The New York Times reported that on Jan. 8, 2021, the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, told colleagues that President Trump’s behavior during the storming of the United States Capitol two days earlier had been “atrocious and totally wrong.” He even suggested Trump might resign and added, “I’ve had it with this guy,” wrote the Times.
McCarthy, who has cravenly reversed course and now kisses Trump’s ring, blasted the Times report as “totally false and wrong.” Well, no. The Times produced an audio tape, proving that the Republican leader — who will likely become the next Speaker — is a bald-faced liar.
This episode came as the Times announced a change in its top editors, with 65-year-old Dean Baquet stepping down and his chief deputy, Joe Kahn, taking over. It’s a moment to contemplate the role of the Times and other mainstream media outlets as Trump continues to promote his Big Lie — that the 2020 election was stolen from him — and threatens to run again in 2024.
The Times‘ story on McCarthy’s true feelings provides at least part of the answer. It’s called reporting. It’s called finding the facts. It’s called fearless determination to hold the powerful accountable — with the truth.
I worked for the Times for 25 years, and I am well aware of its many flaws and faults. But the paper — and independent journalists everywhere — remains an absolutely essential part of any healthy democracy. During the Trump years, those journalists have been under enormous pressure to join the “resistance,” to take sides in the political and cultural wars ignited by the president.
Some of this pressure comes from outside the Times, from its left-leaning subscriber base, which is both well-informed and highly vocal. In 2019, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a story headlined “Why the Left Can’t Stand The New York Times.” A prominent media critic, Jay Rosen, cracked, “One of the joys of having a subscription to the Times is threatening to cancel it.”
Other pressures are coming from inside the paper itself. As Baquet has admitted, “There is a generational divide in newsrooms right now,” and that divide is particularly acute among young reporters of color. But Baquet, who is Black himself, has long insisted, “Our role is not to be the leader of the resistance.”
“What I’m saying is that our readers and some of our staff cheer us when we take on Donald Trump, but they jeer at us when we take on Joe Biden,” Baquet explains. “They sometimes want us to pretend that he was not elected president, but he was elected president. And our job is to figure out why, and how, and to hold the administration to account. If you’re independent, that’s what you do.”
Independent, yes — but not blind to reality and the need for change. In 2016, for example, the Times decided to use the word “lie” to describe Trump’s persistent prevarications, and since then it has become increasingly aggressive in calling out his “alternative facts.” As the paper’s Washington bureau chief, Elisabeth Bumiller, told me, “Trump has uttered so many obvious falsehoods, so often, that to just report what he said, like we have covered other presidents, seems like a falsehood in itself.”
The Times, like many outlets, has abandoned “both-sidesism” or “false equivalency”: the notion that two parties to a dispute should usually be given equal weight. COVID quacks or climate change deniers, for example, don’t deserve to be taken seriously.
“There is no such thing as perfect neutrality,” Kahn told New York magazine, “and defaulting to ‘both sides’ framing on divisive issues can be insufficient and misleading.”
Another huge change is diversity. When I joined the Times in 1964, almost every reporter and editor looked like me — a white, straight, Ivy League-educated male. The range of experiences and outlooks was far too narrow, and it took the Times years to adjust, but it has. Yes, Kahn is a straight white guy who, like me, trained at the Harvard Crimson, but his two deputies are a Black man, Marc Lacey, and a gay woman, Carolyn Ryan.
The question is, what does diversity mean? It should mean that new voices are being heard, new stories are being uncovered, new angles are being explored. It should not mean that journalistic standards are being abrogated, that those new voices and stories and angles are promoted from an ideological or partisan perspective.
That’s what the Times scoop about McCarthy demonstrates. It was far more powerful, more valid, because it was produced by independent reporters, not members of the “resistance.”
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. His new book is “Cokie: A Life Well Lived.” He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.