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Anti-Corporate Author: Get Over Your Vanity and Just Read "Impeccable" New York Times

Are you struggling to stay informed in an Internet landscape full of conflicting sources and analysis? Good news—a New York Times bestselling author (and former New York Times columnist) has the solution. Just read The New York Times! In fact, if you’ve even been skeptical about the authority, truthfulness, and wisdom of that great newspaper, you need to and “get over [your] own vanity” about “thinking that [you] know better” than people who write for elite national news outlets. These publications are, after all, “impeccable institutions.”

The story of how I stumbled on this bit of wisdom is a little complicated but, I think, intriguing.

Earlier this week as I was walking through the still-partially quarantined streets of Washington, D.C., I was listening to an old episode of the “Dollars and Change” podcast produced by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school, specifically the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. Co-hosts Sherryl Kuhlman and Sandi M. Hunt were interviewing Anand Giridharadas, a former New York Times columnist and the author of the 2018 book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

As I was listening, I heard Giridharadas say something rather dismissive about people who are skeptical of mainstream media outlets, like his former employer. I wanted to go back and make sure I had heard him correctly, but I dreaded the thought of having to go back to my computer, relisten to the podcast, and make my own transcript in order to quote him accurately. Luckily, I noticed that the producers of “Dollars and Change” had already posted a transcript of the episode, so I was relieved.

But when I tried to search for the section of the podcast in which Giridharadas talked about why it was necessary for everyone to trust and subscribe to publications like The New York Times, I couldn’t find it. Maybe I forgot his particular phrasing and was searching for the wrong key words? So, I read through the whole thing, and amazingly, the part of the interview I remembered wasn’t there. Not just a few words, but several minutes of the interview had been omitted entirely. As it turns out, everything from about 18:20 to 25:22 was chopped out and not transcribed at all.

The page that includes the interview does refer to what follows the header as an “edited” transcript. But surely a reasonable reader would assume that, like most news-style transcripts, it is edited for clarity, not content. Which is to say, in order to more readable, many transcriptionists and editors will delete “um” and “uh” and sections of the conversation where there is crosstalk or otherwise unclear content. But it is much less common to omit entire sections—seven minutes of a 35-minute interview—without any notation to mark it. Transcripts generally include an ellipsis “…” to signify when original content is missing. There is no such notation in the “Dollars and Change” transcript.

But why delete the missing sections at all? After all, the full interview is available on the audio file of the podcast itself. I wonder if either the interviewee or the co-hosts realized how out-of-touch the discussion came off as and didn’t want it to be easily searchable. Somehow, I doubt it was merely a matter of time constraints—if anything, selectively editing an interview transcript is more work than simply producing a verbatim record of everything that was said.

In any case, judge for yourself. Below is my own expanded (i.e., accurate) transcript of the section of the podcast I had an issue with. There are some fairly long cut sections, which could support the theory that they were deleted for being off-topic, or were a distraction from the themes on which the hosts most wanted to focus. But there are also specific words and phrases that have been excised (as when the single word “begging” is deleted from the middle of a sentence) that makes it seem like someone is actively trying to misrepresent, in searchable text, what was said on audio.

One more note: I wasn’t always able to distinguish which of the two co-hosts was taking, so I just use the identifier “Host” when necessary. With all due respect to Kuhlman’s and Hunt’s unique contributions, those specific attributions don’t change anything substantive about the transcript; my issue is mostly with Giridharadas’s comments on media culture being omitted entirely.

The sections in bold are the ones that were in the original podcast, but which were deleted, without notation, from the version of the transcript that was posted on the Wharton Social Impact Initiative’s website.

Hunt:

[16:00] What do you encourage folks to read? What questions should they be asking? How, in a very time-crunched away, are they able to understand these complex issues in a way to be informed voters and make decisions that vote for the world they want?

Giridharadas:

I mean, first of all, I will say as a journalist—and this is a, you know, somewhat self-interested thing to say for my industry—but people don’t read enough. When I go on to airplanes, and I walk, if I have a seat in the back, I walk all the way down. I see 250 people playing Candy Crush.

Host:

[Laughing] Sad and true.

Giridharadas:

I’m actually very serious here. You know? And if you got a plane—I mean, you have money for those plane tickets.

Host:

Right, right. This is an educated slice, by many standards.

Giridharadas:

A nation full of people playing Candy Crush when they have a little free time, is a nation asking to be ruled. I’m just going to be real with you. If I am a would-be dictator, all I want is a population that is addicted to Candy Crush.

Host:

Breads and circuses, right?

Giridharadas:

That’s my dream population.

Host:

Breads and circuses.

Giridharadas:

And so, we need to read, as a country again. I mean, the best papers in this country have a sliver of the population of this country as their readership.  

Host:

Mmmhmm. You know

Giridharadas:

Right?

Host:

And I think that

Giridharadas:

That’s an amazingwe have the best media institutions in the world in this country. So your listeners need to subscribe to things, need to read things. Need to read things every day. Don’t wait for your Twitter and Facebook feeds to send you something viral. The viral things are not all you need to know. You need to know about what’s happening in Estonia. You need to know about what’s happening with voter suppression in Georgia, after the big election that you may have focused on. You need to be a witness to your society, and a citizen. [17:55] And I think that that idea, in the first years of the Internet, that idea kind of fell away, and everyone wanted content to be free and kind of felt like if you surfed through your Twitter feed and your Facebook feed and your Snap and this and that you’d get a kind of ambient, ambient awareness of the news. And I think that idea has now been discredited.

Host:

You’ve got to work at it.

Giridharadas:

People who don’t know what’s going on are asking—beggingto be ruled.

Host:

[18:20] But see here’s the—here’s part of the challenge I see. I don’t know that people believe what they read anymore. Or that, or they believe it unquestioningly, right? So it’s either, it’s either “I don’t believe this stuff,” or…

Host2:

If it’s on my Facebook feed it’s true.

Host:

… I’ll believe anything. They don’t trust government. I think they almost trust business more than anything else, because they’re like “Yeah, Facebook made my life better.”

Giridharadas:

No—the numbers, I mean, if you look at the trust numbers, they don’t trust anything except the military. Everything has basically plummeted. You know, trust in government is down. Trust in the media is down. I mean, I think the media’s trust is less than chiropractors. I guess there’s not that many fraudulent chiropractors. [19:00] But to be honest, I encounter people who are like “how do I know?” It’s partly when you don’t read the press every day, you actually don’t have the literacy for how it works. And a lot of people don’t really know what sourcing is …

Host:

Right, right.

Giridharadas:

… don’t really understand. I mean, with all due respect to people who say these things, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal—these are impeccable institutions. They make mistakes every now and then, but these are impeccable institutions. And trust me, what comes out of their mouths is truer than what comes out of most of the rest of us blabbering on at picnics about how the media can’t be trusted. So, you know, people need to learn to read these things, and get over their own vanity about, you know, thinking they know better.

Host:

Yeah, and it seems like there’s a little bit of old-fashioned rolling up your sleeves, like, “It is a longer article, read it.” Like, you know, you might not get all of the “this is coming to me in the most convenient way,” or shortened down to a digestible, you know, hundred and whatever characters, but this is what you need to be reading and this is something you need to prioritize if you wish to change this country or this world.

Giridharadas:

Yeah, exactly. [20:15]

[More discussion of media narratives and Giridharadas’s theory of economic development and government regulation, among other things.]

[25:22, transcript resumes]

I should also note that I don’t disagree with everything that was said above, by any means. You absolutely should seek out news sources beyond what appears on Facebook feed or your Twitter timeline. But blindly trusting whatever is in The New York Times is not the answer, as people of all political persuasions should readily understand. The recent controversial publication of Sen. Tom Cotton’s op-ed on law enforcement and civil rights protests (hated by liberals) and the Times’ management decisions in the wake of vociferous criticism about it (roundly mocked by conservatives), should show us that any media outlet can come up short, regardless of the subject matter in question.