Why is New York Times campaign coverage so bad? Because that’s what the publisher wants.

It’s an increasingly common critique of the New York Times: The largest, most influential news organization in the nation is not warning sufficiently of the threat to democracy — while at the same time bashing President Joe Biden at every opportunity.

And it’s been a bit of a mystery. Why would a newsroom full of talented and mostly liberal reporters be engaging in such damaging behavior?

Well, mystery solved.

It’s because that’s what the publisher wants.

Publisher A.G. Sulzberger — perhaps unintentionally — showed his hand in a speech on Monday at Oxford University on “Journalistic Independence in a Time of Division.” His ostensible goal was to defend the Times against its critics. But the two biggest takeaways, in my view, were as follows:

One: Sounding the alarm, it turns out, is anathema to Sulzberger’s notion of independent journalism. Independent journalism should instead “empower our fellow citizens with the information they need to make decisions for themselves.” There are plenty of other people sounding the alarm, he insisted. “Indeed, the alarm seems so loud and so constant that much of the public has by now put in earplugs.” Furthermore, he said, “journalists don’t serve the public by trying to predict history’s judgments, or to steer society to them.”

And two: According to Sulzberger, independent journalism requires being “willing to take a simple, easy, or comfortable story and complicate it with truths that people don’t want to hear.” He described it as a badge of honor that “independent reporting — the kind that doesn’t fully align with any one perspective — will never win over the partisans.” He expressed contempt for “echo chambers” that “celebrate work that conforms to their narratives and protest anything that challenges them.”

What does that mean — practically speaking — to the editors and reporters who work for him? In my view, the message is clear:

One: You will earn my displeasure if you warn people too forcefully about the possible end to democracy at the hands of a deranged insurrectionist.

And two: You prove your value to me by trolling our liberal readers.

That explains a lot of the Times’s aberrant behavior, doesn’t it?

A Response to Critics?

The speech — the annual Reuters Memorial Lecture – was framed as a response to critics but never honestly engaged with their most serious and urgent concerns. Instead, Sulzberger built straw men and blew them down, from start to finish.

He started, in fact, by describing his speech as a response to what he called the “growing resistance to independent journalism.”

But the growing resistance to the Times is not to its independence! The problem is not the Times’s august standards, it’s that the Times isn’t living up to them. It’s not measuring up to the moment.

Here’s how Sulzberger defined independent journalism. I think it’s a wonderful definition!

You can think of it as a first-order commitment to open-mindedness. Journalistic independence demands a willingness to follow the facts, even when they lead you away from what you assumed would be true. A willingness to engage at once empathetically and skeptically with a wide variety of people and perspectives. An insistence on reflecting the world as it is, not as you wish it to be. A posture of curiosity rather than conviction, of humility rather than righteousness.

Does any of that describe the New York Times you’re familiar with? Especially the work coming out of its Washington and Jerusalem bureaus?

Just for starters:

  • Times political articles are much more likely to reflect conventional wisdom than defy it.
  • Times reporters barely ever talk to Biden supporters – certainly not Black ones.
  • The D.C. bureau believes fervently that there is still a moderate, rational core to the Republican Party.
  • And do you find the Times humble? I didn’t think so.

Now here’s how Sulzberger summed up what he called the attacks on the Times’s “journalistic independence”:

It’s long been contested by those on the right who see it as masking a pervasive liberal bias in newsrooms. It’s long been contested by those on the left who argue that independence privileges a straight, white, male worldview that props up existing power structures. And it’s increasingly contested by some journalists, who argue that a society grappling with existential challenges cannot afford an impartial press focused more on sharing information than crusading for change. Independence, in this view, is a peacetime luxury.

Let’s unpack that.

He’s correct about the critique from the right, although these days it seems quaint.

He’s sorta correct about the critique from the left, although that critique is technically not of “independence” but of “objectivity” as defined by Times leadership.

But he intentionally misconstrues the critique from “some journalists” – by which he presumably means people like me.

We aren’t asking the Times’s news side to “crusade for change.” We’re not asking it to abandon independence as a “peacetime luxury.” We’re asking the Times to recognize that it isn’t living up to its own standards of truth-telling and independence when it obfuscates the stakes of the 2024 election, covers up for Trump’s derangement, and goes out of its way to make Biden look weak.

Reporting that Trump is a racist fanatic who would turn a democratic government into his personal fiefdom is not crusading, it’s journalism.

Reporting (endlessly) that Biden is old without noting that Trump is deranged is not “independent” journalism, it’s just bad journalism.

Sulzberger also defended the Times’s unremittingly hostile coverage of gender-affirming care for young people by saying critics don’t want the topic covered at all, which is not remotely true. They want it covered fairly, in a way that respects trans existence.

And he defended the Times’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by saying it’s impossible to please everybody. “There’s no story that is more fiercely contested, more mired in competing zero-sum narratives,” he said. But he didn’t address one common concern, which is that Times coverage is generally more respectful of Jewish lives than it is of Palestinians’.

The Threat to Democracy

The closest Sulzberger came to addressing concerns about the Times’s campaign coverage was responding generally to critics who he said “insist our coverage will end up on the wrong side of history.”

Earlier in the speech he had ruefully acknowledged two epic, historic failures of Times coverage – the Iraq war and the AIDS crisis– both of which put the Times very much on the wrong side of history, and both of which could have been avoided if the Times had been less credulous and less bigoted, respectively.

Nevertheless, Sulzberger said, worrying about future judgements is warping to independent journalism.

Why? How? He insisted that “the instinct to write for the future judgement of history rather than the public we serve today can lead even the most well intentioned journalist astray in three ways.”

I don’t see the conflict, myself. But let’s go through his explanation point by point:

First, everyone wants to make the right decisions, but it’s not always clear as the news unfolds what “right” means. Claims to the moral high ground in the moment, like the War on Terror or Defund the Police, haven’t always aged well.

Yes, but sometimes it is obvious what’s right. Defending democracy would age just fine, I assure you.

Second, seeking to drive toward a particular “right” outcome creates incentives to twist reality — hyping facts that align with your case and downplaying facts that don’t. That approach is fundamentally at odds with journalism’s responsibility to inform the public and undermines the long-term trust any news organization depends on. This is the trap Fox News is in, contorting the news to serve a political mission and leaving its own viewers badly misinformed, believing that President Obama was born in Kenya or that President Trump won the last election.

What a nasty little straw man argument that is. We’re not asking the Times to become the Fox News of the left! We’re not asking anyone to hype or downplay anything. We’re asking it to report accurately on a hell of a news story – the possible loss of our democracy – and stop obsessing over Biden’s age at the expense of writing about his achievements.

Simply put, journalists don’t serve the public by trying to predict history’s judgments, or to steer society to them. Our job as journalists is firmly rooted in the present: to arm society with the information and context it needs to thoughtfully grapple with issues of the day. The belief that an informed public makes better decisions is perhaps the most hopeful conceit of an independent press.

Let’s be real: Nobody looking at the recent poll results could possibly argue that the public is adequately informed. Maybe it’s time to change course?

As I’ve written before, it is not appropriate for news organizations to tell people who they should vote for. But it is appropriate for them to actively strive to correct misinformation, clear up public misunderstandings of key issues in public policy, and advocate for democracy.

Now let’s take a closer look at Sulzberger’s comments about not wanting to be alarmist.

[W]hen I look at the forces keeping society from coming together to rise to the challenges of our era — whether in the Middle East, Ukraine, the United States or anywhere else — I see no lack of passionate, morally confident actors sounding the alarm. Indeed, the alarm seems so loud and so constant that much of the public has by now put in earplugs.

I view the posture of independence as the better, more optimistic path. As independent journalists, we empower our fellow citizens with the information they need to make decisions for themselves. That is a profound act of trust, of confidence. I remain clear eyed about the ways misinformation and polarization conspire to block the shared reality society needs to come together. But I believe that the answer to those scourges can be found not in an advocate’s crusading righteousness, but in a journalist’s humbler mission: to seek the truth and help people understand the world.

But I don’t know of any job more important for a news organization than to sound the alarm when there’s a real emergency. That’s not “crusading righteousness.” It’s very much “helping people understand the world.”

What the Times Has Done and Not Done

I should note that the Times doesn’t completely ignore the threat Trump poses to democratic governance. During a panel discussion after the speech, Sulzberger himself gave a shout-out to the Times’s “Trump 2025” series:

One of the most important bodies of work we created in the last year, our colleagues Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Swan and Charlie Savage spent basically the entire year digging into what does Trump’s first year – it’s called like the Trump 25 project. They got to know everyone in his world, in orbit, the folks who are shaping the sort of intellectual architecture of his term. But also they’ve gotten in his head and understood like what is his mindset. What did he learn from the last term about how effectively to wield the powers of the office? And I think when you get that whole picture together, he is clearly running on a more overtly antidemocratic platform than any candidate in well – than any major party candidate in well over a century. Right? There’s no disputing that. He’s taken direct aim at countless institutional norms, you know, with plans to dismantle the civil service, with plans to weaponize the Justice Department, with plans to greatly expand executive authority. You know It’s a really, really important story.

The series was impressive, with individual stories on Prosecuting Foes, Executive Power, Lawyers, Immigration, Weaker Checks, NATO, and Trade War.

So evidently Sulzberger understands the stakes himself.

The problem is that the endless drumbeat of daily coverage, which should be constantly repeating these conclusions about the stakes, instead continues to be standard-issue both-sides horserace coverage and stenography, with a surfeit of negative stories about Biden.

So for instance you get a story the morning after Super Tuesday headlined “On a Bright Night for His Campaign, Trump Again Conjures a Dark Vision” – where the dark vision is not Trump’s own plans for office but his “sinister evocations of what he portrayed as a grim fate for the country if President Biden is re-elected.” There was no pushback from reporter Michael Gold, just stenographic mention of Trump’s “meandering list of grievances, insisting that the nation was descending toward chaos under Mr. Biden’s leadership.”

Salon columnist Lucian K. Truscott IV recently channeled the widespread fury over the way the Times blasted its coverage of a poll that asked if Biden and Trump are too old but not whether either of them are too deranged. The top-of-the-front-page headline “Majority of Biden’s 2020 Voters Now Say He’s Too Old to be Effective” came after a number of overly critical articles, including “How Old Is Too Old to Be President? An Uncomfortable Question Arises Again“, “Special Counsel’s Report Puts Biden’s Age and Memory in the Spotlight,” and an episode of “The Daily” podcast headlined “The Biden Problem Democrats Can No Longer Ignore.”

Meanwhile, an article headlined “Fewer Voters Think Trump Committed Crimes, Polls Show” neglected to mention that a majority – 53 percent – still did feel that way. (h/t Jamison Foser.)

Chief White House correspondent Peter Baker even cast the challenges Biden has faced as a violation of his campaign promises, in a story headlined “Biden Promised Calm After Trump Chaos, but the World Has Not Cooperated.”

The Times frequently reports on how views of the economy are unrealistically bleak and that Biden gets no credit for shockingly good economic growth, wage growth and low unemployment. What the Times does not do is recognize how it has contributed to the negative perceptions — and it certainly doesn’t try to correct misunderstandings. That wouldn’t be crusading, it would simply be making up for an information deficit.

And finally, in a major article about the “kickoff” to the real presidential campaign – coauthored by Maggie Haberman of the Trump 2025 project – there was no mention of the word “democracy” nor any indication that it is under threat. Instead, the article declared that Biden is behind and “is hampered by widespread concerns about his age and his handling of the job, fractures in the Democratic coalition over Israel and a general sourness about the state of the nation.” It only mentioned in passing Trump’s role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol or his criminal trials.

All of this makes sense if you understand that there is a powerful incentive at the Times to make the publisher happy.

But contra Sulzberger, there is, in fact, cause for much more alarm than the Times reflects in its daily coverage. There are misconceptions to clear up. This is not just a popularity contest. Too much is at stake.

And I dearly wish (to use his own words) that Sulzberger would listen to and respond to his journalistic critics from “a posture of curiosity rather than conviction, of humility rather than righteousness.” We might just help save democracy.

32 COMMENTS

  1. It is kind of hilarious that Sulzberger mentioned the Times’ previous failures, so I’m going to quote a response I left on Bluesky about their frankly abysmal trans-rights coverage: ‘I for one wait for the future date when, much like the AIDS crisis back in the 80s, they sheepishly go ‘Oh, geez, guess we were kinda wrong there’… and then we can all collectively spit in their faces and tell them to go **** themselves.’

    • That is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of the people who still watch the news that is probably true but the rest of us were driven off by the sensationalism decades ago. There is solid research that proves voter prefer news about problems that are getting addressed but that kind of journalism take more time and money to cover than murders and car crashes do.

  2. Absolutely correct. Having spent almost 30 years in newsrooms, I see the Times’s problem, in addition to insipid leadership from Sulzberger, as being a devotion to factual accuracy but not also contextual accuracy. What the Times reports about, say, polls is *factually* accurate but lacks *contextual* accuracy. Another way to put it, thanks to NYU’s Jay Rosen, is that the Times is covering the race well but not the stakes. Thanks, Dan, for trying to fill in the gaps. We can and should help by sharing this piece widely.

    • When Hillary Clinton announced her campaign, polls found her more trustworthy than Donald Trump by 30 points. By the election, it was dead even. Does the New York Times think they actually informed people about the differences between the two candidates so they could make an informed decision? Even setting aside the crimes of his that have been uncovered since, Trump settled a fraud lawsuit for $25 million THREE WEEKS after that election. Did you even know about it during the campaign?

      • The Times has been playing this game for a long time. Read this article which shows how Steve Bannon and his partner Peter Schweizer were allowed to inject their anti-Clinton smears directly into the NY Times in 2015.
        “How Steve Bannon Weaponizes a Story”
        https://washingtonmonthly.com/2016/11/04/how-steve-bannon-weaponizes-a-story/
        That article describes how the NY Times — and WaPo — both signed exclusive agreements to print excerpts from Peter Schweizer’s book “Clinton Cash” which was Schweizer’s book full of his and Bannon’s anti-Clinton propaganda.

        This article describes how the Times and WaPo ignored all the subsequent reports about the errors (lies) in that book:
        “ After Forming Clinton Cash “Exclusives,” NY Times, Washington Post Fail To Report On Book’s Errors”
        https://www.mediamatters.org/new-york-times/after-forming-clinton-cash-exclusives-ny-times-washington-post-fail-report-books

        • They also have a handful of reporters at the Times that will take entire articles written for them by right wing sources and publish them without a single correction. Ken Vogel is one of the better known ones; he’s basically been Rudy Guiliani’s Times mouthpiece for years. The Hunter Biden laptop story? That was Vogel publishing Rudy’s insane claims without bothering to do any fact checking on any of it.

          And the Times just assigned him to covering the Biden team.

          • The Hunter Biden laptop story also originated with Bannon and Schweizer in Schweizer’s book “Secret Empires”. This time, instead of peddling their lies directly to the Times and WaPo Schweizer his pal John Solomon as his cut out guy. When Solomon’s story was published in The Hill other media outlets picked up the story from him. Solomon got the ax and took all the blame for the lies in that story — Bannon’s and Schweizer’s role was ignored by the media. No way the Times, etc. wanted to acknowledge they had allowed themselves to be manipulated again by Bannon and Schweizer. Again.

    • Here’s another way to put it: One side uses shovels to bash people’s brains in. The other side once used a shovel to plant a tree. The Times headline: “Both Sides Use Shovels.”

      • Here is a mind boggling headline from yesterday’s Atlantic:

        “How Hur Misled the Country on Biden’s Memory:
        The saga has been something of a self-inflicted wound for Democrats.”
        By Adam Serwer

        This is a blatant example of blaming the victim.

  3. I spent 45 years in newspapers and I’m 70 years old, so I’ve seen a few things.
    Under nepo baby Sulzberger, this article makes it clear exactly how and why The New York Times has become a disappointing and (for me) distrusted source. I subscribe online to The Washington Post but will not even consider contributing my pittance to the NYT.
    It appears the NYT has crawled into a Manhattan bubble and hasn’t paid attention to what’s been going on for the past eight years. Our Constitution, democracy and our country are at a tipping point and Sulzberger appears happy to put his thumb on the scale. I’m not naive enough to believe that newspaper/media coverage will save the country, but I would be more than happy to see outlets like The Times at least TRY to call a spade a spade. I’ve seen clips of Trump’s speeches on Twitter. It’s now to the point that how he’s saying it is more important than WHAT he’s saying.
    It’s hilarious that the MAGAs look at The Times as that “liberal rag.” It aligns more with what once was conservative, Republican views than left wing, hippie freak Democratic views.
    Mr. Froomkin, I side with your hopes that The Times will wake up and smell the coffee. But as long as Sulzberger is the publisher, it ain’t happening. If Trump wins, Sulzberger had better hope he doesn’t wind up in a journalistic gulag.

    • I think the WaPo has also really bad lately, especially their opinion columnists. It has definitely tilted to the right with the loss of Paul Waldman, Greg Sargent and Margaret Sullivan. The main webpage has a few serious articles at the top, then a bunch of fluff. The opinions section comes after that with a teeny tiny heading. It features a lot of older articles.
      There is also a lot of bothsidesing coverage and Chicken Little focus on negative stories while ignoring positive ones. For example inflation got a lot more coverage than low unemployment or our strong gdp growth. Hur’s slamming Biden as mentally slipping got far more coverage than did Trump’s shockingly garbled, slurred, incoherent speeches in NC and Va.

  4. Please add to the Times “fails” their relentless and successful “But her emails” campaign against Hillary Clinton. We wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t shouted Comey’s breathless “new emails discovered” without the fact check that they were backups of emails the FBI already had. Jumping on that “news” and putting it out just before the election was not even factually correct.
    .

  5. NYT is just trying to put a good face on “we need the clickbait articles to make money for our CEOs.” There’s nothing more to it than that. Profit above journalism is 2024 and has been the current year for some time. Arguing against that from a moral standpoint is meaningless. Profit matters more than morality to them. When you believe that, a moral argument will be discarded as noise and juvenile idealism.

    • No, the problem is in their drive to be as even-handed as possible, they remove key contextual information from their articles, leading to a lot of misleading and incorrect information. And then they act as a feedback loop to themselves, amplifying their own misleading info until it reaches critical mass.

  6. You have to go to Salon, Raw Story, The Daily Beast, The Independent, The Guardian et al. to find real reporting on Trump’s dangerous mental decline. If you ask NYT reporters (as a subscriber) why the NYT isn’t covering the subject, you get no response whatsoever or a defensive link to an article that is over two months old.

    • There’s this idea that Trump’s “derangement’ is being hidden or ignored and this in turn allows us somehow to predict “democracy’ will be abolished in Trump’s next term. What court orders has he disregarded? Is exercising due process in the courts now an anti-democratic or deranged practice?

      • Yes. Every time there is an answer to him from a court, he moves to delay or eliminate each challenge. That is not due process, and neither is the FL baby judge appointed by him “thinking” endlessly about what to do and when. Right now there is an emphasis on his unhinged rants and burbled language, and every phrase is a threat of what he “plans” or plots to do when he is re-elected. I guess you haven’t heard of those Fed. Society and Heritage plans that are being fleshed out? And “his” high court is in the mix to help out…

  7. This is necessary to understand the pathetic s**t show the NYT has become. No longer is it the ‘paper of record.’ Rather it is the paper of complicity. Complicity with the corporate fascism that the Republicans are pushing and the Democrats have, for decades, fecklessly abetted by gorging themselves at the trough of corporate campaign contributions and insider trading. And yet, at this precipice where democracy teeters woozily, the lesser of two evils party that has helped get us here is our only hope of avoiding a total catastrophe. We MUST vote for Biden, strenuously, enthusiastically, in numbers that can’t be challenged, or everything decent about this country, social services, equal rights, any semblance of fairness, will disappear. No thanks to the New York Times.

  8. Regarding just the issue of a professional civil service: Is it not factual that the United States decided in the late 19th Century that a non-partisan, uniformly regulated by standardized rules of hiring, performance, and discipline would benefit the performance of the ever expanding and increasingly responsible federal government. Hasn’t it become an obvious fact that such a professional civil service is not only preferable over ever-changing selectees of the most recent President. Is it not essential? Did not the Trump administration, with its constant change of cabinet officers, advisors, and frequent appointment of temporary officials not requiring Congressional Approval serve to demonstrate a direct attack on the core foundation of democratic institutions. Is it beyond reasonable objectivity to treat such a transformation as a step toward autocracy and away from government of, by, and for the people?

  9. I so agree with all of this. I have been wondering WTF for weeks now, as the NYT (and Peter Baker, looking at you) has deceptive headlines and commentary after deceptive headlines and commentary. Just as the other side does not want a border deal because the former guy wants chaos and lies to prevail, it seems that the NYT feels the same way. I have hardly paid attention to that rag since 2015 (really, is this a new problem?) but we should not discount the loud voice it bellows every day. I don’t know this publisher since I cut the NYT out of my life, but he sounds like a piece of work. Our paper seems to use AP more, and the pieces are usually less-than-satisfactory, so I get my news from MSNBC, a daily blog (RealityChex) and Charlie Pierce in Esquire.

  10. Noting and describing this bias in detail is important, doing something about it then is requisite. What is the action plan? There should be a call to action. I’m getting very tired of the Times also. Recall the editorial that said we have 2 narcissists running for president… who ever described Joe Biden as a narcissist and what purpose to say that?

    So:
    * Write editorials about this?
    * Take out full page adds in the Times Sunday edition?
    * Cancel subscriptions?
    * Organizer a very public protest outside their offices with something dramatic like a burning of their papers?
    * ???

  11. The NYT and WaPo are currently leading the charge for courtier-at-court “journalism.” Addressing the stakes of democracy, civil society and discourse, and combatting misinformation is seen as sophomore level BS, and more to the point, is detrimental to any cub reporter’s career now.

    I wish we could run Joe Biden until he’s 100, but the question for 2024 is not if fascism will come to America, but when? And it sounds like Mr. Sulzberger is comfortably safe and cozy in his nepo baby world, gladhanding with mass market murderers and princeling pedophiles and cardinals in judicial robes. That champagne isn’t going to drink itself!

  12. NY Times has shadow-banned my comments for the past two months for posting comments berating them for both-siding tRump and Biden differences. I’ve been a loyal daily reader and subscriber for FIFTY YEARS.

  13. When Trump’s version of the SS is putting Sulzberger and his editorial board up against a brick wall with targets on their chest he might realize that many of his critics were exactly right.

  14. I would agree with everything in this article except the statement that the NYTs coverage regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been generally more respectful of the Jewish lives than the Palestinians. Sulzberger, like his forebears, has done as much as possible to make it clear that the Times is not a “Jewish paper” and he has been just as successful as they have been. The biased headlines, the horrific, inflammatory pictures from Gaza that run almost daily, always on the front page above the fold of course, portray the Palestinians in a most sympathetic light are infuriating to those of us who prefer to find a more balanced and complete understanding of such a complex situation. Too often the Times in their haste to publish unfavorable stories about the IDF, has had to make retractions as their news source was revealed to be Israel’s own enemy, Hamas. So many Jews, life long subscribers to the Times have ended their subscriptions in frustration. It’s sad, frustrating and depressing.

  15. Is there any group pressing Sulzberger to sell the New York Times for the public’s good? If so, do they have an email address inviting membership? (Please, publish it!) Are there any prospective buyers? If so, is that group investigating them to see if their track-record indicates someone worthy of the trust? I wonder if such a group gained a mass following whether Sulzberger’s NYT would consider it news “fit to print”? (Forgive the sarcasm.)

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