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Give Me Ben Smith’s Job

The New York Times hired a boss as a worker. It's not working out.

Ben Smith was a pretty good boss, according to most of the people I’ve spoken to who worked at BuzzFeed News in the past decade. He was the most visible figure in the transformation of BuzzFeed from a formidable click-farm and content mill to a formidable news operation which created and nourished the careers of dozens of journalists who now produce work that rivals any national or international news outlet in the world.

He also, by his own admission, “doubted” that the union his employees at BuzzFeed News formed (after a six-month battle with management) would be able to “make real gains where profits are scarce.” (The industry had tight margins, you see, and it’s best to keep things nimble without a union, or so I’ve been told by people like Smith).

Smith has a new job now, as the media columnist for the New York Times. The above quotes are from his latest column, which tackles the wave of successful organizing in both legacy and new media newsrooms across the country. Specifically, it is from this surreal passage (emphasis mine):

In the coronavirus crisis, union leaders are focused on what touched off the new wave of organizing in the first place: protecting reporters in an unstable industry.

Last year, when I was editor in chief of BuzzFeed News and on the management side of an organizing drive, I doubted that the guild would be able to help its members make real gains at places where profits are scarce, and I worried that they’d simply make a tough business even harder to operate. (Disclosure: I agreed with The Times when I was hired that I wouldn’t cover BuzzFeed extensively in this column, beyond leaning on what I learned during my time there, because I retain stock options in the company, which could bring me into conflict with The Times’s ethics standards. I also agreed to divest those options as quickly as I could, and certainly by the end of the year.)

But the unions have proved their worth to their members in this moment of crisis. Many have won concessions. At The Miami Herald, union leaders used the “status quo protections” that are in place during contract negotiations to avoid layoffs. At The Denver Post, they won promises that there wouldn’t be layoffs for, at least, a period of months.

Though the angle of Smith’s piece is left largely incomprehensible from his mile-high view atop the Times’ ivory tower, those three paragraphs tell you basically everything you need to know. Smith has only ever dealt with union politics from the management side of the table; he has apparently discovered in his latest column that for people who are not bosses, unions are the only network that advocates for them in the workplace.

It’s to his credit that Smith appears to have attempted to tell workers’ side of the story in his column, unlike NPR’s botched attempt at labor reporting last month. Almost everyone Smith interviews — including, full disclosure, our own Hamilton Nolan —tells him patiently and plainly why unions matter to journalists, noting the specific pressures of the industry that organized labor addresses.

Smith’s main grievance against unions is that organized labor is, in itself, a political act, something that institutions like the Times avoid like the plague lest someone accuse them of “bias.” Smith in particular picks at recent support for unions (including the one he had such doubts about at BuzzFeed) by popular progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as the NewsGuild’s request for public stimulus funding for recession-plagued journalists. To drive this point home, he quotes Peter Baker, the Times’ White House Correspondent who is so psychotically horny for objectivity that he doesn’t even vote. The thing that Smith and his boss Dean Baquet obstinately refuse to recognize is that sustaining the illusion of objectivity people like Baker clearly yank it to on a nightly basis is really only possible for people like Baker who work at institutions like the Times. The rest of us work in the real world, where bad-faith critics will always assume you’re biased no matter how many Midwestern rest-stop diners you interview. The only way to combat this is not through both-sidesing and hedging, but by being open and honest about biases in reporting and striving above all for fairness, not balance.

The column’s presentation also does a particular disservice to the Vice Union, one of the largest of the digital media units organized by the Writer’s Guild of America, East (which formerly represented many of the writers of this blog, although not me). The article, along with its subhed and a photo caption, refer to the Vice Union’s success in making sure gender non-conforming employees would be referred to by their proper pronouns at work. This is a great example of one of the many things a union can do to make a workplace better, but it is presented repeatedly without the context that Vice’s unit also fought bitterly for equitable severance pay in response to the company’s almost-annual layoff cycle. That kind of all-encompassing approach to workers’ wellbeing is what makes the newer unions so important, but in Smith’s hands, it comes off as a dog whistle to the Times’ more culturally conservative readers who believe the stereotype that all the Vice kids care about is P.C. culture and “cool hairdos.” This, to me, is profoundly condescending shit, which Smith (or his editors) either know and are being dicks, or don’t realize because they’re bad at their jobs.

You know who wouldn’t make these mistakes? Me. Or if not me, almost any other actual reporter whose beat has touched on labor or media in the past five years. Newspapers typically hire reporters who have relevant experience in the beats that they cover; health reporters with a background in medicine are invaluable in a crisis like the one we’re currently in, war reporters with a background in the military or conflict often find themselves indispensable in explaining the motivations and experiences of others caught in global conflict. I’m sure the Times hired Smith in an effort to meet this same standard; he’s been a media insider for years. The only problem is they hired an insider from the wrong side of the table: Smith may now be a “reporter” again, but he’s very clearly still a boss. If the Times actually wanted an insightful critic on any of these issues, they’d hire someone who had experienced and reported on them from a more realistic vantage point than an EIC’s salary and a home in Ditmas Park.

Again: I’m available! You could even argue that I’m a perfect voice for my generation of journalists: I went to a fancy journalism school, and yet I’ve spent the vast majority of my career as either a freelancer or a “permalancer” in limbo at various publications who don’t want to hire me full time. I was laid off after a year in one of my only full-time roles. To me that’s an essential job qualification for a media reporter: if you haven’t been laid off, you don’t get to talk. There are hundreds if not thousands of journalists with a similar background who could explain the intricacies of contemporary media better than Smith did — something he clearly knows, as he quoted a few of them in the piece.

Best of all, I don’t have any stock options that would be in conflict with the Times’ lofty ethical standards. Isn’t that convenient.

Photos: BuzzFeed/Victor Jeffreys