At some point during the New York Times’s special endorsement episode of its branded series “The Weekly,” the paper’s editorial board muses on the manner in which Donald Trump has changed how we envision what a potential president could look like. After the brief and energetic snippet we’re shown of a visit from candidate Andrew Yang, the room discusses how the primary process seems more open as more candidates see themselves as possible heads of state. Timesman Brent Staples jokingly admits to having half-considered a run himself: “I’ve thought that several times myself. I’ve thought, shit, you know?”
Like so much else on “The Weekly,” it’s a made-for-TV moment that either is or is not what the Times newsroom is really like. And like much on “The Weekly,” it leaves one wondering whether one hopes it’s massaged — if Staples, in this case, is playing to camera — or if it’s genuinely spontaneous, and wondering which would be better. As with most else in this episode, if this banal half-understanding of the state of the race even after having been granted the most extreme sort of access is the real tenor of conversation at the Times when cameras aren’t there, it’s dismaying. And if this is truly just a pose put on for the TV show about the Times, it suggests that Staples and colleagues have envisioned themselves in a seat Trump held before his seat in the Oval Office: That of reality-TV arbiter, a decider with power to move hearts and minds through televised charisma. The Times editorial board seems to want less to be a traditional media force than to have the new-media power of a decade and a half ago, to decide which Democratic candidate will be “The Apprentice.”
This was, an onscreen chyron informed us, the first of the Times’s endorsement processes to have been anything other than “private and off-the-record”; notably, it’s not described as transparent. What’s left in of the candidates seems as often to work toward whatever idea of them exists in the culture already: Yang, for instance, is asked softball questions about “what government secret” he’d like to know and which other candidate “understands the internet” by the board, a gentle prelude to the board dismissing him as unserious despite praising his “amazing energy.” (Fair enough! But why invite him at all only to broadcast Yang’s most surface-level observations.) Such light questioning can be used to gently roast — as when potentially valuable airtime is consumed in the explanation of the “Mayo Pete” meme to Pete Buttigieg — or to baste in adulatory light — as when Amy Klobuchar, randomly asked if she owns a smart speaker, explains, relatably if you already relate to her, that she used to play Christmas music on one but the Bluetooth made it hard to take calls from other senators. (“I don’t feel excited by him, there’s this block,” said the “Mayo Pete” interlocutor of Buttigieg. Even a Buttigieg detractor might find their way to thinking the candidate, like the rest of the field, deserved more serious consideration before an on-camera dismissal.)
Whether questions like “Do you own a smart speaker?” could find their way home to having somehow been germane when choosing a candidate is up for debate. But it seems apparent that the Times was more interested in producing an hour of television — one that depicted its journalists as plugged-in to something, if not the Democratic primary in 2020 — than an endorsement. To wit: After dishing about each candidate at some length after their appearance, the Times did not in fact choose a candidate at the end of their hour’s worth of entertainment, instead — in a twist! — picking two, representing two fairly different versions of power and of policy. The split decision between Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren makes literal the feeling in the air that the Times’s endorsement directs no one’s vote: In this case, it’d be impossible to vote for the Times’s slate without casting two ballots. The value of a Times endorsement, perhaps, redounds solely to the Times, reflecting its vision of itself and how it wants to be seen.
And in 2020, that seems to be in every different way, all at once, and — crucially — as much as possible. The Times is the paper whose journalists ask deadening trending-topic questions about memes and Bluetooth technology in place of anything more probing; it’s also the place where editorial board members of a slightly less bleeding-edge cast of mind suggest, in internal conversations, that a woman might be a risky endorsement because men don’t like to listen to them. It’s, indeed, a place where the likelihood that a candidate will do well takes almost supreme precedence in conversations about who ought to do well. And it’s a place whose decision-making process deserves to take up an hour of a news consumer’s time, even when the process goes significantly less deep even than this season’s debates and when the decision made is no decision at all.
Bless, in a way, the Times’s honesty in leaning into the sheer corn of it all; gathering up paper ballots and reading them to generate a “final four” — a term of art familiar, among other venues, from that other paper-ballot reality show “Survivor” — or asking candidates “who has broken your heart” in a manner that felt worthy of “The Bachelor.” (Both Cory Booker and Joe Biden gave serious and considered answers entirely tangent to this question.) But “The Weekly” couldn’t keep up a tone of high-spiritedness for too long without jeopardizing the brand, and so defaults to what it does most, if not best — conversations between Times employees about the value and import of what they do. What no one on the show seems to get is that by booking every major presidential candidate and giving them equal time to the business of the Times newsroom, they reveal an editorial process that seems unbalanced, tipping over into a solipsism that feels worthy of reality TV but not of the newsgathering process.
In four years, what lower-tier but still serious candidate would sign up for a process like this, only to be shown answering unserious questions and then dismissed at some length by the questioners? The Times has a platform, but so too does every candidate in the social-media era — and it will take the Times being a better steward of theirs to stave off the risk of the 2024 endorsement process being a reality-TV-ready party to which many might not dare go.