The ‘Fake’ N.Y. Times Chicken-Sandwich Story Is Quite Real

Recently, former New York Times opinion editor Adam Rubenstein published an account in the Atlantic of his unhappy time at the paper, focusing on the now-infamous episode when Tom Cotton’s op-ed set off an internal firestorm. There are certainly strong grounds to argue with Rubenstein’s conclusion — most notably, his implication that the Times opinion page has shut down ideological diversity, when, if anything, it is growing more open to it.

But Rubenstein’s argument did not make it controversial. The controversy instead centered on his opening anecdote. Rubenstein repeated a story about an orientation event in which he named his favorite sandwich, from Chick-fil-A, only to be rebuked by an HR representative, “We don’t do that here. They hate gay people,” a comment met with snaps of approval by others in the room.

On social media, various left-wing journalists asserted immediately this episode was a fabrication. “Never happened,” wrote New York Times Magazine writer and journalism professor Nikole Hannah-Jones. “Is anyone going to contact the Atlantic to ask them about the process behind publishing this egregiously fake anecdote,” pleaded left-wing podcaster Michael Hobbes.

Various reporters have in fact taken up this challenge and contacted the Atlantic. Jesse Singal reached out to the magazine and was told the entire story was fact-checked and the details of the anecdote in question were “confirmed by New York Times employees who had contemporaneous knowledge of the incident in question.”

Numerous acquaintances of Rubenstein (one of whom communicated with me) have affirmed that he told this story contemporaneously. Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple reports, “According to several sources, Rubenstein’s encounter with the HR official itself became an HR issue in the weeks following the incident. Rubenstein told some colleagues about it, including longtime columnist David Brooks, who was his supervisor.”

It’s not irresponsible to question the veracity of a factual claim in the media, even one in a fact-checked publication like the Atlantic. Sometimes fact-checkers get fooled. What’s striking about this episode is that professional journalists stated without qualification that the incident was not merely dubious but definitively and obviously untrue.

This raises the question of why these critics expressed such confident skepticism. The only possible answer is that they believed the anecdote was so outrageous it couldn’t possibly have happened.

I did believe the chicken-sandwich story because I find cringy behavior like that in elite institutions a not-uncommon phenomenon. But imagine Rubenstein had written something different — say, that he had brought to his Times editors evidence that President Biden had committed serious crimes and they told him they wouldn’t publish it because it would hurt the Democratic Party. I would react with skepticism toward an anecdote like this because I don’t believe that’s how the Times operates.

But if the anecdote was proved true, I would have to concede that I had been wrong — not just about the episode but in my larger assumptions about the subject matter of the story. If the Times was shown to do something I thought was totally at odds with its culture, then I would rethink my view of the Times culture. I would hope the skeptics who insisted that the chicken-sandwich story was so outlandish it couldn’t possibly have happened will concede not only that it did but that their assumptions about the culture of the Times were wrong.

There is a lively strain of left-wing media criticism that almost monotonously attacks any mainstream organ that publishes any story that creates discomfort for the political left. Hobbes has attracted an influential following by leveling these critiques. He insisted Jamie Reed’s whistleblower account of her work at a youth gender clinic in St. Louis was the fabricated claims of a front-desk staffer, when Reed’s main claims (including her involvement in patient care) were later confirmed by a Times reporter. He scolded reporters for writing about public concern about President Biden’s age, insisting, “If people have a meritless concern, journalists’ job is to tell them it’s meritless.”

There is a ravenous appetite for a strain of media criticism that relentlessly dumps on any reporting that casts the left in a negative light. Of course, some of those criticisms are valid — I’ve made many of them myself. But the criticism has been a tactic so common it has a name, “working the refs.” Many of these critics take advantage of the high standards of truth aspired to by mainstream media to nitpick their reporting. But episodes like chicken-sandwich-gate clarify what’s actually going on. These critics don’t care what’s true. They only care about what’s useful.

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