The Culture Wars Inside the New York Times

Joe Kahn, the executive editor of the New York Times, is a contained presence. When I met him at the Times’ offices in midtown Manhattan in June, he wore a dark, collared knit shirt beneath a crisply pressed tan blazer and kept small talk to a minimum. Kahn was a star reporter—in 2006, he won a Pulitzer Prize in international reporting—but presiding over the Times newsroom, which numbers more than two thousand employees, can seem, from the outside, like something more akin to the role of a highly credentialled H.R. manager. In February, 2023, an open letter signed by some Times staff and contributors criticized the paper for “editorial bias in the newspaper’s reporting on transgender, non⁠-⁠binary, and gender nonconforming people,” citing specific writers and articles. Kahn held disciplinary meetings with some of the signatories and wrote to the newspaper’s staff that “participation in such a campaign is against the letter and spirit of our ethics policy.” After the attacks of October 7th in Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza, Kahn was again confronted with a newsroom grappling with the convergence of personal conscience and traditional journalistic norms. The Times pushed out a prominent staff writer for its magazine who had signed both the February open letter and another one from last October that called out a Times editorial and broadly criticized mainstream media coverage of the conflict as “racist and revisionist.”

If the Kahn era has been defined by anything so far, it is this struggle to police the newsroom culture at a moment when the paper’s size and influence have never been greater. According to one estimate, nearly seven per cent of American newspaper employees now work at the Times. The growth comes as almost every other corner of media has been beset by layoffs. The Times has become indispensable in readers’ lives but also an institution that sparks frustration across the political spectrum. In our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Kahn emphasized that the Times should support work that might be met with strong criticism; it seemed implied that he was mostly talking about flak the paper gets from the left. “When any reporter on our staff takes on something that we think is important, but that gets a certain amount of blowback, we have to come in strongly in support of that,” Kahn told me. “Those sorts of people are very valuable in journalism today and are going to get ahead.”

We talked about the paper’s ethics guidelines, the concept of independent reporting, and his desire to instill “resilience” in his reporters. We also discussed his family’s charitable giving. Kahn, who comes from significant wealth—his late father, Leo, co-founded Staples—is the only individual named in tax records as a trustee of the Kahn Charitable Foundation. (A financial institution is also listed.) According to records from the office of the Massachusetts attorney general—the foundation is based just outside of Boston—Kahn is also the only named individual with check-signing authority for the foundation, which had assets of more than twelve million dollars according to the most recently available public filing. During that fiscal year, which began on July 1, 2022—a month after Kahn became executive editor—the foundation gave to various causes, including the American Cancer Society and a number of music and Asian-culture foundations. (Kahn is a fan of the opera; he and his wife met in China, when he was a foreign correspondent there.) The foundation also gave ten thousand dollars to the Center for Reproductive Rights and six thousand dollars to Planned Parenthood. When I asked Kahn about these contributions, he told me that he had never personally donated to the organizations but that he did not restrict the giving of other members of his family. The Times’ ethics policy says employees “must be sensitive that perfectly proper political activity by their spouses, family or companions may nevertheless create conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflict.” In such situations, employees are advised to speak with their department head and the newspaper’s standards editor, or another senior newsroom leader. Depending on the situation, the employee “may have to recuse himself or herself from certain coverage or even move to a job unrelated to the activities in question.”

In a follow-up after our interview, I asked Kahn if he had consulted with anyone at the Times about the contributions made by his family’s foundation to reproductive-rights organizations. A Times spokesperson said that Kahn “adheres to our ethical guidelines on these and all matters” and that he “had no involvement in the specific donations you’ve flagged, and was unaware of them.” She said that the work of managing the trust day to day, including the signing of checks, was handled by a professional at the financial institution that administers it.

Your father, who co-founded Staples, also went to Columbia Journalism School when he was a young man. And I’m wondering if he’s part of the reason you ended up being a journalist.

It is—partly. Because he was never a practicing journalist himself, except very briefly after journalism school. But he was always a devoted newspaper reader and critic—a very excitable critic of newspapers. He read the Boston papers, but also the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and he would compare and contrast how they covered something and point those things out to me, and he had his favorite columnists, and also his favorite columnist to hate.

Name names!

Back in those days, it was Anthony Lewis who was the New York Times’ more left-leaning columnist, but he preferred William Safire. He was a little bit more on the right. He would compare and contrast the way they covered the same things and sort of get angry at Lewis and very happy when Safire contradicted him and he had his own little narrative going on.

What did you pick up from that kind of early passionate journalism discourse?

He would often cut things out from the newspaper that he didn’t quite like and he would say, “Explain this to me, explain why they wrote it this way. You’re the journalist, you explain why they did this.” And when I started writing myself and had my own byline in the school paper, and then later professionally, he collected every one of those things. In fact, after he passed away, which was in 2011, one of the mementos that I had from the things that he collected were these notebooks full of my own press clippings that he just read up to the end and was cutting out. He was a supporter, a little bit of a provocateur about some things going on in the industry.

I read that, when you were at Harvard, the president banned university officials from speaking to the Crimson because of your reporting.

True. The president at that time was Derek Bok, and my job as a correspondent for the Harvard Crimson was covering the president’s office. And we wrote at one point about some policy issue that was in dispute and in which some people had made allegations that President Bok had given inaccurate information about the decision-making. And the way we framed the story and wrote the story, he interpreted it as the Harvard Crimson was calling him a liar, and he was quite upset and offended by that and he cut us off for some period of time. Not only stopped talking to us but stopped all the people in the Harvard administration from speaking on any subject to the Crimson. So we decided at that point that we would print this box on every story that we published that would otherwise have had comment from someone in the Harvard administration saying that, “under orders from President Bok, all Harvard administrators have been told that they are not to accept any phone calls or give any comment to the Harvard Crimson, so we were unable to get their point of view on the story.” And we published that box on the front page every time we had one of these for about two weeks, and he rescinded the ban after that. So that was sort of a little bit of a lesson, both in the responsibility and the opportunity of the press.

What qualities would you say distinguished you as a reporter?

The part that I just enjoyed the most about reporting was getting completely immersed. I spent a lot of my early years as a reporter in Texas. And that was already enough of a culture change—I grew up in the Boston area. But then I went even farther afield, and I was in China for almost a dozen years. And I think what I enjoyed the most was just trying to get my head around and understand a totally different culture, and applying some journalistic skills to telling stories that people would be interested in, in a place that in my early years wasn’t really on the radar the way it is today. It was an adventure to find stories that you could get a real reaction to and would open people’s eyes about the developments in China. And just finding individuals who could help narrate that story, bring it alive for the Wall Street Journal, later for the New York Times, was an exciting thing to do. I took on a series of stories when I was still working for the Dallas Morning News on violence against women. [Kahn’s reporting helped the newspaper win a Pulitzer in 1994.] And then a colleague and I, Jim Yardley, did something similar looking into the way the legal system was manipulated in China. [Kahn and Yardley won a Pulitzer in 2006 for their reporting.] Doing that kind of investigative reporting, in a very different culture, with a very different kind of access to officials and access to documents, was also a really interesting experience.

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