Dear Mr. Sulzberger,
I read with great interest news accounts of your conversation with President Trump, in which you admonished him for his inflammatory characterization of the media as “fake news” and asserted that such polarizing language poses a threat not only to journalists but to American democracy itself.
You needn’t be a partisan — as I am not — to understand this nation’s 45th president as a dangerous demagogue, at once cartoonish and surrealistically sinister, reminiscent of both Snidely Whiplash and Mussolini — his domestic policies, similar to Charles Manson’s a half-century ago, intended to trigger a race war.
And yet, if I can be completely candid, your grievance struck me as hollow almost to the point of cynical, and left me wondering whether you have ever heard of the axiom, most often attributed to Oscar Wilde, that goes something like this:
All criticism is a form of autobiography.”
For example, in a statement released Sunday, you wrote:
I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous.”
And yet your reporters and columnists routinely deploy words like missiles — qualifying, and arguably helping to produce, some of the worst violence, at home and abroad.
Of 18-year-old Michael Brown, gunned down by a suburban St. Louis police officer four years ago, one of your reporters wrote:
Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life.”
Many of us found it incredibly polarizing that the paper of record would describe an African-American murder victim in such disparaging terms — on the eve of his funeral no less — while his white killer received no such treatment. When paired together, the profiles of Brown and his killer, Officer Darren Wilson, sent a clear message, that the black victim got what he deserved, while the white gendarme was blameless, a conclusion that is wholly inconsistent with history, if not the facts. The campaign of state terror against African-Americans dates back to the postbellum Reconstruction era, and narratives that objectify the “Other” and depict Blacks as a thing apart help fuel this perpetual pogrom. Might I urge you to reconsider such rancid journalism in the future?
You went on to write:
I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people.’ I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”
This struck me as odd, to say the least. Surely you are aware that your newspaper is currently pushing the nation towards a nuclear conflagration by repeating baseless claims that Russia somehow meddled in the 2016 presidential election. Your journalism has devoted God-only-knows-how-many column inches to advancing this allegation, but to-date you’ve offered not a shred of evidence, merely an “estimate” by the same careerist intelligence officials who cooked the books in the runup to the Iraq War. Conversely, you seldom mention American antagonism of Vladimir Putin and NATO amassing of more weapons on the Russian border than at any time since the Third Reich, or the pivotal role that the Obama Administration played in orchestrating the coup in Ukraine, and installing a government-led, literally, by neo-Nazis.
“Who still thinks Russia Didn’t Meddle in the Election?” asked one of your featured columnists David Leonhardt, in February.
With the economy circling the drain, however, perhaps the better question would be “Who Cares if Russia Meddled in the Election?”
These are, of course, not isolated incidents, and reflect a pattern that dates back decades. Homer Bigart, a famed foreign correspondent for your paper, was rather famously more interested in writing about pygmies than he was the arrest and assassination of the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, one of the seminal events of the Cold War. Your newspaper’s biased reportage — in everything from the Salvadoran civil war, to Venezuela’s Bolivarian resistance, to Israel’s illegal annexation of Palestinian territory, to allegations of rape by a nephew of the late Senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy — is hardly in dispute. And we’ve already mentioned the role that the Gray Lady played in rallying the support for a disastrous Iraq War.
The difference, as I see it, is that your newsroom, over the last decade, has grown increasingly isolated from the real world, as you’ve no doubt purged your newsroom of some of your best journalists and free-thinkers — like Isabel Wilkerson, Howard French, Don Terry, Chris Hedges and David Cay Johnston to name but a few — while promoting the establishment, Ivy League-concocted journalism of writers like David Brooks, Tom Friedman and Leonhardt.
What’s up with that?
The Times has always been a newspaper by, and for, the elite, but by squeezing out the few alternative voices that you once employed, it no longer publishes those articles that illuminate and connect us to a world outside the Beltway, or beyond Harvard Square. Your paper is hardly unique in this, but it is the straw that stirs the drink in the journalistic world, the first read of virtually every top editor, producer and blogger in the country.
You accompanied your statement Sunday with a note that read:
Earlier this month, A.G. received a request from the White House to meet with President Trump. This was not unusual; there has been a long tradition of New York Times publishers holding such meetings with presidents and other public figures who have concerns about coverage.
On July 20th, A.G. went to the White House, accompanied by James Bennet, who oversees the editorial page of The Times. Mr. Trump’s aides requested that the meeting be off the record, which has also been the practice for such meetings in the past.
But with Mr. Trump’s tweet this morning, he has put the meeting on the record, so A.G. has decided to respond to the president’s characterization of their conversation, based on detailed notes A.G. and James took.”
I actually think this is a huge part of your problem. Too much of the Times’ journalism today is driven by off-the-record meetings attended by powerful white men. You’re reporting on an echo chamber. The truth gets trapped, like oxygen that gathers outside an air-tight safe, unable to get in. We begin to suffocate.
And in our last moments, angry and terrified at the horror that is bearing down on us, we begin to turn on each other, rather than the son-of-a-bitch who locked us in the safe in the first place.
It is better in your view, I can only guess, that the country endure every kind of tribal war, before a class war.
Because that would mean your ass, wouldn’t it?
Editor’s Note: This article originally featured an image of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the former publisher of the New York Times, while this open letter is addressed to son and current New York Times publisher, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger. We regret the error.
Top Photo | A.G. Sulzberger poses for a photo on the 16th floor of the New York Times building in New York. Dec. 13, 2017. Damon Winter | The New York Times via AP
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”