Opinion

The New York Times’s Embarrassing Presidential Endorsement Reality Show

The paper’s supposed act of transparency around its endorsement of Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren was in fact a cynical attempt to drum up interest amid low enthusiasm.

From The Weekly (all images courtesy FX)

“I’m taking my talents to South Beach.”

And with that, LeBron James announced in 2010 that he was going to the Miami Heat, the culmination of a drawn-out process dubbed “The Decision.” Much of the animosity James faced at the time was due to the move in general, sure, but more than that, it was about the pomp and circumstance he forced everyone through. A strikingly similar process was undertaken by the New York Times editorial board when the time came to endorse a Democratic candidate for president. They did so via an episode of the Times’ FX television series, The Weekly, which has been plagued by low ratings since its premiere last year. Clips from interviews with each candidate were circulated days beforehand in an attempt to boost hype, all of which crystallized on the evening of January 19, in an experience journalist Ashley Feinberg characterized as “watching the paper crumble under the weight of its own self-importance.”

From The Weekly

An impressive amount of care and resources undeniably goes into the creation of The Weekly, building from stories that are reported in the paper and adding new dimensions to them. But as I wrote last year after seeing the first couple of episodes, the show seems preoccupied with asserting the Times’ significance and authority. The endorsement episode is a clear confirmation of my suspicion, a desperately cynical attempt to drum up interest amid low enthusiasm. If the aim of the series is to make the process of reportage transparent and sexy, this is the most compelling argument yet of the institution’s actual impotence. 

To be clear, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea to make the traditionally private endorsement process more public, allowing citizens to potentially see candidates in new ways while providing insight into who actually makes these moves. (For example, while a board-wide vote is held, the decision seems to ultimately rest with deputy editorial page editor Kathleen Kingsbury.) But the tangible result of this endeavor was that it laid bare how ineffective and broken the editorial board actually is — a public service in transparency, at any rate. 

As a piece of documentary television, the episode is frustratingly oblique and noncommittal. The full transcripts of the interviews with the candidates are available online, of course, but each lasts only a few minutes onscreen. (Some, like Pete Buttigieg, clearly get more screen time than others, like Bernie Sanders.) And in almost every scene of deliberation, the members of the editorial staff show their asses. James Bennet, the editor in charge of the Opinion section, begins his appraisal of Amy Klobuchar with, “Even though she’s anemic in the polls,” and continues to explain why he likes her when he could’ve just stopped after that preface (his brother Michael is also running for president). The questions are mostly softball, from whether Klobuchar uses an Alexa at home to what it’s like for Buttigieg to be the first openly gay candidate for president. The most interesting bits made the rounds on Twitter before the broadcast, like economics writer Binyamin Appelbaum questioning Buttigieg about his time working for McKinsey, responding to his denials with hilarious deadpan. Or Sanders admitting to his disinterest in traditional political gladhanding, and the board’s consternation in response.

Kingsbury later defends their dual endorsement of Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren by saying, “We made this choice because we really believe in it,” seemingly asking us to ignore that they picked two people. On the surface, it’s easy enough to be irritated by the forced spectacle, and many have rightfully compared it to a Trumpian reality TV approach. Fair enough, because I’d honestly rather watch old episodes of The Apprentice. But perhaps the most unintentionally striking moment comes early on, as Kingsbury describes the distinction between what the New York Times newsroom does and what the editorial board does. The newsroom, she says, gathers facts and tells a story based on those facts. The editorial board, on the other hand, is aspirational in her eyes. “We take those facts and describe the world as it should be,” she says with a hint of pride in her voice. 

From The Weekly

This is the delusion at the heart of the New York Times in the current moment, which is inevitably made manifest most compellingly in the Opinion pages. Yet this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what an exercise like endorsement could potentially be, because it presupposes that they are soothsayers with the country’s best interests in mind. In truth, they are disconnected from lived reality and focused on a bourgeois status quo they all participate in. In their discussion of Warren, the primary concern is that she condescends to some voters. Somehow they lack the self-awareness to see their own haughtiness. 

This act of supposed transparency cannot reveal the truth about the editorial board, which is that it does not serve the American people. It serves the political and executive classes, the elite whom Trump repeatedly rails against to great success precisely because these supercilious institutions refuse to acknowledge their parasitic relationship to the existing societal conditions. Perhaps the saddest and most clarifying thing about the ordeal is that the Weekly episode was watched by fewer people than an A&E broadcast of American Sniper.

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