affirmative statement that said issue/position should be heard. And this has been the case since the founding of newspapers. (Those older staff members may have had the view you attribute to them, but they certainly didn't act upon it, because they couldn't. There simply wasn't enough space in the newspapers, or time on the television. Though bravo to older shows such as the Dick Cavett show for showcasing the likes of James Baldwin and giving him ample time to make his points.)

At least these days those other issues and positions can still get a piece of the public exposure elsewhere.

Back in the day the issue was indeed that alternate points of view didn't have an outlet. And so it was appropriate to showcase and debate them. Is that the case today, though? Or is the issue in journalism something else entirely?

 
At 5:19 PM, July 03, 2020, Anonymous Anonymousskimmer said...

@John Schilling and Bobboccio

Where do the advertisers come in to this in terms of exerting control?
https://www.theguardian.com/media/media-blog/2015/apr/19/advertising-editorial-buzzfeed-telegraph-dilemma

 
At 9:05 AM, July 04, 2020, Anonymous John Schilling said...

"Where do the advertisers come in to this in terms of exerting control?
https://www.theguardian.com/media/media-blog/2015/apr/19/advertising-editorial-buzzfeed-telegraph-dilemma"

I think they mostly come in with the digital media, where finely-targeted advertising linked to specific stories has been the norm from the start. In legacy print journalism, the institutional norms were established in an environment where the advertisers' power could not be so precisely targeted. Note that the one print example in the Guardian's report, was a generally pro-business paper that spiked one particularly critical story about one particularly important advertiser, and it still resulted in a major columnist resigning and broad public controversy. The norm in print journalism seems to be, you spike zero critical stories about major advertisers; at most you can politely ask the reporters to lay off that sort of thing. And I think that remains the case even as the legacy-print media reaches more people online than via literal print.

Which is why this,

"Could a very rich owner exhibit subtle pressure in hiring decisions, promotions, tiny edits here and there to influence the entire paper?"

Is I think unlikely to work, at least in legacy print journalism. The ability of "subtle pressure" to overcome deep institutional culture is limited. And if there's a norm that the rich owner-but-not-editor is supposed to spike zero negative stories, demand zero puff pieces, make zero line hiring decisions, then trying to use those tools to exercise pressure won't be subtle at all but will generate conspicuous blowback.

 

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