An Open Letter to the New York Times
Dear New York Times:
I now live several states away and read your paper on a screen. Still, the daily experience of reading the Times brings me back to the 1970s: to mornings in Brooklyn with a poppyseed bagel in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Ever since, throughout the events of my lifetime, public and private, the Times has been my trusted companion. And it remains front and center through these post-Roe days.
Yet I realize that even the paper of record has limitations. You know that too. In the 1990s the Times conducted your own analysis of why your coverage of the Holocaust had been so lacking during World War II. And more recently, the Times published an editorial by Senator Tom Cotton calling for federal troops to be brought in to George Floyd protests. The article was criticized for containing misinformation and for being inflammatory, increasing the possibility of violence against protestors. Though the Times initially defended the decision to publish, the article was later retracted. You reflected, and you learned.
Overall, the New York Times resists the regrettable human impulse to scapegoat: to displace concerns from where they belong onto vulnerable others. At this point, it seems unlikely that the paper would single out women, or Jewish people, or people of color, or immigrants, for unwarranted blame. And the record show that, when you make a mistake, the staff of the Times seems willing to reflect and improve.
So I hope that the recent spate of ageist articles can become another learning experience. Let’s look at some examples:
In a June 3, 2022 Opinion piece, Yuval Levin asks, “Why Are We Still Governed by Baby Boomers and the Remarkably Old?”
Directly beneath that title is a graphic with a walker in front of a speaker’s podium, evoking ableist and ageist tropes. The article goes downhill from there, addressing the Baby Boomer generation in patronizing tones: “As the 21st century dawned, you were still near the peak of your powers and earnings, but gradually peering over the hill toward old age. You soon found the 2000s filled with unexpected dangers and unfamiliar forces. The world was becoming less and less your own.” From this caricature of a generation, Levin goes on to admit, “This portrait of changing attitudes is, of course, stylized for effect. But it offers the broad contours of how people often look at their world in different stages of life…” How unfamiliar must Mr. Levin be with the research on human development to write such a thing. And how ready to group us artificially by generation.
In this July 11, 2022 opinion piece, Michelle Goldberg flat out says, “I hope he doesn’t run again, because he’s too old.” And then cites Levin’s article to support her broad-brush assertion that the leaders of both houses of Congress are too old to understand the needs of the country. As if age per se preempted learning, and as if every leader of a certain age functioned in lockstep. Ms. Goldberg wants urgency and ingenuity from leaders and implies that only the young can exhibit those qualities. Goldberg does not mention Elizabeth Warren, who is 73 and seems hyperaware of the issues the country faces. Which raises the question: Is lumping together everyone of a certain age bigotry masquerading as journalism?
Is America Stuck in a Gerontocracy? July 27, 2022
In this New York Times podcast, Michelle Cottle and David Brooks veer from calling Nancy Pelosi “the most effective legislator of our generation” to debating whether there should be age limits for members of Congress (which would long since have eliminated Pelosi). They finish by joking “This episode brought to you by Geritol.” Here’s a thought experiment for Cottle and Brooks: Substitute for Geritol some product that stereotypes a different marginalized group. Do you still find it amusing?
These articles conflate age with functionality and normalize ageist bigotry. Will we see more like this from you, New York Times? I hope not. Far better to turn this crop of lemons into a whole vat of mea culpa lemonade. What’s needed is the rigorous self-examination your staff has performed regarding other issues.
Frank Bruni started the mea culpa (who is a new neighbor – maybe I should knock on his door and ask him to help) way back in a 2019 opinion piece: “Nancy Pelosi is 78. There was a lot of hand-wringing about that in the buildup to the midterms. I participated in it, joining many younger Democrats who questioned her determination to become House speaker. How about some fresh energy and new blood? Thank heaven she swatted us away, because she smacks down Donald Trump more effectively than any other politician.”
Indeed she did. Nancy Pelosi, the current Speaker of the House, was born in 1940 and is now 82. She was first elected to public office in 1987, when she was 47 years old. Like women of every generation (including many women now in their twenties), Pelosi put her largest ambitions on hold until her children were grown. Had ageism ended her career early, her career would have been curtailed at both ends. Pelosi would have been cheated of the opportunity to continue to grow. And the country would have been deprived of the service of “the most effective legislator of our generation.”
Thus, we cannot separate ageism from sexism. In fact, all types of bigotry spring from the same source: our fears displaced onto a group seen as vulnerable. In its report, Moving Toward Anti-Bigotry, the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research combined research on fifteen categories of bigotry including those based on race, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, class, and body size. The report points out that the human tendency for individuals to scapegoat others can be exploited by structures of power. “Bigotry in all its forms and manifestations serves to consolidate power in a few at the expense of many. Bigotry operates as a unifying force among those who benefit from social inequity, and thus demands a unified response from those seeking equity.”
The report goes on to define the goal of antibigotry. “Antibigoted policies are those that counteract the discrimination, oppression, or subordination of any social or socially constructed group. Antibigoted ideas recognize that no group of people is superior or inferior to any other.
“Antibigotry means working to disrupt all forms of bigotry, without leaving anyone behind. Antibigoted policies and ideas do not perpetuate one category of bigotry in service of disrupting another. In this way, antibigotry cannot be pursued in isolated silos. Rather, antibigotry is a collaborative endeavor toward collective liberation.”
That concept of leaving no one behind is central. As the black queer poet Audre Lorde said, “There is no hierarchy of oppression.” To progress beyond our basic drive to find scapegoats, we must work to rid ourselves and our writing of bias against every category in which we confine one another.
And that work includes anti-ageism. In the chapter on ageism, the report states,
“We define ageism as the systematic stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against individuals based on their age. Bigotry, in the context of ageism, is the manifestation of a collective ill-will directed at less-privileged groups which systemically manipulates, degrades, and denies the dignity and autonomy of individuals within those groups in order to maintain perpetual dominance over them.
“Ageism can manifest in negative beliefs about aging, such that the expectation that older persons are a homogenous group, all asexual, impoverished, unhealthy and incapable of caring for themselves – or conversely that they are a part of the wealthy elite.
“The injustice of using age to divide and categorize people must be recognized and acknowledged as a key form of systematic oppression.”
The authors note that ageism has become markedly more pronounced in American culture since the 1950s. They cite studies showing that “This increasing negativity was further perpetuated and exacerbated by media portrayals…”
Thus, calling to restrict opportunities for older persons, as these Times articles do, falls squarely into the definition of ageism. Using the bully pulpit of a major newspaper to perpetuate stereotypes and to argue for limiting opportunities based on those stereotypes is unacceptable. It is a misuse of journalism in the service of bigotry.
It is time for the Times to hold up a mirror, as it has in the past for other issues, and acknowledge this ageist pattern. We are all, writers and readers alike, aging every day. Do this for your future selves, and the future selves of your daughters and sons. New York Times, you can do better, and you must.