Why Today’s Republicans Hate the New York Times So Much

by Akim Reinhardt

Headless Body in Topless Bar" writer dies. But why was that headless body there?When I was growing up during the 1970s, America still had a vibrant and thriving newspaper culture. My hometown New York City boasted a half-dozen dailies to choose from, plus countless neighborhood newspapers. Me and other kids started reading newspapers in about the 5th grade. Sports sections, comics, and movie listings mostly, but still. By middle school, newspapers were all over the place, and not because teachers foisted them upon us, but because kids picked them up on the way to school and read them.

Of course when dropping coins at the local newsstands and into boxes, us youngsters typically picked up tabloids such as the New York Post and Daily News, not those fancy papers so big you had to unfold them just to see the entire front page: the New York Times and the indecipherable Wall Street Journal. Those were for adults, and usually white collar ones at that.

My father was blue collar and not a big newspaper reader. But my mother was a high school English teacher and she made a family ritual of going out to buy the massive Sunday Times when it first hit newsstands on Saturday evenings. Mostly she just wanted the Book Review. We’d also pick up a Daily News because they too had a formidable Sunday edition; not cut into sections like the Times, but in a single massive tome like a phonebook. It had the best comics section of any NYC paper. After my sister and I had our way with the News, I’d occasionally thumb through the Times. No comics, but they did have an entire sports section.

As I rambled towards adulthood, I continued buying the tabloids for their local sports coverage and hilarious front page headlines. However, I also found myself reading more of that Sunday Times. Never all of it, of course. I was far too young, and anyway, never trust anyone who does; no one’s interests are really that far ranging.

Eventually, I even began occasionally picking up the friendlier, skinnier, four-sectioned New York Times that appeared Monday through Saturday. After all, it was a local New York City paper. However, I moved out of New York just before the internet took off, and largely gave up on the New York Times and the city’s other dailies, reading them only during visits back home. The Times of course soon ended up online, but by then I was getting my news from other sources: various national magazines, the radio, and local papers wherever I lived. As the worldwide web flourished, I grazed the news from a panoply of sources. For the last several years I’ve been an avid reader of the Associated Press. Aside from the occasional article recommended by friends, I haven’t read the Times much during the past couple of decades. So my memories of it are decidedly 20th century.

Based on those memories, I’d been a bit surprised at Republicans’ ever increasing hostility towards the New York Times. Yes, its Op Ed pages had always been more Democratic than Republican, more Liberal than Conservative, but rather centrist overall, and of course its news reportage was usually (though certainly not always) top notch. So why were growing numbers of Republicans openly despising and even attacking the paper, deriding it as propaganda for “the left”? It struck me as truly odd because the New York Times, at least as I remembered it, was:

-Center-right on economics
-Politically centrist
-(In)Famously supportive of Israel despite occasional mild critiques. This last point is worth noting, I believe, because of the religious rights’ bizarre, glassy-eyed fascination with and militant support for Israel.

Was the Times liberal? Yes, but mostly on social issues, not economic ones. It championed a mainstream, middle aged liberalism that was not at all radical. It generally favored “respectable,” establishment politics and moderate policies that gently pushed the status quo for modest change. Or at least that’s how I remembered it.

Then my employer recently got us digital subscriptions to the New York Times, and I started reading it daily.

In today’s political environment, that last sentence sounds like a setup for something like: Since the more innocent days of my tender youth, the New York Times has turned into a flaming leftist rag.

But that is not at all where I’m going. Because after reading the Times for a while, and boning up on its recent history, I find the accusation is simply not true.

First I reviewed the Times’ political endorsements for the 21st century. Yes, the paper supports Democrats far more often than Republicans, and hasn’t endorsed a GOP presidential candidate since Dwight Eisenhower. However, during this century it has endorsed Republican nominees, plural, for New York City Mayor (Rudy Giulliani and Michael Bloomberg when he was a Republican) and for New York State Governor (George Pataki). Furthermore, when endorsing Democrats, the Times is much likelier to support moderate Democrats than any actual leftists. For example, it gushingly endorsed Hilary Clinton over Bernie Sanders for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, calling Sanders’ reform plans unrealistic.

Editorially, the Times has also been a stalwart supporter of free market capitalism, which is unsurprising given that it’s a private, for-profit corporation that occasionally gets tough with its own workers’ union. True, it does not promote the GOP’s radical right anti-tax agenda, but it has consistently supported free trade and various forms of deregulation. Since the 1990s, it has largely promoted the Clinton-Obama policies formulated by Wall Street big wigs. The paper is clearly no friend of socialism (meaning, the actual economic left).

On foreign policy, it has been a stalwart of liberal interventionism, which often dovetails with neo-conservative interventionism. We could go into much detail on this one, but the brief version is that the Times supported America’s entry into both Gulf Wars. The actual American left staunchly opposed both of those wars.

And finally, the Times’ roster of columnists has included prominent conservative voices dating back at least to legendary conservative libertarian William Safire, who began writing for the paper in 1973. Recently, some of these conservative columnists have complained about working at the “liberal” New York Times, but all of them continue to write for the paper unless they quit of their own accord; specifically Bari Weiss, who has since founded a conservative university that is neither accredited nor offers any degrees. No conservative columnists have ever been fired. Though the paper did dump a freelance editor for her glowing tweets about Joe Biden’s inauguration (The standards of public behavior for columnists and editors is different because the former are paid to have opinions and the latter are committed to objective news coverage.). And anyway, can you name a conservative newspapers that regularly features even one reputable liberal columnist?

I concluded that, politically and economically, the New York Times is basically the same paper I remembered, more or less occupying the same political space it had at least since the 1980s. But one element has noticeably changed: its elitism.

Let me be clear.

I am not saying that Republicans revile New York Times more than they used to because the paper is more elitist than it used to be. It is not. The Times has always been elitist. However, the nature of its elitism has changed. It has evolved in ways that turn the paper into red meat for today’s increasingly populist and authoritarian right wing.

The New York Times elitism that I grew up with during the 20th century was a very specific, regional, even iconic elitism: New York City elitism. Central to New York Times elitism back then was the cliché of New York City navel gazing.  It was a newspaper that, aside from its national and international news coverage, still embodied the old New Yorker view-of-the-world map, and catered to people who got and even relished that reference. Much of the paper dealt with local concerns: politics, restaurants, the arts, sports, the boroughs, etc. Indeed, if you bought a national edition elsewhere in the country, it was markedly skinnier; a lot of the New York material had been removed because, honestly, who cares?

The (famous & myopic) view of the world from the POV of New Yorkers - kimi blogThere wasn’t much to like about New York City elitism if you lived anywhere else, as I discovered when I moved to other parts of the country. But it was also a very specific style of elitism that was very well established in American culture, very familiar to all Americans, and (this is very important) localized. Kinda like LA’s shallow beauty obsession or Las Vegas’ devotion to vice.

Yes, the New York Times had a national circulation, dryer prose, a haughty self-styled nickname (“the paper of record”), and it cost a little more and than other newspapers. But in many ways it was still a local paper. Consequently, the Times’ elitism was fairly inoffensive to much of the nation’s blue collar and conservative white collar readers because the paper mostly stayed in its regional lane. “New York” is literally most of the paper’s name, and it reported substantially on New York City, so its elitism could be written off as New Yorkers being New Yorkers. Uppity New Yorkers doing their New York thing, prattling on about the opera and museums and novels that no one reads. Even the Sunday edition’s daunting Real Estate section could reinforce the rest of America’s decision not to live in New York, along the lines of “Glad I don’t have to pay those prices to live in a noisy crowded city.”

The moderate New York Times, the mainline Protestant denomination of newspapers, was indeed elitist, but it fit a well known niche of elitism that the rest of the nation grudgingly accepted because, well, it was a New York City thing. And for every starry eyed Southerner or Midwesterner looking to move to the Big Apple, there were another half-dozen content to make fun of the city with their own cliched jokes and predictable complaints, and maybe even visit it one day as a tourist.

But that was the 20th century. Here in 21st century America, “elitism” has become a catchword for things many Americans hate. Any kind of elitism is now bad. And coinciding with this, the Times’ own elitism has blossomed from a New York City trope into something far more grasping and expansive.

When I read the New York Times now, it feels less like a high falutin’ New York City newspaper and more like a high falutin’ national newspaper. Not because of the Page 1 news coverage, which has always had a national and international focus, but because of all that other stuff, which is no longer the irrelevant highbrow prattling of elite New Yorkers.

Twenty-first century digital age marketing strategies have moved the The Times far beyond the five boroughs. It very consciously and obviously positions itself as a paper for the nation’s social and cultural elite. It’s annoying elitism is no longer just New York inside baseball. It is now broad and far reaching, designed to appeal to sophisticated urbanites and suburbanites across the United States. It’s very much a newspaper for all of America’s well-to-do parents of over-achieving children.

To illustrate this I will not discuss its news coverage, editorials, or columnists, which I have argued essentially add up to political and economic centrism, and so would not explain the right’s growing hostility. Rather, I’m looking at the puff pieces. Stories and tidbits about, well, whatever, man.

And whatever, man is a really big box. Different people fill it with different things. Here is a sampling of how the New York Times has been filling it recently. All examples are pulled from the opening screen of its digital edition over a period of just two weeks in November:

Career Coaching: Forget the Corporate Ladder and Find Yourself.
Why don’t we have a Covid vaccine for our pets?
Someone with a Ph.D lectures you about how to do a better job raising your children.
A celebrity chef with with immigrant parents tells you how to make your traditional Thanksgiving recipes less “boring.”
Influencers make home shopping more fun by mocking ugly houses.
The woman who helped start vegetarianism.
Why you probably shouldn’t have kids.
Is the Four Day Work Week Finally Within Our Grasp?

Personally, I think most of these articles are boring pablum. Nevertheless, they are obviously designed to appeal to any family with a six figure income, maybe a kid or two in private school or at an elite college, and perhaps a general disdain for low culture unless it is presented ironically, sarcastically, or satirically. For Times readers who are either oblivious to their own multi-generational elitism, or swimming in new money and striving for it, these pieces are a daily dose of reinforcement: You’re living the tip top life, and we’re helping you shine!

Unfortunately for the Times’ stewards, the puff pieces seem to have moved in this direction around the same time that American conservative anger reached a boiling point, eventually spilling over into Donald Trump’s smoking brew of anti-elitist, right wing populism.

For much of today’s raging GOP, the enemy is simply The Other: anyone who is different or disagrees. In this context, “liberal” has become a byword for those Others. In Republican circles, Liberal is the bogeyman’s official name. And these liberals/others/enemies need to be smeared with standard Conservative insults and name-calling such as Snowflakes, libtards, and more recently, Elites.

Hating “elites” is now a common refrain in a party otherwise known for embracing corporate honchos and nominating the richest white guy they can find. But it fits the GOP right now because populism, by definition, frames itself as the common people’s attack on “elites.” Left wing populists usually attack the wealthy and corporations. But right wing populists usually attack groups of people that are “wrong” and don’t belong. Either because they’re foreign invaders, or because they’re already among us, weakening, corrupting, and rotting our pure and precious culture from within. They’re immigrants or decedents of the immigrants we never wanted; they are homegrown elites betraying us and causing great harm from above by saddling us with the wrong values and belief systems.

They’re illegal aliens. They’re Black Lives Matter. They’re New York Times readers.

For today’s right wing populists, reading the New York Times isn’t simply a sign of someone’s bad politics. It marks someone as a bad person. A goddamned elite. A reader of sinful stories that say my Thanksgiving recipes, handed down from my grandmother and absolutely beloved by my family, are tasteless. And I’m raising my kids wrong. And I’m not watching the right TV shows. And my house is ugly because I have Biblical scenes or adages on display. And I drink cheap beer instead of these fabulous red wines they’re recommending for the holidays. And I should be a crazy person who worries my cat will die of Covid. And I was wrong to have children. And these fuckers are only working four days a week now!

I am not arguing that this alone explains Republicans’ rabid hatred of the Times. Of course there are many other factors at play, including a long and steady beat of anti-Times vitriol from right wing propaganda organs on cable TV and the internet, and the Republican Party’s extreme rightward drift, which leaves many of its members thinking the center is the extreme left. But setting itself up as the newspaper of America’s self-admiring, self-important, la-di-da class is, I believe, one strong element currently pushing the Times into the maw of right wing populist resentment.

Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com