Perspective | Joe Kahn can be a great New York Times editor – The Washington Post


Unlike The Washington Post, whose last three top editors came from other news organizations — the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and the Associated Press — the New York Times traditionally chooses the newsroom leader from within.
That meant it was likely I would know its next top editor since I had served as the paper’s public editor, or ombudswoman, from 2012 to 2016. I have been hoping, for some time, that Joe Kahn would get the nod, as he did last week. I know him to be a thoughtful, smart and accomplished newsman and a person of judgment and integrity.
Just as important, he has a quality that can make all the difference in whether he rises to the challenge of this hinge moment in U.S. and world history: He’s open to criticism.
Kahn, who oversaw international coverage at the time, had the ability to put his emotions to the side and to listen, without bristling, to reader complaints and to consider adjustments. To be sure, other Times editors could show grace and self-reflection — outgoing editor Dean Baquet often acknowledged to me what he considered his “screw-ups” — but openness to criticism is not a primary characteristic of high-ranking media executives.
I retain one vivid memory of Kahn, from the day I brought him some vehement complaints about the paper’s coverage of the 2014 Gaza war. His office featured a bust of Robert F. Kennedy, an award for his reporting on labor conditions in China’s export factories. At one point during our conversation, he put his head in his hands, as if to say “this is painful.” There was a kind of candor in this small gesture. It certainly was different body language than, for example, arms defensively crossed over one’s chest.
Joe Kahn to succeed Dean Baquet as New York Times executive editor
The question now is whether Kahn can bring that spirit of thoughtful openness, in a meaningful way, to his new role — particularly when one of the world’s most influential news organizations is in need of serious soul-searching.
Our very democracy is on the brink, and how the Times covers that existential threat is of extraordinary importance, especially as crucial elections approach this fall and in 2024. Will the paper’s coverage forthrightly identify the problems posed by a radicalized Republican Party that is increasingly dedicated to lies, bad-faith attacks and the destruction of democratic norms, or will it try to treat today’s politics as simply the result of bipartisan “polarization”? Will it try to cut the situation straight down the middle as if we were still in the old days — an era that no longer exists?
There are plenty of doubters. Kyle Pope, editor of Columbia Journalism Review, wrote last week that in picking Kahn “the newspaper is signaling that it has no plans to rethink its approach.” That’s certainly true when it comes to business strategy, which has been wildly successful; as one measure, the company now boasts some 10 million subscribers.
But I’m hopeful that Kahn will understand that this moment calls for — no, screams for — a different approach to politics and government coverage. To get there, he’ll need to seek out and listen to voices who can speak truth to his new power.
Like many other news organizations — including The Post — the New York Times no longer has an ombudsman, which would have been one way to hear critical voices. It scuttled the public editor position in 2017, about a year after I concluded my stint.
The brass defended its decision by saying that there was plenty of criticism of the Times, particularly on social media, and thus no need for an internal critic. That argument never made sense since the public editor, by definition, was in a position to seek responses from editors and relay that response to readers, along with her own judgment. That’s not so with complaints on Twitter, which are largely ignored and viewed internally as just so much annoying noise. As it happens, Baquet recently instructed Times staffers to pay less attention to social media.
So where, exactly, is the self-scrutiny supposed to come from? Academic white papers? Cocktail party conversations? Conversations among the editors themselves?
The Times has never fully acknowledged the warped, damaging and excessive coverage of the Hillary Clinton email “scandal” — certainly not in the same deep and forthright public-facing way that it dealt with its misleading and credulous reporting in the run-up to the Iraq War.
I wouldn’t expect Kahn to do that now, nor do I expect him to restore the office of public editor. I do think it’s realistic to hope that he and his newly assembled leadership team will look searchingly at today’s political situation and adjust accordingly.
There is no need to abandon journalistic principles. In fact, adherence to the press’s true mission and highest calling demands journalism that discards the safety-seeking instinct for false equivalency. It demands journalism that relentlessly and boldly presents the truth.
The immense influence of the Times on the entire media world is a huge responsibility. Kahn is more likely to meet this crucial moment than anyone else who could have been chosen.
Read more by Margaret Sullivan:
The media is failing the public on the good news about jobs
The galling cynicism of CBS News hiring Mick Mulvaney
The Kremlin tries to stifle Radio Free Europe — and its audience surges

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