Issue 278,  published October 13, 2020

Opinions, Opinions

Last month’s rollout of Sway, the new interview podcast led by Kara Swisher, marked the beginning of a new chapter for New York Times’ adventures with podcasting, as it serves as the first high-profile launch to emerge from the organization’s revamped efforts to build a meaningful audio presence around its valuable Opinion section.

Sway isn’t the first podcast to come from under the Times Opinion banner, of course. That honor goes to The Argument, a gabfest-style conversational podcast that originally featured Times Opinion writers Michelle Goldberg, Ross Douthat, and David Leonhardt behind the mic. (Leonhardt has since been swapped for Frank Bruni, after the former was tapped to be the “host and anchor” of its new Morning newsletter effort.) Production for The Argument was initially outsourced to Transmitter Media when the show first launched in late 2018, which wasn’t an atypical arrangement for the organization at the time. Other Times podcasts, like Still Processing and Modern Love, had at various points started out as external productions, whether by co-production or outsourcing, but as the prominence of the Times’ audio operations have grown over the years, all of those productions were eventually brought in-house. Furthermore, in the case of The Argument and the Times’ general interests around Opinion Audio, they’ve gone ahead and assembled an entirely new team to push the enterprise forward.

In March, the organization hired Paula Szuchman to head up the new audio division. Formerly the VP of New Show Development at WNYC Studios, Szuchman is credited with developing 2 Dope Queens, Nancy, Sooo Many White Guys, and 10 Things That Scare Me, among other programs in the Studios portfolio. Since joining the Times, she has gone on to assemble an eight-person team to staff the new Opinion Audio team, half of which was drafted from WNYC.

This new Opinion Audio team is kept distinct from the original Times Audio team that’s attached to the newsroom, a structure that mimics the traditional separation between News and Opinion. It’s an arrangement that’s internally important for many news organizations, though it should be said that it’s a distinction that’s not always super clear to the audience. This will likely be a fault line to watch.

It won’t be the only one. As the audio lead for Times Opinion, Paula Szuchman holds what is probably one of the most interesting and daunting jobs in the podcast business right now. On the one hand, she’s tasked with building an entirely new audio division that runs adjacent to the New York Times’ origins audio division, which has come to be generally admired from the creation of a genuine phenomenon in The Daily — last said to be averaging about two million downloads per weekday episode — and nowadays operating at a level where it’s become an credible target for legitimate criticism. (We’ll dig into the latest on that in a moment.)

And on the other hand, Szuchman is also tasked with translating the New York Times Opinion section into an effective audio operation. From the outside looking in, there seem to be vanishingly few spaces in American media that routinely inspire more debate, heckling, and rancor than Times Opinion… which, additionally, has gone through some amount of tumult in recent months. This past summer alone saw the section weathering a staff uproar over the controversial publication of Republican senator Tom Cotton’s “send in the troops to quell democratic protest!” op-ed, which led to the resignation of a top editor, along with the loud departure of Bari Weiss, the controversial provocateur columnist.

All of which is to say, it’s an exceedingly tricky time to re-imagine the New York Times Opinion section, with its structural purpose of presenting a range of perspectives during an exceptionally volatile and combative era. (I should acknowledge at this point: at least some of the controversies surrounding the Opinion section have to do with the strained notions of “balancing perspectives.” There’s a lot more context and debate out there around this specific note, some of which you can find here, here, and here.) It’s tricky to a point that I can’t help but imagine that if I were in Szuchman’s position, I’d probably be way too hung up on how the job seems like a no-win proposition to me personally. If I’m not able to make Times Opinion Audio shows that are widely-consumed, provocative, and relevant, then I’ve failed at the role. But if I’m successful at that task, then we’re talking about a decent chance of me having to routinely weather various shitstorms that I probably had a hand in stoking.

Of course, Szuchman is obviously not me, and she is in fact a veteran media professional. When we spoke about her vision for Times Opinion Audio a few weeks ago, she was cautious with her words, deliberate and pensive. Szuchman told me that her mandate is to create shows that would “expand the notion of what people think about when they think about Times Opinion.” Some of this will involve innovations in format, even conventional ones like the way the recently launched Sway has taken the interview format to really interesting places. Some of this will also involve weaving through and around editorial mix, which has traditionally leaned on politics rounded out with dashes of everything else drawing from a robust roster of popular staff voices and an active freelance pipeline seeking contributions from outside writers. “The thing that’s really exciting to me about Opinion is that it’s so expansive,” said Szuchman. “We have the standards of fairness and accuracy that the newsroom does, but we can expand into different directions.”

But I imagine some of this should also need to involve some interrogation of what it means to be a source of diverse perspectives — and proper provocation — in this specific moment we’re living in. Perhaps there is a way to do that in the podcast format without necessarily replicating practices or structures that lend towards explosive flurries on social media. Perhaps doing so requires leaning deep to the affordances of long-form audio, said to be more accommodating towards nuance, complexity, and ambiguity. (Unless, of course, it’s marketed on the web in ways that can be misconstrued or weaponized, as discussed in my column last week on Switched On Pop’s run-in with the right-wing internet.) And perhaps Szuchman is the right person to figure all that out.

I asked Szuchman if she was worried about any of that: the weight, the volatility, the risks. Again, I was provided with a professional’s response. “It definitely does not worry me,” she said. “I’m being honest here: I find this whole endeavor energizing, because I have the institutional value and machinery of the Times behind me.”

Meanwhile… I would remiss if I wrote about the Times’ expansionary audio ambitions at this very moment without also talking about the on-going controversies surrounding Caliphate, the Times’ award-winning audio series from 2018, which is now entering its third week of rough headlines.

To recap: on September 25, Canadian authorities arrested a man on the charge of falsely portraying himself as a former ISIS member. That man, Shehroze Chaudry, is believed to be the individual known as “Abu Huzayfah,” the primary subject of Caliphate whose supposed account of life as an ISIS member provides the series with its catalyst and narrative backbone.

Rukmini Callimachi, who reported and hosted Caliphate, stood by her work in the wake of the arrest, as did the Times. However, the following week, the organization announced that it would be opening a “fresh examination” into the audio documentary’s reporting. That decision was followed by several pieces, including one from The Daily Beast and multiple columns from The Washington Post’s media critic Erik Wemple, highlighting various lines of criticism that have been made against Callimachi’s work, both from within and beyond the Times, which portrayed her as having a tendency towards sensationalism and inaccuracy in the service of a narrative (among other things).

Some of the critiques against Callimachi aren’t new. Margaret Sullivan, now a media columnist at the Post, had written about complaints made about Callimachi’s reporting back when Sullivan was still the public editor at the Times, and she additionally expressed in a recent Twitter thread that she felt at least some of the criticism against Callimachi comes “from resentment/jealousy, and that there’s schadenfreude involved here, not without a hint of sexism.”

Anyway, the deepest dive into the issue so far has come, ouroboritically, from Ben Smith, the Times’ own media columnist, whose most recent Sunday column dug into some of the circumstances, process, and criticism around Caliphate and Callimachi’s reporting. It’s a dense piece that layers together a bunch of different threads and raises a ton of questions: What does this suggest about the audio team’s standards? What are the priorities when it comes to producing these narratives? But the most eye-catching contention in the column, at least for me, is this: Smith argues that Callimachi’s storytelling approach is ultimately resonant with a “more profound shift” that’s been happening at the organization that’s seeing it evolve “from the stodgy paper of record into a juicy collection of great narratives, on the web and streaming services.” Given that, it is perhaps valid to perceive Callimachi’s reporting approach — at least, in the manner described by her critics — as being essentially consistent with the demands of this new incentive structure. “My reporting suggests that she was delivering what the senior-most leaders of the news organization asked for, with their support,” Smith wrote.

It’s all a bit of a mess, to put things lightly, and we haven’t seen the last of this story. For what it’s worth — and separate from the question of whether Callimachi’s reporting was truly accurate or merely utilitarian towards some predetermined narrative, an evaluation I’ve leave up to actual journalists — I continue to think that Caliphate, as it currently stands, is still a worthwhile listen, though the line of criticism depicting the series to be sensationalistic is definitely striking. Additionally, there are some aspects of this controversy that remind me of the long-running tension between journalism and documentary (see here and here for an extremely basic entryway into the conversation), along with questions about a narrative point of view. I can’t quite put my finger on how this all fits together just yet, but this thread does feel somewhat germane to the issue. Not in a way that solves the ethical dimension of this situation, but as a way to better understand the intent of the work itself.

I run this thing.