Behind the New York Times Megaphone

with John McWhorter

How does writing for an extremely influential venue like the New York Times affect how you’re perceived? John McWhorter is finding out firsthand, as he continues to put out his outstanding twice-weekly Times newsletter. As you’ll see below, John doesn’t have much time to read through reader reactions. But a recent tweet thread from the historian Thomas Sugrue responding to his column about redlining sparked us to think about the complicated relationship between writer and audience.

Whatever your opinion of the Times, most writers, thinkers, politicians, and academics would jump at the chance to write for them. There’s no more efficient way to get your words and ideas in front of other influential people. But speaking through a megaphone that big naturally leads people to ask what gives you the authority to do so in the first place. An economist writing about the economy or a linguist writing about language may be all well and good. But when an expert in one area steps out of their lane, so to speak, people can bristle in interesting ways.

John and I discuss the complex dynamics of writing for the Gray Lady below. Check it out!

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JOHN MCWHORTER: My column was replete with indications that racism still deeply affected the lives of the people—black people—who were redlined, that there was even some racism within who got a loan and who didn't. I'm not saying that racism played no part. But I'm just saying that to think of socioeconomics as not meaningless and that the socioeconomics was not so insignificant as to be merely parenthetical or merely a footnote, that it mattered, that this stuff is complicated. And I wasn't chased out of the room for saying this, but some of the response was rather vigorous, and I was especially surprised by Thomas Sugrue. Thomas Sugrue who's written a really good book.

GLENN LOURY: I know Thomas Sugrue, a historian. Where's he at, NYU now? He used to be at University of Pennsylvania. The Origins of the Urban Crisis. That's his big book about Detroit.

It's one of the best.

He commented on your column.

And then he also did that really great book about civil rights in the North. And so you learn about the civil rights movement in New Rochelle as opposed to Birmingham. And I'm not calling him out. This is not the thing that we do. But he did a tweet, one of those long tweets, like nine parts, where he—not in a nasty way—just says that I selectively picked data from those academic articles and that I am ... I think it's fair to say he's claiming that I said it was all class and not race, or something close to it. And he brings up statistics about the racial aspect of it.

And quite simply, I repeat, I'm not calling him out. I am a great admirer of his, whether or not he is of mine. I've heard from him before. I know he thinks some things I do are okay, but he didn't like this. And I can't help thinking that ... I don't know. I don't know. Because I don't know him. It's as if, if you say anything but “racism,” you have sinned. There's something sacrosanct, even despite the facts. And I hate to say that, in my piece, there is so much genuflecting. I hate to put it that way, but there's so much saying that racism is part of it too that it gets in the way of the flow of the piece.

Okay, John, I think we got it. I do know Tom Sugrue. I've known him for a long time and admire him greatly, as you do, and admire that book, which won the Bancroft Prize in US history. It's the highest prize you can get as an American historian. And he's a man of the left. He's a progressive. And he thinks that historical narrative about what happened in mid-twentieth century and the Rust Belt to the big American cities in the Northeast and the Midwest is a fundamental thing. And he thinks that a lack of a more capacious social welfare vision, of more of a New Deal kind of commitment to cushioning the ill effects of economic change on working people is a part of the problem. I mean, this is Tom Sugrue. This is his politics.

Here's my suspicion about what's going on. Which is, and it's not only going to be him, and I would regard him as among the more balanced, open-minded, level-headed, serious intellectual participants.

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I think so, too.

Yeah. You agree with me about that. What I think is going on is you're at the New York Times and you now have a megaphone that is way big. I can't even make an appropriate gesture as to how big the megaphone is. You happen to be a linguist who sits on the faculty at Columbia University, and you write books, and the books are good or bad, whoever reads them has their view. But I think they're good. And you write about linguistics and your scholarly work and whatnot.

But what you are not is a sociologist. What you are not is political scientists. What you are not is a historian. And nevertheless, the perch that you occupy gives you the authority to pronounce, and your pronouncements have a certain gravity simply because of where they're coming from. And people will be influenced by what you say. So when you attempt to shift the narrative from the subtle understanding à la Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White to something less friendly to arguments for affirmative action protecting blacks, less friendly to arguments for reparations for the crimes of the past or whatever, those are fighting words.

We're now fighting over over how are we going to tell the story. And who are you? Again, I don't know that this is in Tom's mind, but it could be. It's certainly a plausible account. Challenging you in a long tweet which might be seen by a hundred thousand people is a way of raising the question: Does he really have the authority to tell us how we're supposed to think about this?

And you know what? On the one hand, my standard response to that is, if I were preaching the gospel as a linguist and praising the things that the usual people say, none of those people would have any problem with that. That would be fine. Nobody would say, wait a minute, who is he to talk about racism and anti-racism as perfect opposites? Who is he to say that deindustrialization is why the ghettos went to hell? Who is he to say that? He's just a linguist. How can he evaluate the scholarship? Nobody would say that. You know? That's the answer.

But then on the other hand, I must admit, if these people were in the Times saying things about language and they say, “Well, I've read a lot of the books. I've thought about this,” but they don't have a degree? Would I not say, if they weren't preaching my gospel, “How dare this architect, how dare this social scientist preach about linguistics when they don't really know?” I'm not sure I'm that noble.

So I get where they're coming from. I get it. But my first answer, I think, really does apply. If I were saying the right stuff—and I'm not calling out Sugrue—but if I were saying the right stuff, those people would think that I'm a polymath who does his reading and is sharing what he knows. “Oh, he ranges so widely.” But if I don't preach the gospel, then I'm just ignorant. And I think that's a little simplistic. But then again, I can also imagine being them. So yeah, I get it. I get where he's coming from. The pulpit. Yeah, I see that.

Now, let me ask you a question, a personal question. So you ascend to a perch where you have a megaphone that's bigger than anything I can indicate with a hand signal, preaching out to the world about stuff you care about. Do you get letters? Do they let people write in to comment on the things that you post at the Times?

Honestly, I don't know if I'm the naive soul that some of these people think, but there are things about me that are kind of childlike. I've never looked at any of the comments. There is an email that they set up at the times where people can send comments. There is no comment section. I can see some people are disappointed that they can't watch me getting hung out to dry or watch people fight in a comment section. And I'm not sure why they don't have a comment section, to be honest. I've been so busy writing. I haven't asked them.

Excuse me, one speculation is that the comments would be positive and the newspaper doesn't want to give the readers the opportunity to show just how popular the things are that you're saying.

Oooh, that's cynical!

Not to protect you from negative comments but to prevent positive comments from reinforcing your message. Is that a sinister kind of thought, or could there be something to it?

Wow. I'll ask them. I know there's this email account I'm supposed to look at. But I'm not interested in the ongoing commentary about the things I write, for the mundane reason that I'm too busy writing the next thing. I don't have time to pay attention, and so I don't go looking it up.

I do get feedback on social media. It's not hard to figure out what my Columbia email is. So I get feedback and I do read it, unless I can see that it's a screed. If I feel that it's a screed, people should know that I glaze right over and I delete it. A lot of the feedback is interesting, but I don't obsess over it, because I have this job, this second job where I have to always be writing a new piece. So I don't know. Maybe I need to take a peek at what some of these comments have been.

Okay, so you don't have time to read comments because you're too busy writing the next thing. And when you have to produce two 1500-word columns a week, that's a very plausible claim.

Yeah, just can't be bothered. But somebody like Sugrue will write something on Twitter, and if I catch it, I'm interested. I want to know what Tom Sugrue thinks. But I don't think that that column that I wrote cherry-picked from those articles. I just think it looks a certain way for me to highlight some things in the article more than others. Although, what I highlighted is what those articles were meant to highlight. I wasn't taking something out of some paragraph in the middle. That's what these social scientists working with quantitative data were trying to say, and they were not right-wingers. So I enjoyed writing that because it was learning something new. I was trying to share something new.

Okay, this continues the interrogation of John Hamilton McWhorter V about his role at the New York Times column that he's producing.