In his debut as the New York Times media columnist, Ben Smith, the former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, wrote about the New York Times.
Titled "Why the Success of The New York Times May Be Bad News for Journalism," the column asserted the Times' power and offered the fact that Smith is now at the Times, asserting and discussing the Times' power, as overwhelming proof of just how powerful the Times is:
"The Times so dominates the news business that it has absorbed many of the people who once threatened it: The former top editors of Gawker, Recode, and Quartz are all at The Times, as are many of the reporters who first made Politico a must-read in Washington. I spent my whole career competing against The Times, so coming to work here feels a bit like giving in. And I worry that the success of The Times is crowding out the competition."
Smith quotes one media honcho saying the Times will "basically be a monopoly," and another who compares it to Netflix. He describes his role as a mirror image of that of his late predecessor David Carr, a power broker who focused on the explosion of new online outlets; Smith, who will presumably also be a power broker, will be focusing on how the media, epitomized by the New York Times itself, is consolidating. "Because The Times now overshadows so much of the industry," he writes, "the cultural and ideological battles that used to break out between news organizations—like whether to say that President Trump lied—now play out inside The Times."
And yet despite recognizing that the Times is both one of the most important news organizations in the world and an example of media consolidation, and also a place where important—and formerly public—discussions and debates are now playing out mostly in private, Smith told VICE that he doesn't see critically evaluating the Times' work to be a main part of his role as media columnist. In fact, he doesn't see himself as a critic at all.
Do you work at the New York Times? We'd love to hear from you. Contact the writer at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I don't think of myself as a critic and I don't think I would ever do a lot of media criticism. I'm a reporter and I spent most of my career as a political reporter. And I think politics is the media business. You know, you're projecting images and video and speeches and ideas and trying to compete with everything else, certainly including us, for people's attention,” he said. “Those two beats run together pretty naturally."
But he doesn't see criticism being a part of those beats?
"I've always read media criticism, but I've always been a reporter. I just don't see myself as a critic," he said, but told VICE that no one at the Times forbade him from being critical of the newspaper.
During conversations with Times executive editor Dean Baquet about the media columnist job, he said, Smith (who told the New Yorker that Baquet approached him about the job) said he didn’t mention that he saw himself as a reporter and not a critic. “People who know me know that's sort of my identity,” he said. “Of course, I've been doing this awhile and have opinions. I just consider them facts rather than criticism."
Smith said his beat is to cover media broadly, and that he'll also be writing about politics, given his background and the fact that he views politics as a media story. He allowed, though, given what he called the "unusually central place" occupied by the Gray Lady, that he will "probably will write about the Times more than someone in my position might have when the Times was less central. Then he added, "But I don't know. Who knows."
When I proposed that the story he wrote for BuzzFeed about the Times' own succession intrigue could be considered media criticism, he said, "See, I thought it was reporting, but I'm not sensitive to what words one uses. I think all good stories have a lot of reporting in them and then make arguments off the reporting. And maybe columns do it a little more overtly. I don't know—I've only written one column in my life, give me some time to figure it out."
Smith said that the "scariest" part of the job was the low number of chances to get it right.
"When I was at Politico I was writing 10 times a day and at BuzzFeed publishing 30 things a day, and so the idea that you only get one turn at the plate a week is terrifying to me."
Does Smith read the Times' sometimes good and often reviled opinion section? Of course he does. Asked about his favorite or least favorite writers or columns, though, he took a long pause. "I don't really see any upside in answering that, honestly," he said, hesitating again. "I actually often love things I read there, so I'm trying to think of a good example of something I like that isn't just my former colleague Charlie Warzel, who is occasionally right." (Smith said he would send me some examples after our call concluded, then later said, "On reflection, if I'm going to annoy my colleagues I'd rather do it in my own column." Fair enough.)
Smith was less hesitant to weigh in on recent hot-button debates within and about the paper. For example, last year in an internal town hall meeting that was leaked to Slate, Times staffers grilled Baquet over the editorial decision to not call racist things racist. Does Smith think the paper of record should call a spade a spade?
"We did at BuzzFeed and I talked about it a lot. I wrote a memo about this, it's not some secret at all," Smith said. (He was referencing a 2015 memo he sent to staff in which he said it was fair to call Trump a "mendacious racist," as it was backed up by reporting.) "I think that words have meaning and you should use them. I do think you can also overestimate how much it matters—whose mind you're changing, why you're doing it. I think the Times sees itself as playing a different institutional role than BuzzFeed. I think different media outlets have different places in the ecosystem."
So is it the Times' place in the ecosystem to call a racist thing racist?
"Yeah, of course, I think yeah, sure, yes, sometimes, give me an example," he said. "Should they call what racist?
I told Smith that the example that drew the most criticism—to use a very Times-ian expression—was when chief White House correspondent Peter Baker covered Trump telling Democratic congresswomen of color to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came" in a painfully even-handed story that ran under the headline "Trump Fans the Flames of a Racial Fire."
"We called that racist at BuzzFeed, but I got to run the place then and I don't run the Times," he said. "I don't think it's my place necessarily to tell them how to do it on the first day.”
The Times, more than practically any other major news company in the country, strives for unattainable objectivity and impossible even-handedness in its news coverage, even when that means drawing useless false equivalencies and leaning on feeble both-sidesism. Does Smith think it's possible for a reporter to be completely neutral and objective? Is feigning a lobotomy even a worthy goal for a reporter?
"I think you just need people to trust that you can be fair and there are many different ways you can get there. I think you need both readers and sources to trust you can be fair," he said. "I don't think you need to get into philosophical questions. People in J-school always want to debate the nature of truth, and I think that's not something that actually comes up a lot."
That’s debatable. In fact, just hours before I spoke to Smith, the Times, which generally loves to sniff its own farts, had delved into the "philosophical questions" by publishing a fart-sniffing story about how Times reporters remain objective. In it, Peter Baker (not coincidentally, perhaps) said that not only does he not vote, but that he tries–apparently successfully—to not even form opinions about anything that’s happening in the world, lest he run the risk of sullying his impartiality.
"I think the idea that there is this rigid notion of objectivity has been a matter dispute at the New York Times at least since the '60s, if you read coverage of the New York Times from the 1960s. It's an important argument that's been going on longer than either of us has been alive," Smith said. "But yeah, it's my first day, please stress that I tried to get out of answering hard questions by saying it's my first day."
I thanked Smith for his time—it is genuinely refreshing for someone at the New York Times to deign to speak on the record with a lowly blogger like me—and told him I saved the hardest question for last. Is he making more or less money than he was making at BuzzFeed?
"You know, I'm just a little older,” he said. “I'm, like, young Gen X, and while I genuinely admire the cultural trend towards salary transparency, I'm not personally comfortable with it, so I'm going to dodge that question on generational grounds."
If you know Smith's current or former salary, get in touch.
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