Gaslighting in the news pages of the New York Times

In her first major article on her new beat, New York Times congressional reporter Annie Karni made a striking assertion that bears no connection to reality.

Republicans, she wrote, “have been intent on rehabilitating themselves in the eyes of voters after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol last year.”

It’s certainly true that Republicans are intent on winning in 2022 and beyond. But the notion that they are trying to rehabilitate themselves in any way – something that typically involves recognition of a problem followed by efforts to change – is so nonsensical you have to wonder what’s going on in the New York Times Washington bureau.

Even though she assured readers that this was true of “Republicans” as a whole, Karni — who recently shifted over from the White House beat — was of course unable to cite even one example in support of her conclusion.

The fact is there has been no lasting remorse from the party’s leaders and its base, whether about the violent sacking of the Capitol, the Big Lie, or really any element of Trump’s attempt to steal the election. They haven’t even promised not to do it again. Quite the opposite: they’re openly preparing to steal future elections — both before the fact, through voter suppression and gerrymandering, and after, by controlling the counting of the ballots and the certification of the results. The Times itself has reported on that quite thoroughly.

So why would a Times reporter make such an absurd assertion? I have to think that it’s because in the Times Washington bureau, the aversion to “taking sides” has created enormous pressure to behave as if there remain two more-or-less equally reasonable political parties in this country. That inevitably requires a great deal of journalist contortion — some of it back-breaking.

Most crucially, it requires Times reporters to believe that Trump, Trumpism, and the Jan. 6 insurrection were just an aberration, and not emblematic of the real Republican Party.

As it happens, that’s a view shared almost exclusively with the Republicans that the Times journalists talk to the most: establishment pols, pollsters and lobbyists who at this point are out of power, unless they publicly kowtow to Trump.

Let’s Do a Close Read

Overall, Karni’s article correctly noted how delighted Republicans are with Biden’s failures, and how they appear to be poised to take over Congress in 2022, despite the party’s lurch toward extremism.

But her solid points were utterly undermined by her fantasy – and a whole lot of generalizing.

It’s all right there in the headline and subhead: “Republicans Relish Biden’s Troubles, Eyeing a Takeover of Congress; The president’s woes have delighted Republicans, who have been seeking to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of voters after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Consider the first two paragraphs:

Republicans on Capitol Hill are using President Biden’s failures to fuel their bid to retake control of Congress, focusing on his collapsing legislative agenda, his unfulfilled promise to “shut down” the coronavirus pandemic and rising voter anxieties over school closures and inflation as they seek a winning message for this year’s elections.

Mr. Biden’s troubles have frustrated Democrats, prompting calls for a major course correction. At the same time, they have delighted Republicans, who have been intent on rehabilitating themselves in the eyes of voters after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol last year, which highlighted the party’s lurch toward extremism and its continuing rifts under the influence of former President Donald J. Trump.

Notice how that second paragraph illustrates the Times’s sloppy, lazy, and often inaccurate practice of attributing views held by some members of a party to the party as a whole — without any kind of support or attribution. So it’s “Democrats” who are calling for a “major course correction” as well as “Republicans, who have been intent on rehabilitating themselves.”

In reality, that is certainly not true of all Democrats. And in this case, it’s not true of any Republicans  – at least none who remain in the party’s good standing.

As for the word choice, let’s be absolutely clear: It is simply not the case that one can rehabilitate oneself (in anyone’s eyes) simply by saying the other guy is worse. That may be a strategy for winning, but it’s not rehabilitation.

And please tell me which Republicans are willing to acknowledge the party’s “lurch toward extremism” — not to mention worry about it. Certainly not the ones in charge. The “continuing rifts under the influence of former President Donald J. Trump” are largely imaginary: The party operates in lockstep behind him.

To be fair, Karni’s “rift” rhetoric reflect Times orthodoxy that the real Republican Party is still out there, just waiting to return to power. Similarly, Shane Goldmacher on Monday made a laughably weak case that “Trump’s Grip on G.O.P. Faces New Strains.” And if anything, those “strains” are coming from his right flank.

By contrast, in the real world, the evidence continues to mount that there is nothing Trump could say that would turn GOP party leaders against him – even the constitutional equivalent of shooting someone in the face on Fifth Avenue.

Trump said just this past weekend that Vice President Mike Pence could and should have overturned the election. But as Manu Raju and Melanie Zanona reported for CNN on Monday, Republican senators shrugged it off, reiterating that they would support him if he’s the Republican nominee in 2024.

Further down in the story, Karni again lurches between fantasy and reality:

Now, after months of grappling with their party’s role in stoking the riot, the ongoing influence of Mr. Trump’s election lies and the rise of right-wing activists who risk alienating more mainstream conservative voters, Republicans believe they are finally in a position to capitalize on what they view as a historically advantageous environment.

“Grappling”? There’s been no grappling.

And then, in case you were looking for signs of rehabilitation somewhere in the article, Karni actually establishes the opposite:

Many Republicans say they see no need for any course correction — or to put forward a positive agenda in an election year they say will boil down to a referendum on Mr. Biden.

Is this the closest the Times has come to noticing that the GOP either has no agenda or is hiding it from 2022 voters? That might be worth more than an offhand mention.

Entirely missing from Karni’s story – and this is, again, typical of Times political coverage – was any mention of how the main cause of Biden’s failures has been chronic, lockstep Republican obstruction. There’s no mention of the GOP’s role in consistently blocking any kind of positive response to existential issues like climate change or child poverty or racial justice. There’s one mention of Covid – it’s about Biden’s “unfulfilled promise to ‘shut down’ the coronavirus pandemic” — but no mention at all of how a crazed right-wing campaign is crippling the government response.

Twitter v. Karni

Karni’s article really seemed to touch a nerve on Twitter, even relative to other Times transgressions:

As retired newspaper editor Pat Dougherty noted, the whole story is “based on what Republicans are saying, not what they’re doing. Typical ‘insider, access’ NYT political coverage. Not worth reading.”

In a fascinating back-and-forth with NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, Financial Times reporter Dave Lee jumped to the article’s defense, insisting that Rosen and I were misreading it, and positing an alternate understanding of the word “rehabilitate.” Much of the debate is captured here.

“The piece is saying the Republicans are seeking to restore their rep in the eyes of voters by going hard on Biden’s polices without suggesting much of their own. Seems a pretty accurate observation to me,” Lee wrote. “The reporting doesn’t say they’re actually rehabilitating,” he added. “It’s pretty deliberate language.”

Rosen responded: “Rehabilitation is the path the GOP declined: when you know something’s broken, and you change it through the work of rebuilding and repair.”

I proposed an analogy:

Let’s say I murder somebody. Rather than express regrets, or even promise not to do it again, I argue that the other guy murdered a whole bunch of people. Maybe the public believes me and prefers me to the other guy. But I sure haven’t rehabilitated myself.

Lee stuck to his guns:

Let’s say the NYT reports on your effort to convince the jury, saying that you’re trying to redeem yourself in the eyes of the jury. Is it not an accurate comment?

My answer was: No.


The flatly absurd assertion that the Republican Party has grappled with its sordid past is a canonical example of the Times’s ongoing attempt to normalize the abnormal.

And more urgently, it reflects a continuing failure to report ethically about the midterm elections. Please consider reading the piece I wrote just about that in November..

My point was that reporters have established that the Republican Party has become anti-democracy, race-baiting, violence-inciting, shameless, and untethered to reality.

Yet they still handicap the midterms as if things were normal. Indeed, they calmly predict a Republican victory — as if it weren’t a major step toward white supremacist authoritarianism.

For thinking political reporters, this creates a sort of cognitive dissonance. And without competent editorial leadership, they end up producing journalism that makes no sense, doesn’t reflect reality, and deceives readers.

We deserve better.


  1. The media’s hyping of things like inflation while downplaying or ignoring the fact that a major cause, if not the major cause, is the supply chain problems that is a world wide problem; our booming economy, low unemployment, strong growth of new businesses, etc. is the reason Biden has lost so much support. Yesterday Bloomberg posted this article:
    “Americans in All Income Groups Recouped Pandemic Losses in 2021”
    Despite all the claims that inflation has wiped out the wage gains as so many in the media have been claiming the data says otherwise. Real income has risen. Income for the bottom half of Americans has risen by 8.5% almost as much gain as realized by the the top 10%, That gain is going to wiped out because REPUBLICANS are refusing to extend things like the child tax credit and earned income credit but I bet that will be something else the media will choose to ignore.

    The ridiculously high expectations the media sets for Democrats — and only Democrats —- is corrosive. No president is a superhero who can make all problems go away in the blink of an eye but the media sure seems to demand that Democratic presidents do just that and they excoriate them when they don’t. The WaPo’s Greg Sargent called this the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential power.

  2. The Times isn’t trying to fool anybody. They are clearly referring to things, but refusing to call them by their proper names. They expect their readers to have the proper Aesopian skills, like the readers of Pravda of old. I used to work for a large corporation, and routinely read similar things issued by senior management. The goal is to inform those who need the information, while retaining deniability for those who would be offended by the proper names. The latter group isn’t fooled. But there is a powerful rhetorical advantage in deniability, even if nobody believes it.

  3. Only question I have is what makes you think that “[W]e deserve better”? I used to think that way. But this country elected Trump and about half of the country would do it again KNOWING what he’s capable of and that he would do it again but even worse. There are mass murders — of children, religious worshippers, concertgoers, students at school — and they still reject measures to ban assault weapons. In fact, many jurisdictions are going the opposite way on guns (see Missouri). Half the country, at least, thinks K-12 teachers are inculcating anti-White racism if they teach the objective facts of American history. We’re at the point of no return on climate catastrophe, but half the country thinks it’s a hoax. And Covid — well, what’s the point in even bringing it up?

    So that’s our country. Doesn’t sound like we deserve better. Sounds like we’re getting just what we deserve.


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