Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo today reports on the torrent of criticism, both external and internal, that the New York Times has received for its opinion section under the stewardship of James Bennet, the section’s editor since 2016. Unsurprisingly, both Bennet and his boss, Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, defend Bennet’s various hiring and editorial decisions, and his judgment in general. But in his own defense, Bennet also claims, repeatedly, to be unable to even process that torrent of criticism.
First, he is quoted saying (all emphasis mine):
“I’ve lost the capacity to gauge the opprobrium—what’s irrational versus what’s a reasonable amount of Internet outrage these days,” said James Bennet, editorial-page editor of The New York Times, and someone talked about as a future contender for the Times’s top newsroom job.
Then, later in the piece:
A one-stop shopping approach may have made sense in the days when Times readers got most of their opinions from the Times. But now, the op-eds are a few among thousands—and they seem to make the most noise when they offend. “There’s no question that social media amplifies the freak-outs,” Bennet told me. “Right now, it’s really hard to separate the signal from the noise.”
Maybe it’s hard, from inside the Times, to do this. (They certainly have historically struggled with it!) But it’s also something a person with James Bennet’s job should at least think oneself capable of doing.
If you don’t know how to judge the legitimacy or seriousness of the internet’s response to your work—that is, the response of people, formerly known as “readers”—you’re not qualified to be a top editor at a mass audience publication in 2018. It’s a bizarre thing to admit, though its bizarreness is masked by how frequently editors and publishers say it: We have no clue how to decode and interpret the major conversations about our work happening on the largest and most important modern platforms for mass communication! It all looks like “Twitter hysteria” from here!
To claim to have “lost the capacity” to tell which critics are worth listening to, and which criticisms are worth engaging with, because there is so much of it on Twitter—because you don’t really know how to read and interact with Twitter, in other words—is to admit to lacking a media fluency that is essential for working in the media in this era. Admittedly, lots of older men with important, high-status media jobs lack that fluency. Most of them are also not that good at their jobs.
The more charitable read is that Bennet is merely being disingenuous, and making a high-minded-sounding excuse for doing the very old fashioned big media thing of dismissing all of his critics as “irrational” hysterics, while pretending to be merely so overwhelmed by the quantity of criticism that he cannot determine whether any of it has any merit. If he means what he says, though, he is not cut out for this industry.