New York Times takes hits from all sides

The New York Times is fighting to maintain a middle course while being beset by criticism on all sides — and it has suffered some self-inflicted wounds in the process.

The Times, the single most influential news outlet in the nation, has been accused of anti-Trump bias by the right and excessive deference toward the president by the left. 

It has come under fire for being too slow to defend itself from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE’s “fake news” jabs — yet it’s also taken fire for being overly sensitive to the churn of criticism from Washington pundits and political Twitter.

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Some of the Times’s problems are an inevitable consequence of a hyperpartisan era and a historically polarizing president — as well as the upheaval of the digital age.

“The great ocean liner of The New York Times is having an awful lot of difficulty steering itself through our current choppy waters,” said Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism and mass communications at New York University. “That is not atypical of an institution from one era trying to maintain its position into another.”

Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications, agreed, saying that “all media outlets are facing this problem of ‘How do we position ourselves in this increasingly partisan era where partisanship frequently determines who our subscribers are, who our readers are, who our viewers are?’”

The Times itself is striving to take the long view. A spokeswoman for the paper pointed The Hill to two paragraphs from a recent note from publisher A.G. Sulzberger. 

“Even in periods of pressure and change, The New York Times has the benefit of the long view,” Sulzberger wrote. “We have served the public for 168 years now. We’ve covered 33 presidents. We know that a free press is a vital guardian of all other freedoms in our society. We have been attacked and threatened before, and we know how to do our jobs under fire. So our response is the same as always. We will continue to cover this administration like any other: fairly, aggressively and fearlessly, wherever the facts lead.”

Still, the controversies are mounting.

The latest came when opinion columnist Bret Stephens took umbrage at a tweet that referred to him as a “bedbug” — a reference to a separate report that the Times’s newsroom had been suffering an infestation.

Stephens has been a target of the left and the right, with conservatives casting him as the Times’s token Republican and liberals angered that the paper would give a prominent platform to a writer who has questioned scientific orthodoxy on climate change.

The “bedbug” insult would likely have passed without attention. It came from David Karpf, a George Washington University professor, who said it initially received nine “likes” and no retweets. 

But it was hugely amplified by Stephens’s response to it. The columnist emailed Karpf complaining about the comment, inviting the professor to come to his house and repeat it — and cc'ing the university’s provost.

Stephens said Tuesday on MSNBC that he had “no intention whatsoever” of causing “any kind of professional trouble” for Karpf while also warning that the professor had used language employed in the past by “totalitarian regimes.”

Prior to the Stephens flap, a political editor at the Times, Tom Wright-Piersanti, was outed by the right-wing news outlet Breitbart for having tweeted anti-Semitic material a decade ago.

In a now-deleted tweet from January 2010, Wright-Piersanti had written that one of his New Year's resolutions was “to be less anti-Semitic. So...HAPPY Jew Year. You Jews.”

The Times has not fired Wright-Piersanti, though the paper has said it is looking into the matter and will “respond appropriately.”

Wright-Piersanti wrote that he was “deeply sorry” for the “offensive” tweets.

That controversy was followed by a front-page story about how the paper is under attack from “a loose network of conservatives allied with the White House” it accused of targeting reporters.

The effort is reportedly led by Arthur Schwartz, who is close friends with many Trump officials and allies, including U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell.

Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger described the effort as “an escalation of an ongoing campaign against the free press.”

One source with knowledge of the Schwartz-led effort told The Hill that “a tsunami of disclosure is coming” about media figures.

But behind the scenes, others — including some who have no ideological ax to grind with Schwartz — expressed skepticism as to the scale of the operation or its capacity to mount a wide-ranging assault on a large number of journalists.

Sulzberger’s response to the apparent effort to unearth past tweets prompted its own backlash.

“As much as I would like to sympathize with my fellow journalists, it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable to ask them to own or repudiate vile or impolitic things they might have stated in the past,” wrote Jack Shafer, a longtime media critic. “Nor is it remotely unfair for the president’s supporters to demand that journalists, who are forever denouncing him as a racist (because he is), be held accountable for their bigoted speech, on Twitter or anywhere else.”

Trump’s allies basked in what they viewed as the Times’s botched response, noting that the Times did not fire Wright-Piersanti even as the paper blasted the president’s remarks about Jewish Democrats being disloyal to him.

“On a day they’re calling the president an anti-Semite, they don’t think their readers can question their fitness to opine on these issues?” said one GOP operative aligned with the White House. “All we want is a level playing field. A lot of the people they’ve covered in Trump World have felt bullied, and now they’re trying to silence those who are holding them accountable.”

More recently, a transcript leaked of executive editor Dean Baquet telling the newsroom that the paper would pivot away from the Trump-Russia storyline to focus instead on the president’s alleged racism. 

Those remarks ignited fury on the right and the left, with conservatives accusing the paper of being hellbent on destroying Trump and liberals angry over what they viewed as soft-pedaling on the issue of race. 

Earlier this month, the Times changed a front-page headline after liberal outrage that it appeared to take at face value remarks by Trump opposing racism — something that critics said erased the president’s history of incendiary rhetoric on race.

At some level, the blizzard of criticism is a tribute, of a kind, to the news organization’s preeminence. And there is clearly no way to satisfy all its critics.

Even those who offer criticism, such as Mitchell Stephens, acknowledge that the stakes are high and the challenges immense.

“They have to adapt,” he said, “I really do think they do some wonderful things. They continue to be probably our best news organization. But man, it’s tough nowadays.”