The Worst Thing We Read Yesterday™
What do journalists understand their shared human obligations to be? The New York Times opinion section published an exchange between Bari Weiss and Eve Peyser about how the two of them rose above petty internet strife and blind ideological commitment to discover that two members of the same social and professional class could be friends, if they met. It produced the intended result. All the right vapid and self-important people praised it, and the smart people pointed out the obvious things that were wrong with it—the treatment of actual political stakes as subordinate to personal comity, the valorization of shamelessness, the glibness, the failure to recognize that friendship is every bit as necessary a part of a kayfabe storyline as enmity. And, obviously and unavoidably, the unanimous whiteness of the approval.
Yet for all that effort, the most smugly insular message from the world of the Times yesterday was something else, and much more concise. It came when transit reporter Emma Fitzsimmons tweeted out the news of an MTA study claiming that 4 percent of subway riders and 16 percent of bus riders were dodging the fare, and Michael Barbaro, the much-adored host of the Times‘ podcast The Daily, amplified it to his 148,000 followers:
“Cheating the system—and the rest of us.” Michael Barbaro feels personally cheated when someone jumps a turnstile. That fare money belongs to him, as a representative of a collective, aggrieved whole.
This is the same Michael Barbaro who previously tweeted out a photo of a homeless person sleeping in a subway underpass and declared it “dangerous and unacceptable.” It was meant to have been a customer-service complaint, but he directed the tweet to the wrong account for that, @MTA instead of @NYCTSubway.
The New York Times social media policy for its staffers warns them to “be especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that The Times is seeking to cover objectively.” While Barbaro was vaulting confidently ahead to rally his followers against the alleged plague of fare avoidance, people who care about transit were busy questioning the methodology, assumptions, and conclusions of the MTA report. Is the MTA exaggerating the amount of fare dodging to shift attention from its widespread operational and financial failures? Is it reasonable to assume fare dodgers are people who are choosing not to pay, and thereby costing the system revenue, rather than people who are dodging the fare because they don’t have the money?
These might be seen as points of political controversy, on which Times staffers might refrain from taking a side—if they perceived themselves as taking a side, rather than simply naturally being on the side of people with functioning MetroCards. But that would require seeing the people on the other side of the question as people, whose needs and interests might matter.