Fired from The New York Times over Trump

I was told there was concern, even at the publisher’s level, about one small edit I proposed to a story

Published November 23, 2019 7:30PM (EST)

This essay has been updated to include a response from The New York Times.

When I saw that infamous “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism” headline in The New York Times, I was not surprised in the least. And when I learned that it had set off subscription cancelations among outraged readers, I thought: “Finally! What took so long?”

Having spent eight years taking deep daily dives into New York Times stories as a copy editor, I can with confidence impart this bit of news fit to print: The Gray Lady has, ever since Trump’s election, been playing an insidious double game to ensure its survival.

Before Donald Trump began calling it the “failing” New York Times, the paper looked as if it was indeed foundering. In the aftermath of Trump’s shock electoral victory, however, The Times rapidly turned its fortunes around, even becoming the legacy media’s most notable success story in the online age.

How did this happen? Digital subscriptions were key, and many of them came from liberals, most probably despairing Hillary Clinton voters who saw themselves as essentially crowdsourcing the revenue to get the “failing” Times out of trouble and thereby 1) defy their candidate’s vanquisher and 2) assure themselves of a prominent light in the darkness about to descend on the nation under Trump.

But the paper’s anti-Trump rescuers missed a trick.

While The Times did try to reinforce its typical new subscriber’s liberal illusions about the paper (by, say, giving a new prominence to its most liberal opinion columnists, regularly placing them at the top of the home page,) in its actual news coverage or corporate actions it is not especially liberal, compassionate or even just fair. Nor has The Times been particularly harsh on Trump, who is, after all, a colorful hometown character for the paper’s owners and managers, one of the New York media’s most enduring sparring partners and playmates, and now the first U.S. president from New York since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

That jaw-dropping headline was only the latest evidence of The Times’ institutional affection for this bumptious devil that its top managers know so well.

Here’s another:

Last year, on July 9 — my wife’s birthday — The New York Times fired me with Trump-like peremptoriness. The reason: a single small cut I had made in a long story that I had been asked to reduce by two-thirds. It was that cut, one that executive editor Dean Baquet and the office of the publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, must have seen as essentially anti-Trump and therefore a reason that, after eight years of service during which I had received consistently good-to-glowing performance reviews, I could no longer be trusted professionally.

Only a couple of weeks after my firing, Sulzberger flew to Washington to pay court to Trump. And a year earlier, at a South By Southwest event, Dean Baquet boasted that Trump “really likes us” (by “us” meaning The Times). Which in turn came after Baquet had ordered his staff to show Trump and his churning White House goon squad the same courtesy and fairness accorded any administration. In other words, we ought to dignify and normalize an emperor with no clothes, on the pretext that this was showing respect to the office. The paper, in its news columns and its internal communications, has been carrying out this project of Trump-dignification ever since, inevitably leading to something like that “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism” headline.

I do not personally know Baquet or Sulzberger. In fact, I never set foot in The Times offices in New York. I was, instead, a member of what I slowly came to understand amounted to a union-circumventing unit of The Times editorial operation. Make no mistake: at The New York Times Editing Center in Gainesville, Fla. — which, with a clandestine air, is inconspicuously housed in the bunker-like back end of the local paper, the Gainesville Sun — we were doing editorial work that once was done at The Times building in New York and ought to have been covered by Guild rules. But the paper had evidently got around the union by contracting this work out, so to speak, to one of its own, non-union regional newspapers, the Sun.

And when the Sun was later sold in 2012, the editing center remained where it was, but its official ownership switched to Shared Services, a Norfolk, Va.-based division of The Times that, so far as I could establish, had never before handled editorial operations, only such things as payroll, IT and benefits. We were told, however, that we were New York Times editors, and we were assigned New York phone numbers and email addresses. We were also told that our overseas clients need not know that we were not in New York.

Those subterfuges were risible, I thought. And I’m afraid one of the unspoken reasons for my firing was that, in the office, I mocked them within range of too many of the wrong ears, and suggested that we should by all rights be members of the Guild, not subject, for example, to nine-hour shifts and to no protection against dismissals without cause.

The stated cause of my firing? I was repeatedly told that it solely had to do with that single cut I had made, nothing else. (In more than 30 years of continuous employment in journalism, I had never before been fired, or disciplined, or even reprimanded for reasons professional or otherwise.)

The news feature in question told the story of one of those horrendous migrant family separations that had just begun occurring at Trump’s instigation. It was the well-told narrative of a little boy who had been torn away from his father at the border and was now living with an American caretaker family, not knowing what had become of his father or what was going to happen to himself. It was the most affecting tale of American anti-immigrant cruelty that I had yet read.

But I had to shorten the story by about 70 percent. This was not unusual. The work done at the editing center consisted of taking already-published Times editorial content and re-editing it for sale to other publications overseas and in the U.S. The Gainesville edits, including mine, would then be vetted in New York, and so-called tweaks would be handed down for us to implement.

On this particular heavy edit, one of the first things about the story that struck me as disposable was peculiar both for its content and its placement: a wordy two-paragraph passage containing archival remarks from Trump’s homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen. She was defending the separation of children from their parents by resorting to what amounted to a paraphrase of the old break some eggs to make an omelet idiom. The separations, she said, were not the aim but merely the effect of the administration’s decision to treat all undocumented immigrants as criminals. (The originator of the omelet saying, François de Charette, a murderous general opposed to the French Revolution, was put before a firing squad soon after saying it. His paraphraser was herself merely fired — by Trump, for not being enough of a goon on immigration.)

Placed near the top of the piece, and not sought in response to this particular child’s story, the Nielsen passage was, I thought, a stumbling block for readers to get through before the narrative got back under way. And this was not an “issue” story — it was a heartrending human tale in which no political arguments needed to be explicitly advanced and so did not require balancing with comment from the other side. And if we were going to so balance it, to do it properly we would need fresh comment on this particular, especially compelling case.

The story bore no indication that the reporter had made any attempt to obtain such comment. All it had was that stale Nielsen nonsense shoehorned in near the top, no doubt by some previous editor. So I took it out. And if all my edits were approved, the story would appear overseas (in the small handful of newspapers that still bought our stories) as a straight narrative about that poor little immigrant boy, drastically abridged but preserving all its moving high points.

I waited for the usual tweaks to come back from New York. When they came, I was relieved to see that the liaison who had handled them in New York was the one I most trusted and with whom I was friendly enough to permit myself a little off-the-record venting in our email and chat exchanges.

Alas, he asked me to restore about half of the passage with Nielsen’s comments. I promptly obliged him, but I also let him know my rationale for having wanted to take the passage out. Then, as a personal aside, I told him how outrageous, even by Trump standards, I found Nielsen’s callous sophistry, especially when juxtaposed with what was happening to that little boy. I confided in him that, being twice an immigrant myself, I had, at the boy’s age, faced a situation that had threatened to turn into a similar separation ordeal.

The response from him was disappointing. It betrayed little empathy with the boy, or with me, saying merely “noted,” then rather coldly and unnecessarily lecturing me, a veteran journalist, on the point that giving people “a chance to speak their side, regardless of whether they are saying it directly to us or to someone else” was “basic to what we do.”

Yes, it was, except that we had not sought officials out to give them a chance to speak their side on this particular story. Instead, we had chosen to do their dirty work for them, unearthing comments made nearly a month before at a policy hearing in Congress. It is not unusual, of course, for news stories to recap old material, but normally such background is placed near the end, not immediately after the introductory paragraphs, and is indeed among the first things to go when editors have to cut a story.

A few weeks later, just before I left on vacation, the editing center’s local chief called me into his office to tell me that there was concern in New York, even at the publisher’s level, over my proposed edit and what I had written in the exchange of emails: I had been too emotional in my judgment of the Trump official’s comments. [The Times told Salon its executive editor and publisher were not at any time aware of Cunha's edits.]

I was not asked for explanations, though I did try to provide them, arguing that the emotional remarks were casual afterthoughts intended for the liaison’s eyes only, and that my reasons for proposing that cut had been as professionally solid as all my other edits in that story and the thousands of others I had handled over the course of eight years at the center. This seemed to make no difference, as did not the fact that I had promptly restored the Nielsen comments as requested. There was, the center chief told me, a feeling that I could no longer be trusted, and action was being contemplated in New York.

“What action? You’re not actually talking about firing me, are you?”

“No, not that,” he said.

I went on vacation, trying in vain to relax with my family. When I returned, I heard nothing. Had the storm blown over? I continued, for the next month or so, to be assigned some of the most complicated edits. They had clearly resumed trusting me — or, perhaps, professional trust had not been the real issue?

One weekend, I received an email from the center chief asking me to go in early on Monday so I could meet with him. I pessimistically told my wife this could only mean one thing — after keeping us on tenterhooks for nearly two months, they really were dumping me over Trump.

She was incredulous. But so it proved.

To be clear, I asked, the only reason The New York Times was firing me was its perception that I had not been fair enough to Trump in my proposed edit? Was that right?

The center chief, and the human resources person who was listening in through the phone from Norfolk, confirmed that it was. When I posed the question again a couple of more times, they again confirmed it.

Afterward, I tried repeatedly to reach the NewsGuild, to see what it might have to say about my curious dismissal, as well as to try to blow the whistle on the non-Guild editorial operation in Gainesville. But the Guild seemed mostly uninterested, eventually sending me this peremptory email written by Anthony Napoli, senior local representative of The NewsGuild of New York: “The Guild has no comment with respect to either your dismissal, the employees or the operation The Times runs at the Florida location. The Shared Services Center has been in operation for approximately 20 years and the Guild has never had any jurisdiction with respect to the jobs or the employees at any location under the Shared Services Center.”

Note how the Guild is choosing to pretend that Shared Services is still doing what it has done for 20 years and had not quietly taken on editorial operations?

So, I thought, this is the topsy-turvy America we are in now, one in which a union consciously protects a scab operation, and an ostensible global pillar of enlightened journalism and fit-to-print propriety goes out of its way to appease and dignify an orange-mopped racist goon who outrageously bullied and buffooned his way to the presidency.

Wait, President Trump is racist? Baquet, deploying sophistry worthy of Nielsen, has repeatedly refused to call him that because, though Trump “says racially divisive things,” Baquet is “not in a position to know whether he [says those things] because he is a racist.” And this is the sort of distinction Baquet continues to lean on when his own paper, in a leaked memo by four of his top editors this month, warns against frustrating and angering readers by using “vague, awkward, or half-hearted euphemisms” and “fuzzy descriptions” like “racially charged,” “racially tinged,” and “racially infused.” (What about your boss’s “racially divisive,” dear memo-writing editors?)

This past August, the graphic novelist Art Spiegelman ran an essay about the golden age of superheroes in The Guardian’s arts section. As he explained, he had originally written it on commission for an anthology of old Marvel comics being put out by the Folio Society, a venerable publisher of luxurious illustrated books since 1947. The reason the essay appeared in the Guardian instead? Because of this sentence, which Spiegelman was asked by the Folio Society to remove but refused: “In today’s all too real world, Captain America’s most nefarious villain, the Red Skull, is alive on screen and an Orange Skull haunts America.”

It turns out, Spiegelman wrote, that Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, Folio’s billionaire chairman and the former chief executive of Marvel Entertainment, is a longtime friend of Trump’s, an unofficial and influential adviser of his, and a member of Mar-a-Lago. Perlmutter and his wife have each donated $360,000 to the Orange Skull’s reelection campaign.

What remains to be uncovered, in my opinion, is the true root of The Gray Lady’s own diffidence toward the Orange Skull. Beyond Baquet’s embarrassingly Sally Fieldish belief that “he really likes us,” whence The Times’s readiness to fire employees to protect the murderously unfunny joke that is Trump’s presidential dignity, while later merely demoting one of its top Washington editors over trolling tweets that were strongly attacked as racist and must only have tickled Twitter’s troll-in-chief, Trump himself? Perhaps those tweets were only “racially divisive?”

* * *

Salon received the following statement from a spokesperson for The New York Times:

While, as a general matter of policy, we do not comment on personnel matters, Mr. Cunha makes claims in his story that merit a response. We can say that there was a broader pattern of issues including when he ignored our standards and removed the administration’s on-the-record response from a news article. Responsible news organizations allow the subjects of their coverage to respond.

Mr. Cunha’s insinuation that The New York Times has been soft on President Trump does not stand up to the facts. Without our newsroom covering Trump and his administration, the world would not know that Trump had ordered his staff to fire Mueller, or tried to have then FBI Director James Comey commit to a loyalty oath. They wouldn’t know about the "instances of outright fraud" in Trump’s tax practices, which led to investigations that are still unfolding. But aggressive coverage that holds power to account still needs to meet our standards for fairness and accuracy.

And far from courting Mr. Trump, our publisher A.G. Sulzberger has met with the president in person twice to voice concerns about the real and tragic consequences around the world of the president’s anti-press rhetoric.

By Carlos Cunha

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