What will change tomorrow? Who can say? Will we wake up to the smile of a victorious Joe Biden (likely)? A chastened and contrite Donald Trump (unlikely)? A messy and disputed election (O, please, God, no!)?
What will not change is the groupthink at America’s leading newspaper, The New York Times.
Let’s wind the clock back to November 2016. After its editorial board had recovered from its election-night heart attack, it vowed “to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly”. The publisher and editor declared that they would “report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you.”
They even acknowledged that they had goofed. “Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters? What forces and strains in America drove this divisive election and outcome?”
There was a scrap of humility in those words, a smidgen of fallibility, a welcome hint of self-doubt. Surely, they had to foreshadow four years of brain-cudgeling to understand why 63 million Americans had voted for the Orange Man.
Well, the four years are up and it’s time to hold the power of the world’s leading newspaper to account. And the Times has still done diddley-squat to understand the Trump phenomenon.
Whether he ends up as a winner or loser tomorrow, more or less half of Americans will vote for him. In a self-critical newspaper of record, that suggests that a few of its contributors ought to be Trump supporters.
Over the weekend the Times published a collection of columns by “all 15 of our Opinion columnists”, “What Have We Lost?” about how Trump has ruined the United States. “The whole world has gotten a lot darker… Trump is the patriarchy’s worst representative… Four years of cultural impoverishment… It’s exhausting to be this outraged all the time” — and so forth, a conga line of 15 independent thinkers singing the same tune from the same hymn book.
All 15 of them. Every single one of them.
Think about that for a minute. The Times prides itself on staff diversity in “gender, race and ethnicity”. But not, apparently, in opinions.
More than a century ago, Adolph Ochs, the effective founder of the Times set out his aim: “to make of the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.”
In 2020 the Times boldly welcomes all shades of opinion — as long as they are all the same colour.
The Times may be the paper of record, but it is recording the death of independent thinking. As Bari Weiss wrote in July after resigning from its editorial board:
… intellectual curiosity—let alone risk-taking—is now a liability at The Times. Why edit something challenging to our readers, or write something bold only to go through the numbing process of making it ideologically kosher, when we can assure ourselves of job security (and clicks) by publishing our 4000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and the world?
Trump is coarse, vain, impulsive and divisive. He is as unpresidential as President Andrew Jackson. But just on half of the country feels that he is their last best hope. Why? It’s a question which appears to be of no great interest to these 15 independent thinkers.
George Orwell described the situation to a T not long before he died:
“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”
Are you afraid of four more years of Trump? You have a right to feel that way. But even scarier is four more years of suffocating sameness in American media. Democracy dies in sameness.