NYT Editor Denies His Paper’s Role in Setting the Agenda It Reports On

New York Times executive editor Joe Kahn says “good media” (by which he most certainly means the New York Times) is a “pillar of democracy.” Talking to Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of the Semafor news site (5/5/24), Kahn elaborated:

One of the absolute necessities of democracy is having a free and fair and open election where people can compete for votes, and the role of the news media in that environment is not to skew your coverage towards one candidate or the other, but just to provide very good, hard-hitting, well-rounded coverage of both candidates, and informing voters.

By way of explaining “the essential role of quality media in informing people about their choice in a presidential election,” Kahn summed up how he sees the Times covering Campaign 2024:

It is true that Biden’s agenda is more in sync with traditional establishment parties and candidates. And we’re reporting on that and making it very clear.

I put it to you that presenting that as the first thing to say about the election—which candidate is more pro-establishment?—is both a peculiar view of what’s at stake in 2024 and, at the same time, a good way to skew coverage toward one of the two major-party candidates: Donald Trump.

‘Issues people have’

 'The newsroom is not a safe space'

New York Times executive editor Joe Kahn talked to Semafor (5/5/24) about the “big push” his paper is making to “reestablish our norms and emphasize independent journalism.”

But Kahn is committed to denying that the Times—the most powerful agenda-setting news outlet in the United States—has any say over what issues are considered important:

It’s our job to cover the full range of issues that people have. At the moment, democracy is one of them. But it’s not the top one—immigration happens to be the top [of polls], and the economy and inflation is the second. Should we stop covering those things because they’re favorable to Trump and minimize them?

Should the Times stop covering the economy? No, of course not. But it should stop covering it in a way that overemphasizes inflation over other measures of economic health. In 2023, as increases in wages outpaced inflation in the United States, the paper talked about “inflation” six times as often as it talked about “wage growth” (FAIR.org, 1/5/24).

On immigration, the Times should not be treating calls from local Democratic leaders for greater resources to help settle refugees as “growing pressure” on Biden “to curb record numbers of migrants crossing into the United States” (New York Times, 1/4/24; FAIR.org, 1/9/24).

What Times critics are calling for is not censorship, as Kahn pretends, but a recognition that the paper is not merely holding up a mirror to the world, but making choices about what’s important for readers to know—and that those choices have real-world consequences, including in terms of the issues voters think are important.

Kahn defended his paper as giving “a pretty well-rounded, fair portrait of Biden”—stressing that it had covered what it saw as the positive achievements of his administration in foreign policy, which provides some insight into the core politics of the New York Times:

his real commitment to national security; his deep involvement on the Ukraine war with Russia; the building or rebuilding of NATO; and then the very, very difficult task of managing Israel and the regional stability connected with the Gaza war.

The fact that Kahn thinks that Biden’s handling of Gaza reflects well on the president suggests that Kahn’s father having been on the board of CAMERA (Intercept, 1/28/24)—a group dedicated to pushing news media to be ever more pro-Israel—may not be the irrelevant antisemitic dogwhistle that Kahn dismissed it as.

‘Some coverage of his age’

 Eight Words and a Verbal Slip Put Biden’s Age Back at the Center of 2024

Surely the New York Times (2/9/24) running at least 26 stories on the subject in a week had something to do with Joe Biden’s age being “at the center of 2024.”

At the same time, Kahn acknowledged that his paper has had “some coverage about [Biden’s] frailty and his age”—but insisted that a regular reader is “not going to see that much” about that.

As it happens, there was a study done of how much the New York Times writes about Biden’s age. The Computational Social Science Lab (3/8/24) at the University of Pennsylvania found that in the week after special counsel Robert Hur cited how old Biden was as part of his decision not to indict him for mishandling classified documents, the Times ran at least 26 stories on the topic of Biden’s elderliness—”of which one of them explored the possibility that Trump’s age was of equal or more concern.” (The study looked only at stories that appeared among the top 20 stories on the Times‘ website home page, a measure of the importance the paper accorded to coverage.)

By way of comparison, CSS Lab noted that when, about the same time, Trump announced “that if he regained power he would pull the US out of NATO and even encourage Russian invasions of democratic allies if their financial commitments were not to his liking,” the Times ran just 10 articles on the issue that made it to the top of its home page.

About two weeks after this burst of coverage, CSS Lab noted a second wave of Times stories about how old Biden was—based on a poll that found that voters were indeed concerned about the subject:

Critically, this second burst was triggered not by some event that generated new evidence about Biden’s age affecting his performance as president, but rather the NYT’s own poll that pointedly asked respondents about the exact issue they had just spent the previous month covering relentlessly…. None of this second wave of articles acknowledges the existence of the first wave or the possibility that poll respondents might simply have been parroting the NYT’s own coverage back to them.

Turning situations into crises

 Lack of Media Urgency Over GOP Efforts to Steal 2024 Elections

Establishment media have displayed no more urgency about the prospect of Trumpists stealing the 2024 election than they had two years ago (FAIR.org, 2/16/22).

That’s the same pattern that we see with the immigration and inflation stories—and, in the runup to the 2022 midterms, with the “crime wave” issue (FAIR.org, 11/10/22). Corporate media—not the New York Times alone, of course, but the Times does play a leading role—have the ability, through their framing and emphasis, to turn situations into crises. And they have chosen to do this, again and again, in ways that make it more likely that Trump will return to the White House in 2025—with an avowed intent to do permanent damage to democracy.

The prospect does not seem to faze Joe Kahn. “Trump could win this election in a popular vote,” he told Smith. “Given that Trump’s not in office, it will probably be fair.”

It’s a stunningly ignorant comment, given that elections in the United States are not run by the federal government; the Republican Party has been working tirelessly at the state and local level since 2020 to put itself in a position to overturn the popular vote (FAIR.org, 2/16/22). To the extent that the process has federal oversight, it’s largely through a judicial branch in which the GOP-controlled Supreme Court holds supreme power.

But then, why should I expect Kahn to have a deeper understanding of how elections work than he does of how media and public opinion work?