The New York Times’s three-year struggle to sustain its reporting algorithms, built for two political parties that have comparable relationships to reality, collapsed into sordid heap of nonsense over the weekend.
The two central political truths of the moment are the profound asymmetry between the parties – one relying mostly on facts and the other trafficking almost entirely in deceit and division — and the wildly abnormal nature of the Trump presidency.
But smart, capable Times reporters, corrupted by an editorial regime that prevents them from acknowledging those elemental truths, over the last few days put forth such epically, historically bad examples of pox-on-both-your-houses, boring-what-else-is-new, and self-contradictory political coverage that press critics on social media – including several former Times editors — were appropriately united in despair.
The fault, at the end of the day, clearly lies with New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, who has frequently defended the Times’s political coverage as appropriately non-confrontational and measured.
This is a collapse of leadership, and a disaster for American journalism at the most critical moment imaginable.
As I tweeted on Sunday, if you’d asked Times editors five years ago whether people who deny basic facts, traffic in conspiracy theories, demonize immigrants and otherwise fight against a pluralistic society should be given equal (or more than equal) time in their news columns, they would have said no.
Trump’s election doesn’t change the truth. What it did change was the way Baquet triangulates. And it shouldn’t have.
Baquet and the top editors he has subverted to his ways (political editor Patrick Healy? Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller?) have to go. So do the marquee political reporters who have thrived in this environment, Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman lead among them. After three crippling years of getting played, there’s no way to change course without admitting error, and they are too publicly invested to do so.
Luckily, there are a lot of people inside the Times who could cycle in from teams like investigative that have done unflinching and groundbreaking work. I’m sure a few outsiders would be willing to help, too.
So maybe the Times would lose some access to top White House officials and a few “scoops” that generate clicks.
But the value proposition behind the Times is precisely what its ad campaign stresses: That truth is hard, but more important than ever.
As journalism professor Jay Rosen explained on Twitter, “it’s an ad for ‘above it all’ coverage, in which a cacophony of competing claims is impossible to parse. Until the Times steps in.”
Exhibit A for Failure:
Michael Shear’s Saturday front-pager, “The Breach Widens as Congress Nears a Partisan Impeachment,” was about the “different impeachment realities that the two parties are living in.”
It established a new low in “both sides” reporting, which is really saying something. A few sample paragraphs:
Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, described Mr. Trump’s July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine one way, saying it “shows that the president tried to get President Zelensky to interfere in the upcoming presidential election.” His Republican colleague, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, saw it differently: “We saw the call transcript, and there is no conditionality.”
And after Representative Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona, said it was “clear” that Mr. Trump cared about rooting out corruption in Ukraine, Representative Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California, scoffed: “The president never brings up corruption.”
How can anyone write something like that and not take sides?
The response on Twitter was brilliant and devastating. Here’s Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight:
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) December 14, 2019
Here are two of the nation’s preeminent media critics, back-to-back:
And, to state the obvious one more time, the NYT would *never* frame a story on *any* other topic that way:
-“Weinstein, accusers, bitterly divided over clashing claims”
-“Uighurs, Beijing, struggle to find common ground”
-“NFL, brain scientists, trade accusations”
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) December 14, 2019
Author and former New York Times reporter and editor James Gleick asked: “Does @shearm hear you guys, I wonder? Not to pick on him alone—it’s clearly an institutional problem (crisis, calamity) that must be due to Dean Baquet. Still, I keep wanting to know whether these talented professionals see the problem.”
Former Times Magazine deputy editor Joel Lovell:
Jesus H why can’t @nytimes just report the obvious: that one party has abandoned any pretense of democracy & is actively engaged in destroying it, everywhere, & has fully embraced not just lying but the strategy of smearing your opponent w the shit you are covered in?
— Joel Lovell (@lovelljoel) December 15, 2019
Author and former magazine editor Kurt Andersen:
It isn’t two “different impeachment realities,” @nytimes, it’s reality and fantasy.
Don’t let norms of journalistic objectivity become a suicide pact.https://t.co/pGrl65odeS
— Kurt Andersen (@KBAndersen) December 14, 2019
Author Steve Silberman:
— Steve Silberman (@stevesilberman) December 14, 2019
Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau:
Trump and the GOP had an explicit strategy to persuade the public that impeachment is just a partisan mess, which was a challenge since the President’s own staff offered the most incriminating testimony.
New York Times to the rescue: https://t.co/je8E87cgz5
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) December 14, 2019
I asked Shear, via Twitter, to explain how this came about, but so far, no response.
Jon Allsop, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review’s essential Media Today newsletter, made this astute observation:
On impeachment, too much coverage seems to have got stuck in a feedback loop: we’re telling the public that politicians aren’t budging from their partisan siloes, and vice versa, with the facts of what Trump actually did getting lost somewhere in the cycle. The cult of “both sides” is integral to this dynamic, and it’s serving the impeachment story poorly.
Exhibit B for Failure
Peter Baker’s Sunday front-pager used a comparison between the Trump and Clinton impeachments as a vehicle for declaring this one boring and — relative to lying about a blowjob — “esoteric.”
I have never read any major news story so inappropriately world-weary – and so willing to fob off the press’s failures on the public.
Baker’s been on a roll lately, even by his standards. He threw up his hands the other day, writing about how “truth is on trial” in modern Washington. And his recent article about an executive order on anti-Semitism managed to be both credulous and alarmist.
In Sunday’s piece, he came off as so jaded he really shouldn’t be doing this anymore.
What are the biggest differences between the Clinton and Trump impeachments? Well, if you ask me, for starters:
- Clinton’s offense didn’t involve the abuse of power to pervert the electoral process for personal gain.
- Members of his party actually listened to the evidence against him and quite a few of them found it persuasive.
- The public was soundly opposed to his impeachment.
But no, for Baker, the biggest difference is that this one is boring:
Back in 1998, the impeachment battle felt like the ultimate drama, so intense that the rest of the world seemed to have stopped spinning on its axis, yet so fluid and suspenseful that it was never entirely certain how it would play out.
This time it feels like one more chapter in an all-out clash that has been fought for three years, hugely consequential yet of a piece with everything that has come before, with less suspense and an outcome seemingly foreordained.
So there’s no suspense because the Republicans are paralyzed by unthinking fealty. And relative to everything else, it’s nothing special.
It’s almost like Baker’s saying: Three years of normalizing the Trump presidency, and we’re going to stop now?
There was plenty of false equivalence to go around in Baker’s piece as well. For instance, he actually likened Ken Starr, the obsessive independent counsel who relentless pursued the Clintons for over three years before springing a successful perjury trap, and Rep. Adam Schiff, who led a short, fact-based inquiry into bribery and abuse of power that he really had no choice but to launch.
And yet arguably the most poisonous assertion in Baker’s story was that, compared to the case against Clinton, the case against Trump is “for many Americans a little esoteric.”
There is nothing remotely esoteric – defined as “intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest” – about what Trump has done. If only a small number of people understand it, the fault lies with the people whose job it is to help the public understand.
Or, as reader Greg Wilson tweeted, “Esoteric is media-speak for we failed as journalists to inform the public.”
As it happens, Baker expanded on his personal feelings on Meet the Press, where he told Chuck Todd:
I mean, 21 years ago, when they impeached President Bill Clinton, it felt like that was the biggest story in the history of the world. Everything had stopped spinning on its axis for a while. This just feels like another chapter in the Trump story. We’ve been sort of at DEFCON one or DEFCON five, whichever it is since election day.…
Three years of intensity, nonstop, hurricane gale-force conflict in Washington. And this just feels like yet another chapter in that, rather than something unique.
This was so wrong that NBC political reporter Heidi Przybyla, my new hero, immediately took Baker to task:
I think that’s where our role, as the media, is important, to point out where we are, take a pause, this moment in history. This president is about to become the first president, in the history of this nation, who will be impeached for violating one of the Founders’ most primal fears, which is inviting formal involvement into our elections. We all saw it. We saw it on the South Lawn. We saw it in the call summary. So the only question now, really, is how the public is going to respond.
Later, when right-wing think-tanker Danielle Pletka insisted that the public is “really not interested in all these details,” Przybyla took issue again. “That comes back to the media, doesn’t it?”
And on Monday, Przybyla tweeted:
What's our duty — as the media — at this pivotal moment in our history and what does it mean to be fair and impartial?
To tell people the truth, not both sides version of it.
That is all.
— Heidi Przybyla (@HeidiNBC) December 16, 2019
Exhibits C, D, E, and F for Failure
And here’s the thing: It’s not only the Times’s White House and impeachment coverage that are imploding, it’s the campaign reporting, as well. This weekend offered some stunning examples of that, too.
Two articles accepted the bogus Republican framing that impeachment votes are politically risky for Democrats but not Republicans.
An article about the DNC contained a glaring error that was sluggishly corrected.
And a hatchet job on a progressive candidate included an outrageously inaccurate charge that was only corrected after three days of social-media pressure.
Daily Kos press critic Eric Boehlert has repeatedly called attention to how the press is obsessed with the political price Democrats (not Republicans) might pay for an impeachment vote.
On Saturday, Jonathan Martin and Nick Corasaniti wrote in the Times about impeachment opponent New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s decision to switch parties rather than remain a Democrat. They concluded in no uncertain terms, but without citing any evidence:
The decision by Mr. Van Drew reflects the heavy political consequences hanging over next week’s impeachment vote, particularly for moderate Democrats in districts that supported Mr. Trump in 2016.
By contrast, they reported on poll results showing that voting against impeachment would have likely have cost Van Drew the Democratic nomination.
In a big profile in Sunday’s Times of Rep. Antonio Delgado, a Democrat in a swing district, Emily Cochrane wrote that the impeachment vote “is a politically risky one for freshman lawmakers like Mr. Delgado who won by narrow margins in districts that supported Mr. Trump in 2016, and one that the president and his political allies have argued will cost them their seats.”
So it’s “risky” because “the president and his political allies” say it is – and because, as she writes further down, the “House Republican campaign arm” called Delgado’s support for impeachment a “political death sentence.”
Isn’t it more likely that voting against impeachment is going to be a burden for some Republicans in the general election? That doesn’t fit into the Times model.
Also, in an article about the Democratic National Committee on Sunday, Reid J. Epstein wrote incorrectly that Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign in 2016 “after it emerged from hacked emails that she had helped rig that year’s primary to help Hillary Clinton and had scheduled debates to limit exposure for Senator Bernie Sanders.” Schultz did a lot of bad stuff, but she didn’t rig the primary. I don’t know how something like that gets into an article and past the editors. Then it took several hours of social media pressure before the story was corrected.
And then there was Jennifer Medina’s article about Bernie Sanders’ retracted endorsement of California congressional candidate Cenk Uygur.
Uygur, who founded the hugely successful Young Turks online network, rose to fame as a balls-out progressive champion and has now become the ideal target for reporters who want to show they’re tough on Democrats, too. And to some extent, they’ve got good material: Uygur appears to have a disturbing history of objectifying women.
But Medina falsely accused Uygur of making a supportive comment about white supremacist David Duke. She wrote:
In one clip that circulated on Twitter, Mr. Duke ends an interview by saying, “I am not, what you call a racist,” to which Mr. Uygur replies, “No, of course not.”
Then she quoted Uygur’s response:
Mr. Uygur called the clip a “complete smear” that had been taken out of context from a combative one-hour interview in which he pushed back on Mr. Duke.
But this is not a matter of opinion. The clip was in fact a complete smear that had been taken out of context. Yes, Uygur uttered those word, but they dripped with sarcasm.
Considerably social-media outrage ensued, quite appropriately:
This is stunning! @nytimes @JennyMedina claimed @cenkuygur said David Duke is “of course not” a bigot. This is the interview she was citing! They should immediately retract and apologize! pic.twitter.com/WUiM1xvX2U
— Secular Talk (@KyleKulinski) December 15, 2019
And three days after the story first appeared, it was finally corrected:
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to a remark by Cenk Uygur, a radio host running for Congress. When David Duke appeared on his show and denied being a racist, Mr. Uygur was sarcastic when he replied, "No, of course not." https://t.co/863eX3RPrM
— NYT Politics (@nytpolitics) December 16, 2019
The Times and Trump are inextricably bound. The paper arguably helped him get elected by over-covering Hillary Clinton’s scandals and under-covering Trump’s. Trump rewarded it by calling it the enemy of the people.
Subscriptions surged after the election as readers craved solid reporting. And some Times reporting — particularly investigative and legal — has been outstanding. But its short-lived “Trump Urges Unity Against Racism” headline was emblematic of the credulous stenography and normalization of the Trump presidency that is so prevalent on its front pages.
With impeachment imminent and an election less than a year away, it’s almost a national emergency that it still can’t seem to get the Trump story straight.
The only way that will happen is with changes at the top.
Also see Eric Boehlert in Daily Kos on how the Times’ Washington bureau “simply isn’t up to the task of covering Donald Trump’s presidency”; Amber A’Lee Frost in CJR on why the left can’t stand the Times; Dan Kennedy at WGBH about how the Times is way too concerned about what conservatives might say; and Joe Pompeo in Vanity Fair and Gabriel Snyder in CJR on Dean Baquet’s philosophy.
Yet more on this particular weekend’s disaster: Nancy LeTourneau in the Washington Monthly on how staying above the fray by avoiding the facts is not a neutral position; and Alex Shephard in the New Republic on how the GOP bamboozled the Times’ politics desk.