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Updated May 5, 2024, 6:15pm EDT

Joe Kahn: ‘The newsroom is not a safe space’

Al Lucca/Semafor
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The Scene

I stopped by Joe Kahn’s modest office in the New York Times newsroom Thursday to ask him what some of his readers want to know: Why doesn’t the executive editor see it as his job to help Joe Biden win?

The Times sets the tone for American journalism, and Kahn sets the tone for the Times. So it’s worth listening closely to his view on this topic. He told me the paper is a “pillar” of democracy but not a tool of power. He believes he is ignoring pressure to “become an instrument of the Biden campaign” and “turn ourselves into Xinhua News Agency or Pravda.”

Kahn has been in the job for two years. He is quiet, comfortable in his skin, and often described as cerebral, which is true both in the usual sense and of a defining physical feature, his large head. His job draws criticism from all quarters, and I put both left- and right-wing critiques to him, but his defining management challenge is with the left. The Times, he said, went “too far” in the summer of 2020, and Kahn sees his role as walking back from “the excesses” of that period.

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Ben Smith: Dan Pfeiffer, who used to work for Barack Obama, recently wrote of the Times: “They do not see their job as saving democracy or stopping an authoritarian from taking power.” Why don’t you see your job as: “We’ve got to stop Trump?” What about your job doesn’t let you think that way?

Joe Kahn: Good media is the Fourth Estate, it’s another pillar of democracy. One of the absolute necessities of democracy is having a free and fair and open election where people can compete for votes, and the role of the news media in that environment is not to skew your coverage towards one candidate or the other, but just to provide very good, hard-hitting, well-rounded coverage of both candidates, and informing voters. If you believe in democracy, I don’t see how we get past the essential role of quality media in informing people about their choice in a presidential election.

To say that the threats of democracy are so great that the media is going to abandon its central role as a source of impartial information to help people vote — that’s essentially saying that the news media should become a propaganda arm for a single candidate, because we prefer that candidate’s agenda. It is true that Biden’s agenda is more in sync with traditional establishment parties and candidates. And we’re reporting on that and making it very clear.


It’s also true that Trump could win this election in a popular vote. Given that Trump’s not in office, it will probably be fair. And there’s a very good chance, based on our polling and other independent polling, that he will win that election in a popular vote. So there are people out there in the world who may decide, based on their democratic rights, to elect Donald Trump as president. It is not the job of the news media to prevent that from happening. It’s the job of Biden and the people around Biden to prevent that from happening.

It’s our job to cover the full range of issues that people have. At the moment, democracy is one of them. But it’s not the top one — immigration happens to be the top [of polls], and the economy and inflation is the second. Should we stop covering those things because they’re favorable to Trump and minimize them? I don’t even know how it’s supposed to work in the view of Dan Pfeiffer or the White House. We become an instrument of the Biden campaign? We turn ourselves into Xinhua News Agency or Pravda and put out a stream of stuff that’s very, very favorable to them and only write negative stories about the other side? And that would accomplish — what?

Ben: Do you think that an alien reading The New York Times would come away thinking Joe Biden is a good president?


Joe: I think you would see a much more favorable view of Biden’s conduct over foreign policy at a difficult time than the polling shows the general public believes. The reporting in detail on his real commitment to national security; his deep involvement on the Ukraine war with Russia; the building or rebuilding of NATO; and then the very, very difficult task of managing Israel and the regional stability connected with the Gaza war … shows a degree of engagement and mastery over some of the details of foreign policy. I believe even an alien would see Biden as much more hands-on in this area. You may not like the results. I think the general public actually believes that he’s responsible for these wars, which is ridiculous, based on the facts that we’ve reported. But I think you’d get a very favorable portrait of him.

I also think we’ve done much more — whether it’s the Inflation Reduction Act, whether it’s the infrastructure bill — on the details of the legislation that passed, and the efforts of this administration to actually implement that and get the money out there. So if you were reading The New York Times you would know about that legislation. In the general public, he actually doesn’t get enough credit for the legislation. So I think you’d get a pretty well-rounded, fair portrait of Biden. Of course, you’d also see some coverage about his frailty and his age. But it depends. Is this alien a voracious reader who comes every day? If he did, he’s not going to see that much about [Biden’s] age.

Ben: This alien probably just sees headlines and tweets on social media. Do you ever think that you should spend more time thinking about headlines?

Joe: We’ve actually thought about the same thing. The amount of time and energy that we put on the nuances of the story, the nut graf, compared to the amount that spent at the end of that process on the headline is still probably disproportionate. Some huge number of people only interact with the headline.

Ben: When it comes to Gaza, has the focus on the domestic U.S. reaction become disproportionate to the focus on the war itself?

Joe: I think the explosion on campuses all across the country is a giant story. I don’t make any apology for throwing a bunch of people at it and trying to get as much detail as we can. We haven’t pulled anybody off the war. … But it feels, to me, 1968-ish, in terms of youth culture, campus culture. The disaffection of young people towards establishment-everything, including establishment media [and] the Biden administration, but school administrators, too. We’re still at the early-middle stages of understanding the totality.

Ben: You told The Wall Street Journal that there’s not a robust culture of open-mindedness coming off of campuses. Do you feel like that means you can’t hire those kids, or that you have to reprogram them?

Joe: Some of the things that I’ve seen in terms of the way campus journalists are covering this is really encouraging. [Look at] the Columbia radio station [WKCR] and the Columbia Spectator, look at the Harvard Crimson. The Yale Daily News has done some really interesting pieces. When you’ve got a big crisis like this, and we’re all really interested in what’s happening on campus, you’ve actually seen some of the student news organizations really step up in impressive ways and cover these issues the way, if I were at that age, I would want to cover them. Just asking tough questions about the protest movement, about the administration — actually doing good, quality step-back journalism on this. So in some ways, I find that encouraging.

[But] I don’t think that this generation of college grads has been fully prepared for what we are asking our people to do, which is to commit themselves to the idea of independent journalism.

Ben: Does that make you more likely to hire kids from state schools, outside that elite group, or kids who didn’t go to college?

Joe: I’d be open to it. And I’m open to graduates from whatever school who understand what they need to commit to being in an independent news environment. But I don’t think we can assume that they’ve been trained for that, if they’ve been trained for safe spaces. The newsroom is not a safe space. It’s a space where you’re being exposed to lots of journalism, some of which you are not going to like.

Don’t you feel like there was a generation of students who came out of school saying you should only work at places that align completely with your values?

Ben: Don’t you think we all sort of said that to them?

Joe: I don’t think we said it explicitly. I think there was a period [where] we implied it. And I think that the early days of Trump in particular, were, “join us for the mission.”

Ben: Was it a mistake to say that — even to think it?

Joe: I think it went too far. It was overly simplistic. And I think the big push that you’re seeing us make and reestablish our norms and emphasize independent journalism and build a more resilient culture comes out of some of the excesses of that period.

Ben: Are you seeing these people leave now, or are you changing how they see the world?

Joe: We’ve seen some people leave — a small number who say, “I just can’t be at an organization that does this.” I think there’s a larger number of people who we might at some point have hired, but we’ve asked the kind of questions or looked at the sort of work that they do, and wondered whether they’d be a good fit for us.

We’re looking more closely and asking more questions and doing more interviews. … We’ve actually asked people, “What happens if you got an assignment to go and report on some people that have said some nasty things and that you don’t like, what would you do?” And some people say, “I’d reject the assignment.” Okay, well, then you should work somewhere else.

Ben: You and A.G. Sulzberger have been messaging this stuff very clearly over the last six months to a year. Do you wish you’d started sooner? Do you think the Times let the inmates run the asylum for too long?

Joe: I wouldn’t use those words. I do think that there was a period of peak cultural angst at this organization, with the combination of the intensity of the Trump era, COVID, and then George Floyd. The summer of 2020 was a crazy period where the world felt threatened, people’s individual safety was threatened, we had a murder of an innocent Black man by police suffocation. And we have the tail end of the most divisive presidency that anyone alive today has experienced. And those things just frayed nerves everywhere.

Ben: Do you think you made mistakes, or just that it was very hard to navigate that moment?

Joe: I think it was very hard to navigate that moment. Everybody’s remote. We’re dealing with this political upheaval. We still did good journalism through that moment. But I think we’ve looked back at that and learned.

Unlike James Bennet, who sees that as emblematic of what the Times and maybe the news media in general has become, I think it was a particular moment. I think it was an extreme moment. I think we’ve learned from it. I think we found our footing after that.

Ben: You see why James takes that one particularly personally.

Joe: James has a singular take on it. I can see why it has become the single defining moment for him. But I think it is not as a single, defining moment for The New York Times [or] for journalism as he thinks it is.

Ben: Do you read The Free Press, Bari Weiss’ publication?

Joe: Yes.

Ben: What do you think of her course away from the Times?

Joe: She’s built a whole media organization around combatting and what she sees is excess of The New York Times and elsewhere. I think they do valuable reporting, and I think there’s some stuff that they’re doing that is worth paying attention to. Do I think she’s right about the [Times]? Not really, no.

She’s got a single note, and keeps playing it up over and over again. Every once in a while they nod to something that we’ve done in a fair-minded way, but I think they’re missing a commitment to deeper reporting [at the Times] and a willingness to kind of look at issues from a 360 perspective, that if you were only reading Bari Weiss’ version, you would expect never existed.

Ben: Amid the coverage of Israel and Gaza, some people raised the subject of your father having been a pro-Israel activist. (Kahn’s father was on the board of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis, a pro-Israel media watchdog.) Do you think that was antisemitic?

Joe: If you could imagine coverage like that in another set of issues, where you raise doubts implicitly about the integrity of somebody, based on their parent — the implication there would be that there’s some sort of genetic reason why I would be partial to Israel. So yeah, I think there is some implication of race. And I think it was unfair. My father did what he did. By the time that I was in journalism, he wasn’t active at all. So it was a little bit of an irrelevance.

But it was a backhanded way of saying, “His father was Jewish.” And I’m not an active Jew, and don’t share any of my father’s agenda. But I was a little uncomfortable with them suggesting that.

Ben: What’s your favorite recent New York Times story?

Joe: It’s going to be hard for me to pick a single one. I was reading our long take on Brittney Griner today, which I think is pretty good. The work Katie Rosman did to try to slow down all the claims and counterclaims that are being made about this protest movement … was a model of how to do that kind of reporting. (Kahn emailed after our interview to add that Wesley Morris’ recent piece on Curb your Enthusiasm had been his favorite in recent weeks.)

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