Once the newspaper of record for the richest and most powerful empire the world has ever seen, The New York Times still leads the world in in-depth coverage of one particular topic: the internal politics of The New York Times.
Its foreign reporting, buoyed by budgets British newspapers can only look upon with envy, is now overshadowed by its recent coverage of ‘The Gray Lady’s’ own bitter internal disputes over the acclaimed Caliphate podcast; whether or not it should have published Senator Tom Cotton’s call to disperse protestors by force; first the presence, then the resignation of opinion writer Bari Weiss, a lightning rod for progressive angst; and its 1619 Project, an ambitious attempt to replace one national myth of the essential moral goodness of America’s founding, with another, on its inherent moral evil.
A newspaper whose moving and remorseless coverage of America’s endless foreign wars, most expertly and intelligently displayed in its At War section, is now turning inwards, at war with itself. At War will be shuttered as America and The New York Times grapples with a far more intractable conflict: America’s escalating culture war.
Of course, any puzzled British reader of the NYT’s bizarre coverage of the UK will have already observed an essential fact of modern American journalism: it is no longer predominantly engaged in descriptive analysis of the rest of the world but instead in telling its readers moral fables about the US; parables in which the rest of the world features as mere local colour.
Its coverage of Brexit or of the admittedly multiple failings of the Johnson government function as oblique critiques of Trumpian populism, in which Britain itself, with all its complexities, is reduced to a mere shadow play for American journalists to tell their readers improving stories about themselves.
As America’s public discourse becomes ever more detached from reality, and ever more intensely focused on the internecine theological squabbling which defines the country’s new faith, even the very notion of a newspaper of record now seems a strange relic of an unrecoverable past — not least to its own journalists.
The role of journalism, in the age of Trump and Twitter, is now that of unabashed activism. Their function is no longer to describe the world, but to reshape it. No doubt the self-congratulatory tenor of much post-2016 journalism, in which journalists, adopting the uncritical adulation afforded to the armed forces in the Bush era, thank themselves for their service with ever-growing fervour, has much to do with this strange new world.
Perhaps we can be grateful that in the UK, journalism has traditionally been considered a humble trade, like plumbing or estate agency, rather than a profession like medicine or the law, which require specialised degree courses and demand social prestige.
Because in the sad, self-inflicted decline of The New York Times we are given a powerful glimpse of the internal turmoil afflicting America’s governing class. Like the staff of a grand city-centre department store fighting in the shop window, the elevation of internal Slack disputes and bitter office gossip to its front pages is a powerful metaphor for a country, and class, at war with itself. So absorbed are they in rooting out the internal enemy that the rest of the world fades into obscurity — and perhaps, as America’s social conflict widens, this is something for which we in the rest of the world ought to be grateful.