Katie Herzog on The New York Times’ Cancel Culture
Katie Herzog, co-host of the Blocked and Reported podcast, talks about the Clubhouse app, the Britney Spears documentary, and the New York Times‘ cancel culture scandal.
This week, Katie Herzog, co-host of the Blocked and Reported podcast, talked with me about a wide range of topics, including what’s happening at the New York Times, where cancel culture seems to be running amok.
The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:
Matt: There's a lot of stuff happening in the New York Times, constantly. I don't even know how to unpack it. I'll let you do that. What's going on there?
Katie: I don't know. I mean, [former New York Times op-ed staff editor and writer] Bari Weiss said that there's a civil war inside the New York Times, one that's driven by these various ideological agendas, as well as it's sort of a generation gap between like old school reporters and a lot of younger staffers who may or may not actually be in the newsroom. Oftentimes, I think this is driven by the tech guys who don't have the, you know, the training and in news reporting, and also don't have the ethics of like, what it takes to be a journalist. You know, and there just seems to be a major culture clash going on. It's interesting to watch from the outside. I would not work at the New York Times. There's no amount of money that I would take to go work at the New York Times. It seems like a hellish place to work right now.
Matt: I'm guessing there was a time when you would have probably jumped at the offer. Right, it's the most prestigious job.
Katie: Yeah, I mean, I'm not, like, driven by that kind of thing. I'm driven more by like, the, what's the fewest hours, I can work for the most amount of money? So I don't know that I'd be a good fit at the New York Times anyway.
Matt: Yeah. Seems like a lot of work. Um, so I mean, for those who aren't paying close attention, a lot of different scandals that keep popping up with the New York Times. But I guess the latest big one was Donald G. McNeil Jr. He was like an expert on viruses, so he had a really big moment this year where he was on the New York Times podcast The Daily a lot. I thought he was really good. But he's sort of like an older curmudgeonly guy, and he's a liberal, but like an old school liberal. And I guess a couple years ago—who knew the New York Times has this business where they take rich kids on foreign trips—what could possibly go wrong there?
Katie: Right. Yeah. High school kids.
Matt: Um, and and they were in Peru, and Donald G. McNeil, Jr. was talking to one of the students, and I guess the topic of racism came up, and he used the N-word. But he used it in a way that was basically like if I were quoting Huck Finn to you. That made people uncomfortable at the time, and they did an investigation of it. And basically, they concluded that mistakes were made, but it wasn't his intent to be malicious or nefarious. But it came up again recently. And, I guess, he was forced to resign. Now, Bret Stephens, who's a conservative columnist at the New York Times, tried to write a column about it, and they would not publish it, so it leaked to the New York Post who published it. And I probably missed a whole bunch of stuff.
Katie: Yeah, there's a lot of twists and turns within the story. For one thing 150 New York Times staffers—we don't know who they are, so they could have been reporters or they could have been the guy who runs the website—signed a letter demanding a reinvestigation into this incident. And so, what you have is a journalist arguing for the obfuscation of language, right, which is very interesting. So he says the N-word, he says it in a non-derogatory context. This was also a group of all apparently white students who were paying $6,000, not including airfare, to go on this like two-week trip to Peru, presumably a resume padding trip so they can get into Yale. I guess it's no longer enough to go on the trip to Peru, schools are so competitive that now you actually have to get your instructor fired to get into a good college. You know, there is also this like immense privilege where these kids, all of whom are white, pretend that they are traumatized, to hear a word in a non derogatory context, absolutely not directed at them or anybody else, and this becomes a news story.
Matt: The big thing with the Bret Stephens piece, which again, was not allowed to run at the New York Times, was that he argued that what matters is intent. I think the intent matters greatly. But the New York Times’ stance was no, it doesn't.
Katie: Right. After Dean Baquet, the editor-in-chief of the paper, investigated this incident, he said he didn't detect any sort of malicious intent on Don McNeil's part. Don McNeil who'd been at the paper for 47 years, he started as a copy boy, and worked his way up. And, and then after 150, you know, staffers sign this letter complaining about it, Baquet changed his mind, and he said, “intent doesn't matter, that you can never use this word, which is obviously not true, because the New York Times printed the word over 20 times last year—as recently as last week. So by that standard, cancel the whole paper,
Matt: The example that Bret Stephens uses involves quoting a line from Republican strategist Lee Atwater, who was explaining the southern strategy and how racism went from overt racism to code language or code words. That's a famous quote that has been cited in the New York Times. But if intent doesn't matter, that means that the New York Times was racist or inappropriate for quoting it.
Katie: Right, right, and Bret wrote it in his column. And that quote loses all of its power if you expurgate, if you say “N-word”, as opposed to writing out the entire quote. It doesn't, it just loses all its power. So Bret wrote it out. I'm sure that took a not a small amount of guts on his part. But of course paper wouldn't publish it.