The paper of record is feeling defensive. In recent years, as the president has railed against the “failing New York Times” and derided the press as an “enemy of the people,” journalists have been rightfully feeling like they are under attack. The New York Times has responded forcefully against this. The paper has put out its first brand campaign in a decade, with ads devoted to reasserting the truth, and it saw a dramatic growth in digital subscribers as a result. But this posturing has also started to seem a little desperate. The Times has been making major plays in Hollywood recently, with Annapurna Pictures and Plan B acquiring the rights to the story of how the paper broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and Netflix has landed a deal to turn the New York Times Magazine’s “Diagnosis” column into a docuseries. Then there was the Liz Garbus Showtime documentary The Fourth Estate, which followed various reporters covering the first year of the Trump White House.
Times reps talk about how these movies are intended to “reach entirely new audiences, tap new revenue streams and gain entry into new parts of people’s lives … all of which should give our journalism even greater impact.” That’s what Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, and Joseph Kahn, its managing editor, said about The Weekly, a new TV series debuting June 2 on FX and the next day on Hulu. With a 30-episode order, The Weekly is the paper’s biggest outside media bet yet. Each episode follows a different reporter as they perform the day-to-day work of putting together a story.
The Times seems to be smarting about being called “fake news” all the time, and the people behind the institution want us to understand that they do their jobs really well. It’s easy to be sympathetic to their plight in an era when, on top of everything else, social media platforms and the wider web are helping to erode the notion of reality. Sam Dolnick, a Weekly producer and Times assistant managing editor, told the crowd at the Television Critics Association press tour in February: “On Facebook every day, there’s all kind of fake news being thrown about every which way, where a nine‑month investigation by the New York Times looks just like a random piece of information.” They feel slighted, all their work largely ignored or glanced at. Dolnick went on to say that now is the time to stand up for journalism, in this case by showing “how the sausage gets made” and “the lengths we go to confirm the news that we’re reporting.” In other words, We aren’t fake news, please listen to us, please appreciate what we do. There’s a problem of tone here, and the Times is easy to pick on, but it’s not alone — only the biggest culprit. Journalism as an industry has chosen to respond to this undeniably tumultuous period in some of the corniest ways possible.
The first episode of The Weekly centers on the reporting behind a story published back in November 2018 by Erica L. Green and Katie Benner about T.M. Landry, a Louisiana school that got attention for sending low-income black students to Ivy League colleges, only to be accused of lying about test scores and cutting corners. It’s a story worth telling, with compelling characters and dramatic moments. The most striking of those moments comes when Green and Benner realize that their reporting could jeopardize some of the students already enrolled at these colleges. It’s telling, then, that the show cuts to a commercial without returning to that moral ambiguity, until some text at the end of the episode tells us that so far, no students have been removed. The focus, always, is on the work, with attempts to recreate the magic of movies like Spotlight through emotive handheld filmmaking and pointed depictions of the leads’ tirelessly fact-based reporting. But that rosy view doesn’t allow for any possible ethical quandaries.
The Weekly will surely continue to cover important stories, adding new dimensions to articles published that you may have missed. A trailer for the series suggests we’ll be getting an episode about the recent investigative piece on New York City taxi drivers and the medallion bubble bursting, which was already followed up with another article about how that story was investigated. This is inarguably significant and meticulous work. But these many moves to repeatedly make us understand how real this news is feels like the wrong play. If anything, it serves to highlight and polarize the discourse by leaning on All The President’s Men-inspired aphorisms that further insulate the varying factions of citizens.
In a blog post titled “Next time you wonder why New York Times people get so defensive, read this,” NYU professor and media critic Jay Rosen writes, “They want to push off from both sides to clear a space from which truth can be told. That would make things simpler, but of course things are not that simple. The threat to truthtelling — to journalism, democracy, the Times itself — is not symmetrical. They know this. But the temptation lives.” The people behind the Times are stuck within this loop. As good as much of their work is (including The Weekly), this temptation to not only stay neutral but also to aggressively advertise their brand of dedication to Truth renders them relatively impotent. If The Weekly and the Times itself are to succeed in this era, they will have to reckon with that commitment and find fresher ways of addressing audiences.
The Weekly premieres June 2 on FX and June 3 on Hulu.