Two weeks ago, Defector reported that The Athletic, under New York Times ownership, had instituted a new “standards” policy banning reporters from publicly taking stances on anything that could be deemed political. On Monday, The Athletic’s Chief Content Officer, Paul Fichtenbaum, sent an FAQ to staffers that essentially just reiterated the policy. And then on Tuesday, bosses from The Athletic and The New York Times held a meeting to further explain the policy and answer questions from staffers, who, being reporters, know how to seek clarification about things that do not make sense.
In Tuesday’s staff meeting, an audio recording of which was obtained by Defector, New York Times exec and Publisher of The Athletic, David Perpich, said that “not surprisingly,” most of the questions that staffers had submitted for the meeting were about the new standards policy. After some management speak about leadership wanting to “create a more coherent leadership structure that is more inclusive in terms of how we make decisions and empower people down below,” Perpich got to work justifying the policy. He started off with a long and convoluted monologue:
It’s about preserving our editorial independence as a leader in sports journalism, and enabling us to meet the needs of all of our readers and to do this, our credibility and our authority as journalists has to be as unquestionable as possible. Now, I just want to say that as humans, like, I think everybody understands that we have our own perspectives, and we’re impacted by things in society. And each of us will have an opinion and that can be shared. And I want to just take a moment to try to, like, differentiate the two things, which the FAQ is hopefully getting at, but just to make it even clearer, but before I say that, you know, the reason of, like, why this is important, is just simply but we’re living in a world right now that’s really divisive, particularly along political lines, and we want to avoid taking actions that would hurt our ability to get the best stories and sources, or once we get them undermine you know, our authority on those stories or just in general as an organization. So just to bring to light a little bit more in terms of like, the nuance that we’re trying to hit, or the clarity we’re trying to get to, I’ll use the Supreme Court ruling as an example of like, you know, what would be in bounds and what we would ideally like to be out of bounds. So inbounds: People want to express that their pro-choice or pro-life, or that you’re devastated by the ruling or overjoyed or, you know, how you feel about that impact of the decision or even that you support Planned Parenthood or National Right to Life. Those are things that are ultimately for people to decide as individuals what they want to talk about or not. What we’re asking for people to do is to avoid commenting on things like making critical comments or positive comments about the Supreme Court or specific justices or the political parties or politicians, or even going one step further and not just saying, I support Planned Parenthood, but I am now a public advocate for it.
As always, the pathetic emptiness of this policy becomes clear as soon as any of these guys try to offer a single specific example that could justify its existence. Why, for example, can an employee say, “I support Planned Parenthood” and not, “I am a public advocate for Planned Parenthood”? Is publicly stating one’s support for Planned Parenthood not an act of advocacy? Would a potential source be turned off by the latter but be OK with the former? Is The Athletic saying that supporting Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides and advocates for sexual health services and reproductive justice, the same as supporting the National Right to Life, a group whose leaders have promoted the idea that women can’t get pregnant from rape and whose PAC donates millions of dollars to Republican candidates? Doesn’t the insistence on soberly identifying political consequences while studiously ignoring who and what produced those consequences undermine the organization’s authority in the eyes of anyone with more than two brain cells? Talk about manufacturing consent!
I put all these questions to The New York Times. In a statement, a NYT flack said: “As you know, The Athletic updated its own journalism guidelines to reinforce editorial independence and continue to serve its audience of dedicated sports fans. We’re not going to elaborate on specific comments made during an internal staff meeting.”