Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy
Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet is blaming an overreliance on anonymous sources for his paper’s monumental screw-up involving San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik’s social-media activities.
“This was a really big mistake,” Baquet told Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, “and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”
And yes, Baquet has surely identified part of the problem. But I would argue that anonymous sourcing in this case is symptomatic of a larger problem: a failure to vet damaging information as thoroughly as it should have been, compounded, perhaps, by a predilection not to look too closely when it involves alleged wrongdoing by a liberal administration.
Say what? The liberal mainstream media has it in for liberal politicians? The answer to that question, I would argue, is an unambiguous “yes.” There are few things more comforting to journalists—constantly under attack for their alleged liberal bias—than to make life miserable for their supposed allies on the left. Not only do they think it might give their critics pause, but it also feeds into their own sense of even-handedness.
Here’s what happened. On December 12, the Times reported that before the shootings Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad,” and that government officials—who are supposedly monitoring such activities—missed it.
It turned out that the Times was wrong. Instead, FBI Director James Comey said several days later, Malik had made her views known in private messages, not in public forums. The Times posted an “Editors’ Note” at the bottom of the story and rewrote the lede. But as Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple pointed out, the rewritten version still emitted a strong whiff of governmental malfeasance even though officials had no reason to investigate Malik before she and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, killed 14 people at a holiday party on December 2.
The Obama administration’s alleged fecklessness in failing to intercept Malik’s communications before the shootings became an issue at last week’s Republican presidential debate, as moderator Wolf Blitzer cluelessly allowed the candidates to prattle on even though his own network, CNN, had already reported Comey’s statements.
Margaret Sullivan, in her characteristically unstinting post-mortem, noted that two of the three reporters who wrote the Malik story, Matt Apuzzo and Michael Schmidt, were also the bylines behind a disaster earlier this summer in which the Times reported, falsely, that Hillary Clinton was under criminal investigation for how she used her celebrated private email account. As Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum put it, “In the end, virtually everything about the story turned out to be wrong. Clinton was not a target. The referral was not criminal. The emails in question had not been classified at the time Clinton saw them.”
And now you’re beginning to see the contours of the larger issue I mentioned at the top: the frequency with which the mainstream media unfairly go after liberal politicians in order to create the narrative that they are equally tough on both sides. The Times, in particular, has a record of being susceptible to this phenomenon (for instance, see Gene Lyons’s article“The Media Chase Hillary, Time And ‘Times’ Again,” at The National Memo.)
Consider the paper’s obsession with the so-called Whitewater scandal in the 1990s—a tangled affair involving the Clintons and Arkansas real estate that never went anywhere. Or its indulgence of then-Times reporter Judith Miller’s credulous reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Or columnist Maureen Dowd’s endless mockery of a claim that Al Gore never made (that he’d “invented the Internet”) and her fabrication of a pretentious John Kerry soundbite that he never actually said (“Who among us doesn’t like NASCAR?”).
As a liberal commentator myself, I’ll confess that I’m not immune to the allure of dishing it out to liberal politicians I usually agree with. In 2012, for instance, I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism.” I stand behind every word that I wrote about the president’s contempt for the role of a free press in a democratic society. But I’ve also cited it on a number of occasions when I’ve been criticized for being pro-Obama.
What often leads the media astray in these situations is that they are responding to what the liberal media critic Eric Alterman calls “working the refs”—that is, media-bashing by conservatives aimed at getting eliciting better treatment. It goes back (at least) to Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, who declared war on the press in his famous speech deriding the “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
The way to deal with those complaints, though, is through fairness and fearless truth-telling, not through false balance.
Did the Tashfeen Malik social-media story make it onto page one without proper vetting because, institutionally, the Times benefits from beating up on a liberal administration? Probably not—at least not directly. But there’s an attitude at the Times and within the mainstream media generally that goes back so many years and has manifested itself in so many ways that you can’t help but ask the question.