Opinion: My crazy and storied relationship with the New York Times

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Meg Tomonari/The Occidental

I have a crazy and storied relationship with the New York Times. To the impartial onlooker, it might seem fairly normal: I read it. Just about every day. A lot of the time in class. Yet my relationship with the Times is complex because of my often conflicted feelings about the different material they present. While some aspects of the paper aggravate me, there’s also some phenomenal writing in the Times that brings me back to it every day. Looking a little closer at the variety of articles in the Times has given me some insights into more thoughtful ways of interacting with journalism and its overall value when done well.

But, there’s a lot of nonsense in the Times. Mishegoss even. I get pretty fed up every time I see an article in the Wirecutter (consumer) section practically demanding that I purchase the Best Knife Sharpener They’ve Ever Found, or a piece in the real estate section about the “longtime Manhattanite” couple delighted to find a Brooklyn apartment for only $9,300 a month. The Well and Travel sections both usually contain a few articles which I find equally ridiculous.

I find these articles so aggravating because of how blatantly inaccessible and irrelevant they are to the average reader. The New York Times, in my mind at least, is supposed to be an institution established and mainstream enough that it can provide material for the broad American public. It’s ridiculous to me how much of the paper is tailored to the top 20 percent or so wealthiest Americans, who are more concerned with the benefits of cold water plunges and neti pots than they are with the rising cost of living.

The Times is the most mainstream news organization that still frequently runs articles devoted to good old-fashioned American leftism with an optimistic perspective. A lot of other liberal news sites tend to get caught up solely in pointless moral high ground “checkmates” or random anecdotes. Yet, even while the Times runs articles praising unionization breakthroughs at Amazon (the Times newsroom itself has actually been unionized since 1940), a lot of their material is tailored to people who don’t know anyone who particularly cares one way or another about labor unions. While they have a political interest, the Times is run like any other business, and apparently a lot of their viewers would prefer to read about niche lifestyle trends than anything political.

But these articles don’t dominate my perception of the New York Times, and they shouldn’t dominate yours. I read the Times every day because they have a lot of wonderful stories. Paul Krugman’s opinion pieces pose some of the most straightforward and compelling arguments I’ve read for an expansive federal government with liberal economic policiesJamelle Bouie writes about modern politics and social trends with a razor-sharp, and often historically oriented, perspective. He’s written some of the best assessments of the Constitution and what its role should be today. John McWhorter uses his background as a linguist to construct thoughtful analyses of the language being used in ultra-progressive circles — evaluating which terms work to nudge the subconscious and which seem more performative — as well critically assessing the pitfalls of cancel culture. I don’t agree with a lot that McWhorter has to say — his thoughts on education and wealth inequality, for example, seem impractical — but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the instances when I do find his writing enlightening. He serves as an example of the healthy diversity of opinion at the Times.

The Times also has phenomenal investigative pieces. In September 2021, the Times released an investigation of the drone strike in Kabul a month earlier which had killed 10 civilians — including seven children. Until this point, the Pentagon had insisted that the strike had successfully killed an ISIS leader and the civilian casualties were an unfortunate mistake. It wasn’t until the Times investigation was released — which revealed that the target of the strike was an innocent Afghan aid worker — that the Pentagon revisited the strike and apologized.

In November 2021, the Times published multiple profoundly in-depth articles about police traffic stop killings, detailing events that can lead up to these killings and how police justify them to almost always avoid repercussions. These articles not only provided crucial information to understanding the patterns behind the killing of so many unarmed drivers, but also detailed, moving and disturbing accounts of several individual traffic stops that ended with the death of the driver. This scrutiny is invaluable. Without this kind of investigative journalism it would be nearly impossible to hold well-shielded institutions, like law enforcement and the military, accountable for their wrongdoings.

It seems to me that a lot of people have a tendency to disregard entire news organizations because of a few pieces from a few specific writers they disagree with. Discourse and an array of diverse opinions are necessities for a healthy publication, but with that there are going to be some pieces that you and I find to be pretty awful. Even so, these pieces give us the opportunity to think critically when we engage with journalism and decide for ourselves what we do and don’t like and why. A similar mix of writing can be found at other publications, too. The Huffington Post and the LA Times are both other organizations that come to mind that contain articles I dislike but are still worth reading every day. While I personally mainly read the New York Times, I don’t think the exact publications we choose to read are nearly as important as how we engage with them.

Don’t overlook the broader importance of journalism. There’s a lot of genuine interest at Occidental in justice and the politics of morality. The press can be a powerful tool to counteract the oppressive influence of big business and elite interests. Journalism is essential to advocacy for the common good. If you asked me a couple years ago if excessive force and a lack of accountability were issues with policing in our country, I would have strongly agreed. But I would have had a little more trouble articulating how and why than I would today. Good journalism provides us with an understanding of the world, giving us the opportunity to sharpen the precision of our opinions and avoid the trap of slogans and one-liners. So read your paper.

Contact Gabriel Morton at gmorton@oxy.edu.