The timid Times: What’s wrong with political coverage at our leading newspaper

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I’ve been trying for a while to think through a column on what’s wrong with The New York Times’ political coverage. The topic is so broad that it defies easy analysis. The Times is too big and too good to disparage in categorical terms. For every example I could come up with of a story that should have been framed differently, a defender of the Times could point to several that were pitch perfect. And yet something is off. Sometimes it’s a matter of tone and emphasis. Sometimes it’s more serious.

A couple of years ago I made The Washington Post my first read, along with The Boston Globe. Partly it was because I was starting to research my forthcoming book, “The Return of the Moguls,” much of which is about how the Post and the Globe have fared under the ownership of billionaires Jeff Bezos and John Henry. But partly it was because I simply found the Post more compelling than the Times.

I read the Post because of its fierce and authoritative coverage of national politics, especially of President Trump. It was, after all, the Post that broke the two most important Trump stories of the 2016 campaign: the fraudulent nature of his charitable foundation and the existence of the “Access Hollywood” tape, on which he is heard crudely boasting about sexual assault. And it has continued. Without the Post’s reporting, a credibly accused child molester, Roy Moore, would be taking his place in the Senate this month.

When I make the Times my first read, it’s because the writing is better, it offers a broader range of topics, and it carries greater social currency. For all the Post’s success under Bezos and executive editor Marty Baron, it just hasn’t become part of the national conversation to the same extent as the Times. But there is a timidity to some of the Times’ political coverage — a deep institutional need to offer balance when the truth is overwhelmingly on one side, to cover Trump as though he is an undisciplined, falsehood-spewing, but essentially normal president.

In the Times, Trump’s awfulness is too often portrayed as a matter of degree rather than of evidence that our media and political system is fundamentally broken. The picture that emerges is of a news organization often out of sync with its mostly liberal audience and that is way too concerned about what conservatives might say. The media observer Jay Rosen recently criticized executive editor Dean Baquet’s quest for balance in his reporters’ use of social media. Although I largely agreed with Baquet’s order that straight-news reporters refrain from opinionated tweets, Rosen’s assessment of the Times’ and the Post’s use of social media spoke to deeper truths about both news organizations:

The New York Times and the Washington Post are known to keep a close watch on each other. Dean Baquet should be asking himself: why isn’t the Post choking and wheezing on its social media policy? Why is he spending entire days trying to discipline his troops? Is Marty Baron investing his time that way? I doubt it. Baron and the Post exude confidence — in their reporting and the voices that bring it to life on other platforms.

Let me offer an example that gets at some of what I’m talking about: Times reporter Michael Schmidt’s remarkable interview with Trump last week at the president’s golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida. On the one hand, their conversation produced all sorts of news, the most important of which was Trump’s apparent signal that he would not fire special counsel Robert Mueller (but who knows?). On the other hand, the interview was an exercise in pure access journalism at a paper that has come to overvalue access (see: Maggie Haberman). Schmidt contented himself with asking questions and recording Trump’s answers rather than challenging his numerous falsehoods. It certainly didn’t help that Schmidt, with Emily Cochrane, followed up with a story on Trump’s New Year’s Eve gala at Mar-a-Lago that read like a fanzine report on who was wearing what at the Oscars.

Schmidt’s passivity in his interview with Trump sparked outrage among liberals on Twitter, and Schmidt defended himself in a separate article. “I believed it was more important to continue to allow the president to speak and let people make their own judgments about his statements,” he wrote. As for the falsehoods, the Times dealt with those in yet another story. Personally, I thought Schmidt’s interview with Trump was valuable. Access journalism has its uses as long as it is supplemented with investigative reporting, and there has been no shortage of that in the Times. Yet it’s hard to forget that Schmidt was the lead reporter on a story in July 2015 that falsely claimed Hillary Clinton was under criminal investigation for her use of a private email server, leading to two corrections, an editor’s note, and a tough column by then-public editor Margaret Sullivan, now a media columnist at The Washington Post. Then again, the Times’ quarter-century obsession with mostly nonexistent wrongdoing by the Clintons is worthy of a separate column — or a book.

Even great journalism by the Times calls to mind past problems. On Saturday the paper published a devastating report that the FBI began its Russia inquiry in July 2016 after a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, drunkenly bragged to an Australian diplomat that the Russians had “political dirt” on Clinton. But as Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple noted, the Times had dismissed the idea that the FBI was investigating Trump just days before the 2016 election. Granted, there was much that was unknown then. But Wemple argued that the earlier story drew “relatively sweeping conclusions” about the FBI’s alleged non-involvement when a more open-ended approach was called for. Sullivan’s successor as public editor, Liz Spayd, followed up with a highly critical column that reportedly enraged Baquet. The public editor’s position was later eliminated.

On New Year’s Day the Times’ new publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, greeted his audience with a message paying tribute to his family’s heritage dating back to Adolph Ochs, who bought the paper in 1896. Sulzberger said all the right things, including this:

The Times will continue to resist polarization and groupthink by giving voice to the breadth of ideas and experiences — because we believe journalism should help people think for themselves. The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.

This is a restatement of New York Times journalism at its best: truth over balance, independence over access, courage over fear of criticism. Even now, these values characterize much of what the Times publishes. But the lapses are frustrating and unnecessary.

I don’t mean to make too much of the Times’ shortcomings. If there’s a smoking gun with regard to Trump and the Russia investigation, I think the “failing New York Times” is as likely to expose it as the “Amazon Washington Post.” Both are indispensable news organizations and both are producing great work. But journalists at the Post give the impression of knowing who they are, why they’re here, and what they’re doing. I wish I could say the same about the Times — and I hope the day will come when I can.

Friday updates

1. Shortly after my column was published, Washington Post media columnist (and former New York Times public editor) Margaret Sullivan weighed in with some similar observations. In her case as well as mine, the trigger was Times reporter Michael Schmidt’s recent interview with President Trump in which Schmidt was content to take dictation rather than challenge Trump over any of the numerous falsehoods that came tumbling out of his mouth. I particularly liked this Sullivan soundbite:

The Times is distinctively defensive. Often great and sometimes wrong, it mostly likes to talk about that first part, and has trouble acknowledging the second, which may be one reason its public-editor position lasted less than 14 years.

Like me, Sullivan was impressed with new publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s introductory message. I hope Sulzberger translates his rhetoric into action.

2. Give Schmidt his due. On Thursday the Times published his latest, which may prove to be among the most significant of the Russia investigation: a report that Trump told White House counsel Don McGahn to order Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the government’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Sessions, who really had no choice, recused himself anyway. The story is full of choice details, such as Trump angrily asking “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” and an underling’s trying to mislead Trump into believing that he did not have the authority to fire FBI director James Comey. As Blake Hounshell, editor-in-chief of Politico Magazine, put it:

3. Good Times, bad Times. A story about Steve Bannon’s swift fall after he got caught telling Michael Wolff what he really thinks about the Trumps mentions a project co-founded by Bannon called the Government Accountability Institute. Among other things, the institute published a 2015 book called “Clinton Cash,” which the Times describes as having “damaged Hillary Clinton’s then-nascent presidential campaign.” The book was written by Peter Schweizer, who also writes for Breitbart News. What the Times does not mention is that is that both the Times and the Post partnered with Bannon’s institute in obtaining early access to the book, described as riddled with errors by the liberal advocacy group ThinkProgress. Aaron Rupar of ThinkProgress wrote shortly after the 2016 election:

Instead of fact-checking, the Times and Post ignored Clinton Cash’s errors Schweizer’s history of inaccuracy and amplified the book’s anti-Clinton innuendos — material Trump himself used to attack Hillary, win the presidency, and empower white nationalists like Bannon. Now, in the wake of a campaign where fake news outperformed legitimate reporting, the country’s two largest papers are left penning editorials condemning Trump for elevating a man whose flawed work they amplified.

Rupar did not claim that the Times or the Post passed along any false information from Schweizer’s book. Nevertheless, if the Times is going to bring up “Clinton Cash” in a story about Bannon, it ought to mention its own involvement.

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