WASHINGTON – The New York Times demoted one of its Washington editors on Tuesday as punishment for sparking controversy last week with tweets about Democratic members of Congress and for a related run-in with an author.
The editor, Jonathan Weisman, came under fire for tweets questioning whether Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., actually represented the Midwest and whether Reps. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, and John Lewis, D-Ga., represented the Deep South, given that their districts are primarily urban and heavily minority.
Weisman said he was questioning whether the districts truly reflected the broader politics of their regions, which are predominantly white and more rural. He deleted the tweets after they were roundly criticized as racist.
He later asked author and Times contributor Roxane Gay for an “enormous apology” in an email after she called him out for those tweets and for criticizing him for identifying another congresswoman as African American without mentioning that her primary challenger is also African American. Gay posted Weisman’s email to her and her assistant and criticized him for his “audacity and entitlement” for contacting her and her publisher to demand the apology.
A Times spokeswoman, Eileen Murphy, said Weisman had apologized to Executive Editor Dean Baquet for “his recent serious lapses in judgment,” but that he has been demoted and will no longer edit the newspaper’s coverage of Congress. The Times didn’t specify what Weisman’s duties will be. The paper also said he would no longer be active on social media.
Baquet himself was on the defensive Monday as he fielded questions, comments and criticism for more than an hour in a newsroom-wide staff meeting. The Weisman affair was part of the discussion, as was a now-infamous front-page headline (“Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism“) that appeared in the Times print edition last week. The headline inspired cancel-my-subscription outrage among liberals who said it soft-pedaled President Donald Trump’s role in creating the very conditions he was claimed to be addressing in the wake of mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.
The internal dissension and various controversies reinforced the contentious atmosphere that seems to surround the Times.
In the age of Trump, no other news organization has taken quite the battering from the left and right as has the Times. The conservative faction is led by Trump, who regularly bashes the paper as “the Failing New York Times” and repeatedly smears it as “Fake News.” But as last week’s headline mini-flap demonstrated, liberals seem impatient with the Times, too, sometimes flaying it for not pushing back on Trump more aggressively in its news coverage.
More so than CNN, more than The Washington Post, more than any other mainstream news organization, the Times seems to be the sum of journalism’s hopes and hatreds.
After hearing from his staff on Monday, Baquet was reflective, not defensive on Tuesday.
“I do accept that the Times draws more criticism because it has a special role in the journalism hierarchy,” he said via email. “And we work really hard to earn that role. If we have a special status, it is partly because we have such an unusually wide breadth of coverage, which brings us praise as well as controversy across a wide swath of topics and countries.
“People hold us to a high standard because they want us to be better. I get that. And I want to listen to that view with humility.”
Trump (who on Tuesday retweeted an old video clip of conservative gadfly James O’Keefe ambushing Baquet) has a long and rocky relationship with the paper, dating to his earliest days as a New York real estate developer in the 1970s (“He is tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford,” began a 1976 Times profile). But the greatest friction and agitation have come since 2015, when Trump launched his presidential campaign.
The Times (along with The Post) has landed scoop after scoop about the Trump campaign and his administration’s inner workings, dysfunction and corruption. It has also been a leader in revealing Trump’s personal deceptions; its multiple stories on Trump’s history of business troubles and tax evasion, for example, have been unmatched for depth and breadth and unchallenged in their veracity. The latter have sparked state and federal investigations. Trump reserves special animus for Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, whose coverage has unsettled him.
Such journalism has naturally prompted Trump Twitter tirades against the paper, but it also never seems to be enough for the opposition, the progressives who oppose Trump.
Many of these readers still seem sore about the Times’s focus on Hillary Clinton’s email server, and its limited coverage of the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s relationship with Russia during the 2016 campaign. In any case, Trump’s fury at the Times is often matched by his ideological opposites. Among those calling out the paper for its “unity” headline last week was New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the liberal firebrand: “Let this front page serve as a reminder of how white supremacy is aided by – and often relies upon – the cowardice of mainstream institutions,” she tweeted over an image of the Times’s front page, which was later amended amid the social-media furor.
Times staffers say the constant criticism and agitation is background noise that doesn’t deter them from doing their jobs, despite the somewhat restive mood at Monday’s staff meeting.
“I think there was an editor who said, ‘We’re not at war, we’re at work,’ ” said veteran Times staff writer John Schwartz, quoting a maxim coined by The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron. “People are angry, but you can’t let that distract you from doing the work you do.”
Schwartz added, “I’m not sure why we’re so important to so many people emotionally, but it seems like a good thing on a lot of levels. It means you mean something to people.”
Times White House correspondent Peter Baker said the newspaper “should be open to constructive criticism. It helps us do our job better. If people have thoughtful critiques of a story or a headline, we should listen respectfully and evaluate them on the merits. . . . What we shouldn’t do is let the noise overcome our journalistic values.”
Baker said, “It seems to me that some people want us to be something we’re not – to take sides, specifically to take their side. We’re not cheerleaders for the president nor are we the opposition.”
Baquet said the paper will continue to pay attention to its critics on social media (“some of our most thoughtful critics and readers are there”), but won’t be swept away by its rolling tides of sentiment.
A native of New Orleans, Baquet said he hears “different voices” when he goes back to the neighborhoods he grew up in. “Those voices are often less strident and self-assured, and frankly more empathetic than many of the ones I hear on social media,” he said. “I want those in my head, too.”