Newspapers’ soul & Seinfeld

By Mark Frost, Chronicle Editor

News media are fighting over journalism’s very soul, as laid out especially clearly when New York Times Executive Editor Joe Kahn was interviewed earlier this month by Ben Smith, a former Times columnist who in 2022 co-founded a new media business called Semafor. Mr. Smith blazes his own trail.

He said to Mr. Kahn: “Dan Pfeiffer, who used to work for Barack Obama, recently wrote of the Times: ‘They do not see their job as saving democracy or stopping an authoritarian from taking power.’ Why don’t you see your job as: ‘We’ve got to stop Trump?’ What about your job doesn’t let you think that way?”

Mr. Kahn replied: “To say that the threats of democracy are so great that the media is going to abandon its central role as a source of impartial information to help people vote — that’s essentially saying that the news media should become a propaganda arm for a single candidate, because we prefer that candidate’s agenda…

“We become an instrument of the Biden campaign? We turn ourselves into Xinhua News Agency or Pravda and put out a stream of stuff that’s very, very favorable to them and only write negative stories about the other side? And that would accomplish — what?”

As you probably would guess, I’m with Mr. Kahn, and I’m glad to see The New York Times belatedly stand up for its integrity instead of cowing to the angry mass.

But make no mistake, lots of people in the journalism business — including a slew at The Times — say news media must stand definitively against what they see inarguably as Donald Trump’s threat to democracy.

When Mr. Kahn asks what that accomplishes, I think it would only further diminish the media’s fading clout and credibility. I don’t think The Times or all the liberal media reporting in lockstep necessarily causes Trump to lose and Biden to win. What’s going on in America is so much bigger, deeper and out of control than that.

Then there’s Jerry Seinfeld. You may know that he gave the commencement speech at Duke University, something of a surprise because Jerry has become an out-front defender of Israel and a critic of woke practices on college campuses. (Credit to Duke for not cancelling.)

I still read The Atlantic ­— a magazine that is liberal by nature but with a rare, old-fashioned, admirable trait ­— an open mind. It publishes articles that question and sometimes even reject the left’s dogma, plus it publishes Caitlin Flanagan. I love Caitlin Flanagan.

Anyway, last week, an Atlantic staff writer named Conor Friedersdorf wrote about Seinfeld’s commencement speech — and how it was covered in the news.

If you’re like me, you heard that day that some students got up and walked out in protest of Seinfeld.

Mr. Frierdersdorf writes that the news media poured forth “headlines like these: ‘As Seinfeld Receives Honorary Degree at Duke, Students Walk Out in Protest’ (The New York Times); ‘Duke Students Walk Out to Protest Jerry Seinfeld’s Commencement Speech in Latest Grad Disruption’ (USA Today); ‘Duke Students Walk Out of Jerry Seinfeld’s Commencement Speech Amid Wave of Graduation Antiwar Protests’ (NBC News); ‘Jerry Seinfeld’s Speech at Duke Commencement Prompts Walkout Protesting His Support for Israel’ (Reuters)” etc., etc.

But Mr. Frierdersdorf writes that “roughly 30 student protesters walked out of the graduation ceremony,” according to an Associated Press report. “They represented a tiny fraction of the 7,000 students present,”

Mr. Frierdersdorf bothered to find out what Seinfeld said. Seinfeld started, “I totally admire the ambitions of your generation to create a more just and inclusive society. I think it is also wonderful that you care so much about not hurting other people’s feelings in the million and one ways we all do that.”

Seinfeld said: “What I need to tell you as a comedian: Do not lose your sense of humor. You can have no idea at this point in your life how much you are going to need it to get through. Not enough of life makes sense for you to be able to survive it without humor.”

Mr. Frierdersdorf says Seinfeld told the students that no matter what Gen Z achieves, the world will remain “a pretty insane mess” and that humor is “the most survival-essential quality you will ever have or need to navigate through the human experience.”

Seinfeld told the graduates, “I am 70. I am done. You are just starting. I only want to help you.”

Pretty great commencement speech. I consider my sense of humor the most valuable tool in my brain’s kit.

Mr. Frierersdorf wonders how all the news media overplayed the tiny protest and missed the wisdom.

That’s where The Atlantic stays in its left lane. If Seinfeld had called out genocide vs. Palestinians, and 30 pro-Israel students walked out, the media would have ignored the protest and reported on his speech.

Enforced agenda, bad news for media’s credibility.

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