Illustration by The Free Press.

Who Is in Charge at The New York Times?

The Gray Lady’s top brass has lost patience with the newsroom activists. But will their crackdown work? Eli Lake investigates.

If you’ve read anything about the tumult at The New York Times in recent years—here’s one account by James Bennet, who was ousted as opinion editor at the paper in 2020—you’ll know many Times employees see themselves as activists first, and reporters and editors second. You’ll also know that Times’ leadership has usually cowed before those activists. 

Now, the paper’s staffers are locked in a new internal fight—over an investigation that Hamas committed horrifying sex crimes and rapes against Israeli women on October 7. But in this case, the Times’ top brass appears to have grown a backbone. Will they hold firm? Eli Lake reports.

Earlier this year, anti-Israel activists crowded in front of the New York Times building in midtown Manhattan to protest against the paper’s December 28 article, “Screams Without Words”—a deeply reported investigation into mass rapes during Hamas’s October 7 massacre. As soon as that story hit the internet, a few pro-Hamas outlets began to attack it. The sister of one of the dead rape victims posted on social media that the story was wrong. One of the sources in the investigation had changed some details in different interviews about what he’d said. But none of this stopped the Times from nominating the story in a package of its coverage of the Gaza war that won the Polk Award last month. And, at the time of writing, the Times has not issued any major corrections to its investigation. 

On the surface, the controversy looks like outside activists working the refs. But the protesters who regularly gather in front of the Times offices also have allies in the newsroom. This became clear on January 28, when The Intercept reported that the Times’ flagship podcast, The Daily, had decided against producing an episode about “Screams Without Words.” The Intercept based its reporting on leaked, internal drafts from The Daily, which could only have come from Times staffers. 

But this time, instead of caving to the radical faction, the paper launched an internal investigation to find who disclosed the internal documents. Led by Charlotte Behrendt, the Times’ director of policy and internal investigations, and her team of lawyers, employees at the paper described the probe as a “terrifying” experience. Reporters have been asked to turn over their phones, according to two Times staffers. Others have said they expect the leakers, if they are found, to be fired. The investigation prompted the Times’ reporters’ union, the Guild, to issue a stern letter to management accusing it of profiling Arab and Muslim journalists in “a witch hunt.” 

Still, the Times has stood by the story. A March 2 letter to the newsroom from the paper’s publisher A.G. Sulzberger, editor-in-chief Joe Kahn, and managing editor Carolyn Ryan said: “Our reporting continues to show that the details included in that story and the broader pattern of sexual violence connected with the assault are accurate.”

Meanwhile, on January 9, the editorial leadership instituted a new newsroom policy aimed at ending the leaking of Slack messages that have driven so much negative coverage of the Gray Lady. “What once was occasional criticism is a constant flow that often veers into harassment and abuse aimed at intimidating our reporters and editors into changing their coverage,” Sulzberger, Kahn, and Meredith Kopit Levien, CEO of the New York Times Company, wrote.

Companywide Slack channels were essentially public spaces, the letter said. “Public criticism by Times employees of our colleagues for their work product outside of designated feedback forums, as described below, is not permitted,” the new policy says. Now when a Times staffer posts a personal attack on Slack, they are given a warning to remove it. If they do not, the paper’s “Slack community manager” will delete the message.

Already, though, activists in the Times newsroom have figured out ways around the new policy. One Times journalist told The Free Press, “They will do silly junior high things to get around it.” For example, actual journalists or pieces will not be mentioned, but they will use italics in messages to signal that it’s a response to someone’s work without naming them. “They are trying to obey the policy to the letter, not spirit,” this journalist said.

Former Times journalists have also been a conduit for grievances on social media. Soraya Shockley, a former producer for The Daily, took to Twitter on February 10 and claimed many in the newsroom were “ringing the alarm bells for the last four months” about “Screams Without Words.” Another former Times journalist who resigned in November after signing a letter protesting Israel’s war in Gaza, Jazmine Hughes, has been another channel for discontent in the newsroom. In February she first posted to X a screenshot of the message Slack users receive when attacking colleagues.

One Times reporter confirmed that during the editing process of “Screams Without Words,” reporters and editors in the newsroom voiced objections to the article. “This piece was closely edited and bulletproofed,” this reporter said. “It was subjected to a high degree of internal hostility, and everyone knew they couldn’t afford to get it wrong.”

It’s unclear if the newspaper will eventually cave as it did in 2020. One factor that is different, though, is that the Times has at least officially warned its 5,800 employees that defaming colleagues on Slack will no longer be tolerated.

The problem for the Times is that many of its own staffers do not want to investigate the sexual violence that occurred on October 7. They see it as a vulnerability to their own side in the information war about Gaza.

“There are a huge number of people at the Times who are activists, and it is their job to tell a particular story,” one Times reporter told The Free Press. “The precedent was set that this works. If it doesn’t work through one means, they will find another.”

Eli Lake is a writer and podcaster for The Free Press.

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