MONDAY MORNING MEDIA VII

            Two must-read media columns posted and in print today in The New York Times and Washington Post: Ben Smith’s Media Equation column about the current, idiosyncratic iteration of the historic Harper’s magazine; Margaret Sullivan’s Washington Post column about Elizabeth Becker’s new book on three groundbreaking women reporters in Vietnam entitled “You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War.”

            Both columns are good; each has its own oddity.

            Ben Smith (no relation) has carved out new territory with his weekly column on media matters in the NYT’s Business section, reporting on the fast-changing world of media. Today, he gives a vivid account of the venerable, 170-year-old Harper’s under the eccentric stewardship of its publisher/owner John R. MacArthur, the heir to the real estate and insurance fortune that funds the MacArthur “genius” grants. 

MacArthur has compelled his small, young, underpaid staff to continue to come to the Harper’s office in Manhattan during the Covid crackdown and has recently drawn attention with the magazine’s open assault on what he sees as the “intolerant climate” of political correctness and cancel culture. This, in a magazine that has historically been among the most liberal voices, is startling, but not radical. As one columnist described it, Harpers today is “not anti-woke, but simply not woke.”

Today’s Media Equation column is an excellent read. The oddity that caught my eye was in the print edition, delivered daily to the doorstep of ancients like me. The headline on the business page front reads: “Inside the Venerable Harper’s, Media’s oddest workplace.” The headline on the jump on page two reads: “Inside the Venerable Harper’s, Media’s Weirdest Workplace.” Evidently, whoever wrote the headlines (not a copy reader, The Times is doing without those these days,) felt “oddest” was understating it.

In the Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan offers a bright and positive review of Elizabeth Becker’s account of the Vietnam reportage of three women: Frances FitzGerald, Kate Webb and Catherine Leroy. It is a fine book by Becker, herself an outstanding war correspondent in Cambodia, but it all but ignores the extraordinary Gloria Emerson, who joined the Saigon bureau of The New York Times in 1969-1970 when I was the Bureau Chief. Gloria, who passed away in 2004, provided The Times’ readers with marvelous, graceful accounts of the human cost of that fruitless war.

Gloria Emerson should be featured in any account of women on the war. But that’s okay. She wrote her own book, “Winners & Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins from the Vietnam War,” that won the National Book Award in the 1970’s. It was reissued on the 50th anniversary of the war.

MONDAY MORNING MEDIA VI

   True confession: I actually watched most of Donald Trump’s rambling, repetitious parody of himself before the CPAC conference yesterday afternoon. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion: dreadful, but impossible to look away as it is happening.

   I had to search to find it live. Neither CNN nor MSNBC carried it in real time, showing more news judgement than they did during Trump’s 2016 campaign, when his self-indulgent rallies consistently boosted their ratings. Fox, of course, featured it yesterday, along with C-SPAN, Newsmax TV, BBC News 24, BBC World and the Murdochian Sky News.

   The New York Times had a straight-ahead report of the speech on page A14 of this morning’s print edition, along with a sidebar noting that Trump had won the support of “only 68%” of the slavishly loyal CPAC attendees for another run for the brass ring in 2024. 

   The Washington Post led its Monday edition with a one-column “news” story noting that Trump had ruled out a third party, sought to cement control of the GOP and – surprise – hinted at a 2024 comeback. As for the speech itself, the estimable E.J. Dionne Jr. got it right when he wrote: “The act was old. The self-involvement was as intense as ever.”

   Even more so, I’d say. The obvious purpose of the speech was to generate contributions to the two new PACs Trump has created ostensibly to finance his political reincarnation (and cover his day-to-day expenses,) and to remind the Fox News regulars that he is not going away. The 45th president showed up an hour late and went on for nearly two hours reading from a teleprompter and ad-libbing his golden oldies.

   It was a pathetic performance, as you might expect. CNN and MSNBC got it exactly right with their measured, arms-length treatment. As did The Post’s editorial page headline over E.J. Dionne’s column: “The GOP: Trapped in Trump’s Rendezvous with Yesterday.”

MONDAY MORNING MEDIA IV

   Three recent, controversial “resignations” from The New York Times display a curious pattern of behavior by top management, namely, 180-degree reversals, decisions made one way and, after protest from some staff members, made the other.  The pattern underscores the changing culture at the Grey Lady and to a degree, in journalism today.

   The three compelled “resignations” were those of  Opinion Editor James Bennet after publishing Senator Tom Cotton’s provocative column urging military action against racial protestors; audio journalist Andy Mills in the wake of the flawed podcast The Caliphate; and Donald G. McNeil Jr., the much-praised science reporter who apparently used the n-word in a discussion with students about racist language on an overseas Times Journey in 2019. And, in each case,  management investigated, resolved the issue to its satisfaction and pressed ahead with valued employees who were “disciplined” in various ways. In each case, a group of staff members subsequently objected, their objections became public, and the top leadership reversed their initial decisions, sending the staffers packing. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

   Each of the three cases is different, and complicated in different ways. And, in each case, management has indicated that there is more to the story than has been made public. Taking the publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, and executive editor, Dean Baquet, at their word, as I do, it is still hard to understand the reversals. Did new information come to light? Were lies uncovered? Or, did the embarrasment of the internal revolt becoming public prove to be too much? 

   Sensitive personnel decisions like these are normally kept private, but these cases have attracted so much attention and caused so much controversy, that The Times needs to come clean with the whole story. 

   In which case, what does the controversy portend for the future? More sensitivity to racial and other issues? More consultation with staff, whose views have been largely ignored in the past? A management backlash? A staff revolt?

   What is clear is that the fuss over the McNeil case is not over. Witness Ben Smith’s lengthy Media Equation column about it today and the fact that McNeil says he is not free to discuss the matter fully until his separation from the paper becomes final on March 1.

   Stay tuned.