If you think about the storied history of the New York Observer ― which since 1987 has been one of New York City’s best-read weekly newspapers ― you might wonder what many of its former editors (Peter Kaplan and Elizabeth Spiers come to mind) would have made of a Donald Trump presidency. In all likelihood, their reaction would have been something like mordant concern lit by the flash of crashing rapiers. But with the paper under the control of Trump-kin-by-marriage publisher Jared Kushner and Trump campaign aide-de-camp editor Ken Kurson, it’s rather clear that the Observer is set to become some sort of garbage tribune, serving the president-elect with the devotion of a Kim Jong Un sycophant.
At first blush, the Observer would look like an unlikely herald for a Trump World Order. After all, it has historically been a tidy chronicle of Manhattan’s mostly liberal elites and their doings, pitched to an audience of mostly liberal Manhattanites climbing society’s ladders at slightly lower rungs. But changes are afoot. As the New York Times’ Michael Grynbaum reported just days after the election, it was announced that the Observer would cease its print edition and fully shed itself of its “New York” branding.
And although Observer Media’s chairman (and Kushner brother-in-law) Joseph Meyer insisted the media organization would retain “coverage of New York City politics and culture,” these changes, coupled with the dismissal of one senior editor and several regular freelancers, suggest that some sort of play beyond Manhattan is in the offing.
Just over a week ago, Mediaite contributor Justin Bargona took the lay of the land and figured that the Observer was well on its way to becoming an official “propaganda arm” of the Trump White House. Among the things he noted at the time was the fact that collapsing the distance between Trump’s Oval Office and the Observer’s publisher and editor offered a distinct advantage ― setting up the paper to become the pre-eminent venue for “exclusive interviews and breaking news,” naturally positioning it to become a go-to “primary source for the rest of the media.”
The possibilities of synergy between Trump’s administration and the Observer were never more clear than they were this week, with the publication of a daffy Austin Bay editorial calling on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to crack down on expressions of anti-Trump dissent:
It’s time for the FBI to conduct a detailed investigation into the violence and political thuggery that continue to mar the presidential election’s aftermath. A thorough probe of the protests—to include possible ties to organizations demanding vote recounts—will give the Bureau’s integrity-challenged director, James Comey, a chance to sandblast his sullied badge.
Lord, surely James Comey deserves better from Trump’s son-in-law’s newspaper after his service during the election. That aside, can you even imagine the FBI conducting a “detailed investigation” into this? “Our preliminary investigation has found that there all a bunch of people who think Donald Trump is some kind of asshole,” it would read, before moving on to secondary areas of concern, like that legal right to assembly and free speech. Hopefully this would be wrapped up swiftly, so as not to create the sort of opportunity cost that might preclude the FBI from catching actual criminals.
This piece goes on to ask the FBI to look into the possibility that Trump electors are being “intimidated” into not voting for him by “angry, vicious...malcontents,” who Bay surmises are from the Democratic Party. Presumably these Democratic operatives haven’t thought through the fact that if enough Trump electors defect, the election will be determined by the GOP-controlled House and Senate. Those bodies would probably not opt to install someone from the opposition.
That is the height of the editorial’s cogency, by the way. From here it devolves into a scattershot rant alleging George Soros-funded protesters (does he pay a living wage and are there opportunities for advancement?), strange asides about Jill Stein (which for some reason have been pull-quoted by some clearly desperate page layout editor) and a reiteration of anger at Comey for not jailing Clinton.
It’s all a little “Aunt Brenda forwarded this email to all the cousins again, God bless her” for any newspaper, let alone the Observer. To be sure, the paper’s subscribers have come to expect a rightward tilt from the editorial page under Kushner, but this dispatch diverges sharply from its traditional tone of aristocratic condescension.
As previously mentioned, Mediaite’s Baragona was given occasion to speculate about the Observer’s future after Kurson appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” There, the paper’s editor offered his opinion on how the media had, in general, cocked up their election coverage to the utmost degree before going on to call for everyone’s immediate job termination and offering some strange asides about “Hamilton” (there’s the Aunt Brenda style of American politics again).
Baragona properly acknowledged that there was more than a little truth to some of Kurson’s criticism, but then rightly noted that “to hear a former speechwriter for senior Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani sit there and lecture the media over how it is doing its job while he works for a Trump family member who is trying to find a way to get around nepotism rules to be on the President-elect’s staff while owning a media outlet is rich.”
Let’s just take a step back and look with clear eyes at what Kurson is saying here. One, he’s trying to convince us all that Kushner has no say — none at all — over what the Observer prints or its editorial direction. At the same time, he also says that he doesn’t bemoan Kushner wanting to perhaps push his opinion to the editors, contradicting his statements about Kushner not placing his “finger on the scale.”
Meanwhile, he completely brushes aside the question of whether or not Kushner should place his ownership interest of the Observer in a blind trust should he officially join the Trump administration. And, of course, he sits there and commends his paper’s coverage of the election and Trump while slamming the efforts of other papers and networks, calling for mass firings and resignations in the wake of the election.
With Kushner angling for a place in the administration, and some amount of speculation as to whether or not Kurson might be heading in that direction as well, you might wonder if, at some point, the two men might properly step down from the paper and leave it in a successor’s hands. To which I’d say: why are you wondering that? With Trump already testing the boundaries of ethics laws concerning conflicts of interests, angling for something short of total divestiture from his business interests, why on earth would Kushner and Kurson volunteer to model journalistic propriety in this instance? In Trump’s world, there’s nothing sacred but whatever you can get away with.
It’s really no wonder that Kurson is feeling rather optimistic. Per Grynbaum:
“This has been a week of incredible tumult, for our country, and now for this small business,” Mr. Kurson, who is close to Mr. Kushner, wrote in a post. “Who knows what the future holds, for me or for the USA or for Observer.”
“But I can tell you this much for sure,” Mr. Kurson added. “Observer’s future is brighter than it’s ever been.”
In truth, its not hard to see how a pro-Trump propaganda empire might work. Properly sorted, you’d have Breitbart News aiming its copy right at the heart of Trump’s raging base and the more tony-tongued Observer riding alongside, laundering Trump’s misdeeds for a snootier set. (I’ve previously surmised that MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” has an emerging role to play in this; things are about to get very interesting over at CNN as well.)
It’s going to be a pretty difficult adjustment for those who’ve long admired the New York Observer’s very particular place in the media firmament. I’d imagine that the energy we could harness from Peter Kaplan spinning in his grave would power the sun.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.