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Home » The not-so-Special Relationship – Columbia Journalism Review

The not-so-Special Relationship – Columbia Journalism Review

A week ago, a piece of investigative journalism alleged that Nick Cohen, a former columnist for The Observer, the Sunday sister paper of The Guardian in the UK, resigned following “years of unwanted sexual advances and groping of female journalists.” (Cohen attributed some of the allegations against him to his past alcoholism; he denied others.) The story appeared not in a British newspaper, but in the pages of the New York Times; indeed, a key assertion of the story was that a journalist at the Financial Times had been ready to expose Cohen, only for Roula Khalaf, the paper’s top editor, to nix her reporting. Khalaf reportedly said that Cohen did not have a high enough profile outside of the media industry to be “an FT story,” but a half dozen staffers at the paper told the New York Times that they had interpreted the decision “as part of a wider reluctance to expose bad behavior” within their own industry. The New York Times ran the story on its print front page under the heading “Country’s Press Avoids Its Own Dark Corners.” (It should be noted that Press Gazette, a UK trade publication, reported on the existence of complaints against Cohen before the New York Times moved the story significantly forward.)

The Times’ story was revealing, among other things, of broader dynamics surrounding the paper and the British press. In recent years, according to a 2021 report in the British magazine the New Statesman, the Times has grown its London newsroom to such an extent that it now rivals some UK titles in size and resources and seeks to drive the country’s news agenda in its own right, rather than merely refracting it for readers back in the US. Many of its London staff are British; Jane Bradley, who wrote the Cohen story, previously worked on big investigations at the BBC and the UK arm of BuzzFeed News. And last year, Serial Productions, the podcast company that the Times acquired in 2020, released the Trojan Horse Affair, an ambitious investigation about Islamophobia in England’s political world and education system.

At the same time, the paper’s coverage of Britain has become something of an obsession for members of the country’s media old guard, especially on the right. A phalanx of commentators have accused the Times of harboring a relentless anti-British agenda—particularly since the country voted to leave the European Union in 2016—taking issue with the paper’s characterization of Britain, in the words of the veteran former BBC journalist Andrew Neil, as “a plague-ridden, poverty-stricken hellhole in terminal decline.” Last year—after the queen died, and the Times published news articles about the cost of her funeral and opinion pieces assessing her colonial legacy—right-wing pundits were outraged; one accused the Times of “a jihad against Britain.” Around the same time, another charged that the Times is projecting America’s own decline onto Britain. “It’s not just Brexit,” the headline read. “It’s Oedipal.”

The reaction to the Cohen story was (mostly) different. A smattering of outlets across the British political spectrum picked it up as a news story; many others did not. Some observers asked why it had taken an outside publication to break the story open. That’s a good question. But it invites some follow-ups. Is the Times really an outsider in the UK these days? In a globalized world—and media industry—can we still define inside and outside status down neat geographic lines? And what does that say not only about the relationship between the Times and the British press but between the UK and US media industries generally—a relationship that, as with the broader one between the two countries, might seem to be “Special,” if only at first glance?


Transatlantic media exchange has a long and broad history, in both directions. In the past year alone, Reach, a leading chain of British local and national newspapers, and LadBible, an online publisher, announced plans to staff up in the US in pursuit of American Web traffic; GB News, a right-wing broadcaster sometimes likened to a British Fox, has been chasing US traffic, too, while Rupert Murdoch tapped Emma Tucker, the editor of Britain’s Sunday Times, to lead the Wall Street Journal. (The Spectator claimed recently that she does not find American journalists to share their British counterparts’ Stakhanovite work ethic.) This month, Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel, longtime BBC stars who quit the broadcaster last year to launch a new podcast, will debut a spin-off show focused exclusively on US politics. It will compete with Americast, a BBC offering that Maitlis and Sopel themselves once hosted.

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Going the other way, Politico, an American-born media company, is in the process of growing its London bureau after Axel Springer, the site’s new owners, identified the UK and California as its top two growth priorities globally. And in April, Crooked Media—the liberal media company that was launched by a trio of former Obama administration staffers in 2017, and soon became a pillar of the anti-Trump #Resistance—debuted its first internationally based show, Pod Save the UK, as a spin-off of its flagship Pod Save America brand. (Though there are important differences between the setup of the shows: whereas Pod Save America plays off the insider cred of its politico hosts, the anchors of Pod Save the UK—Coco Khan, a Guardian journalist, and Nish Kumar, a comedian—take the perspective of fed-up outside observers.)

The driving forces behind this transatlantic media exchange are hard to generalize, ranging from shared language and interests between UK and US news consumers (the royal family, Premier League soccer, and so on) to the structures of individual media businesses. (Murdoch has long shuffled staff between his titles in the UK, the US, and Australia, the three countries where his media power is concentrated.) But one increasingly prominent driver has been the perception that British and American politics have congealed around similar culture-war themes and populist characters. Last year, Piers Morgan launched a grievance-fueled show that was explicitly aimed at UK, US, and Australian viewers alike. Asked by Semafor’s Ben Smith recently why she is interested in US politics, Maitlis said that Britain “tends to lap the waves that America makes first.” Asked by Desiree Ibekwe, of the Times, about the impetus for Pod Save the UK, Tommy Vietor, a founder of Crooked Media, said, “We didn’t have an identical experience with Trump and Boris Johnson, but it felt similar at times, and misery loves company, you know?”

As I’ve written here and elsewhere, however, I’ve long been skeptical of such comparisons between British and American politics: for all the surface-level parallels drawn between them, Johnson and Trump were very different characters, and Americanized culture-war talking points have not convincingly taken root in British soil, despite the efforts of some leading Conservative politicians to plant them. This is in no small part because Britain—and its right-wing media ecosystem, in particular—has long-standing cultural grievances of its own.

Indeed, one of these—a deep-seated anxiety about Britain’s shrinking role on the world stage, not least as manifested in its increasingly unequal relationship with the US—might be seen as a through line of the backlash against the Times’ coverage of the UK. As Aaron Bastani, of the left-wing news site Novara, put it last year, “the NYT increasingly covers the UK as if it were just another country”—an affront to those with a misty-eyed conception of Atlanticism. “When the most influential paper in the world’s most powerful country no longer thinks we’re special, that predictably gives rise to a psychological break which increasingly resembles hysteria.”

The US is far from the only source of foreign traffic for British news sites.
Politico is now owned by Germans and has exported its insidery brand of political coverage across the map, from Brussels to Ottawa and beyond. As Liz Gerard pointed out in the New European last year, newspapers in any number of countries have called Britain a mess recently, without facing the sort of backlash that the Times gets for doing it. And the Times itself, of course, has become a global behemoth with a growing international footprint. The Cohen story wasn’t even the first that the paper has broken open about a #MeToo scandal in another country’s media industry—in 2021, Smith, then the paper’s media columnist, reported on similar claims at the German tabloid Bild (which is owned by the same Germans who now own Politico).

At its worst, coverage of other countries in US publications—not least the Times—can be America-centric and condescending, but it can also interrogate other countries’ national myths and media blind spots. Often, the distanced perspective of an outsider can help with that. But increasingly, stories like the Times’ about Cohen seem to stretch the definition of what we used to understand as foreign correspondence. The Times, in its own words, reported on the dark corners of a “Country’s Press.” But is it not now itself part of that press? For that matter, is Cohen’s former employer, the parent company of The Guardian, not now part of the US press?

One might argue that US publications—and one überpowerful publication in particular—acting as the world’s media policeman is undesirable, or at least reflects poorly on those being policed. But it’s increasingly hard to argue that such stories are none of their business. 

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Chris Licht—the embattled CEO of CNN, who was recently the subject of a devastating Atlantic profile (which I wrote about yesterday)—apologized to his staff for overshadowing their recent work. “As I read that article, I found myself thinking, CNN is not about me,” Licht said, adding that the experience was “tremendously humbling,” and vowing to win back staffers’ trust. According to Oliver Darcy, CNN’s media reporter, Licht’s contrition was well-received internally—but he did not apologize for disparaging some of the network’s prior coverage, particularly of COVID, and some staffers viewed his apology as “too little, too late.” Elsewhere, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo assessed reports that Licht may be on the way out. After talking to sources, Pompeo did not come away “thinking that he’s definitely a goner,” though it may be too early to say for sure.
  • Yesterday, hundreds of journalists at newspapers owned by Gannett walked off the job in protest of cost-cutting at the chain, and its management; the strike was timed to coincide with an annual shareholder meeting—with unionized staffers urging shareholders to withhold support from Mike Reed, the CEO and board chairman—but he was reelected. In other media-labor news, Spotify said that it would lay off about two hundred staffers working in its podcast division, which had already faced recent cuts; the Hollywood Reporter’s Alex Weprin has more. And in media-jobs news, USA Today (which is itself owned by Gannett) named Terence Samuel, a vice president and executive editor at NPR, as its new editor in chief, succeeding Nicole Carroll, who stepped down in May. 
  • In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, YouTube instituted a crackdown on content falsely claiming that the vote was fraudulent. Now Sara Fischer reports, for Axios, that the platform has reversed that policy after concluding that keeping it in place could “curtail political speech without meaningfully reducing the risk of violence or other real-world harm.” The company did not provide Fischer with more information as to how it made this determination, but did say that it will continue to take down content aimed at discouraging voting or other forms of “interference with democratic processes,” and that it will have more to say soon about its approach to the 2024 presidential election.
  • After Ted Koppel, the former host of Nightline, interviewed Henry Kissinger, whom Koppel considers a friend, to mark Kissinger’s recent hundredth birthday, The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner asked Koppel about his approach to the interview, which only briefly touched on allegations of war crimes against Kissinger. Koppel put it to Chotiner that while there are occasions when “hard-edged interviewing is called for,” there are other times when “you have to ease up just a little bit.” When Chotiner disagreed, Koppel replied, “You’re a tougher guy than I am. Not even for a hundredth birthday?”
  • And for the New Republic, David Klion reviewed Reality, a new HBO movie based on a play about Reality Winner—the intelligence analyst who was jailed for leaking classified documents to The Intercept—that was itself based directly on the FBI’s transcript of its interrogation and arrest of Winner. The movie is “sufficiently plausible,” Klion writes, that Winner, despite having cooperated in its production, “has said she can’t bring herself to watch and relive what must have been one of the worst moments of her life.”

ICYMI: Chris Licht, Chuck Todd, and a tale of two Sunday shows

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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