The New York Times and that nice young Nazi next door

The New York Times’ profile of an Ohio Nazi is generating an enormous amount of outrage on Twitter among critics who think the paper is normalizing a dangerous hate-monger. I largely agree, though I would disagree with anyone who thinks it never should have seen the light of day in any form.

The problem is in the execution — in the course of showing how well Tony Hovater blends in (a useful insight), reporter Richard Fausset makes it appear that he believes Hovater is normal in some way. For instance, here is a paragraph that teeters on the brink:

In Ohio, amid the row crops and rolling hills, the Olive Gardens and Steak ’n Shakes, Mr. Hovater’s presence can make hardly a ripple. He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate. But his tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show “Twin Peaks.” He says he prefers to spread the gospel of white nationalism with satire. He is a big “Seinfeld” fan.

As Susieus Maximus put it on Twitter: “It’s like the writer either never heard the phrase, ‘the banality of evil,’ or else thought that all they had to show was the banality.”

The Times is performing badly in so many ways lately. It’s a shame that it can’t produce a straightforward profile of a Nazi without doing better than this.

Some updates. The antidote to the Times story is The Boston Globe’s series on York, Pennsylvania, by Matt Viser. Rather than simply mailing in postcards from Trump country, Viser has been balancing the views of Trump supporters with those who are horrified by what is going on. The latest installment was published today.

The Times has published a commentary by Fausset in which he admits that he didn’t come back with quite what he wanted. And the Times itself has posted a reaction to the feedback it’s received. “Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article,” writes national editor Marc Lacey. “The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.”

Finally, Mangy Jay has posted a very smart thread on Twitter outlining how the Times could have — should have — approached a story that clearly went off the rails.

The last word. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post nails it: “The best way to avoid normalizing white nationalists is to report about their deeds, their friends, their families and their beliefs, and to not give up after an unsatisfactory phone call.”

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Margaret Sullivan on the media’s terrible coverage of the Clinton campaign

There’s a very strong Margaret Sullivan column in today’s Washington Post on the media’s terrible coverage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It’s especially good to see her call out The New York Times, for whom she was its best public editor before moving on to the Post.

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Trumping his measured rhetoric, president goes off at the United Nations

The morning print headlines:

  • “Muted Trump Embraces U.N. Before Speech” (New York Times)
  • “Trump plans pragmatic U.N. speech” (Washington Post)
  • “Trump shifts global tone, engagement” (Boston Globe)

The afternoon web headlines:

  • “At U.N., Trump Threatens to ‘Totally Destroy North Korea’” (New York Times)

  • “Trump threatens to ‘destroy North Korea,’ calls Kim ‘Rocket Man’” (Washington Post)
  • “Trump threatens to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea in UN speech” (Boston Globe)

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It’s time for some answers on the Globe’s printing woes

In trying to think through what’s behind the crisis at The Boston Globe’s new Taunton printing facility, it seems logical that one of two things is going on. The first possibility is that the problems are fixable but that they have taken longer to resolve than anyone expected. The second is much worse: that the presses the Globe bought are not up to the task, will never be up to the task, and shouldn’t have been purchased in the first place. I certainly hope it’s the former and not the latter.

The Boston Business Journal’s Don Seiffert, citing “multiple sources,” reports that Boston Globe Media’s chief operating officer, Sean Keohan, has left the company — a departure that, Seiffert hastens to add, may or may not be related to the printing problems.

This comes within days of a tough statement from the Boston Herald — which is printed by the Globe — apologizing to its readers for the poor job the Globe is doing of printing its tabloid rival. “We talk with the Globe on a regular basis but unfortunately the remedies they put forth to solve the production problems have failed miserably,” the Herald said. (My WGBH News colleague Emily Rooney praised the Herald on “Beat the Press” for speaking out.)

A number of sources have told me that printing woes have required the Globe to set deadlines so early that the print edition is often missing sport scores — even when the Red Sox play at home. Papers are going undelivered. In addition to the Herald, the Globe also prints The New York Times, and, needless to say, that is not a relationship that Globe owner John Henry wants to endanger.

The problem right now is that few people know for sure what’s going on. When the Globe endured its home-delivery fiasco about a year and a half ago, the paper itself published the definitive story about what had gone wrong. It was thorough and unsparing. This time, we haven’t heard much since Globe Media chief executive Doug Franklin left in mid-July. We need to see the Globe once again rise to the occasion and report on what has gone wrong and how it is going to be fixed.

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Once again, the Times bends over backwards for Trump while the Post lets him have it

It seems that every day The New York Times finds a way to say something hopeful about President Trump while The Washington Post sticks with reality as we can all see it. There are many examples I could dredge up, but let’s start with today’s papers. First the Times’ Glenn Thrush:

Harvey Gives Trump a Chance to Reclaim Power to Unify

Hurricane Harvey was the rarest of disasters to strike during the Trump presidency — a maelstrom not of Mr. Trump’s making, and one that offers him an opportunity to recapture some of the unifying power of his office he has squandered in recent weeks.

Now a tropical storm as it continues to inundate the Texas and Louisiana coasts, Harvey is foremost a human disaster, a stop-motion catastrophe that has already claimed at least 10 lives and destroyed thousands of structures. But hurricanes in the post-Katrina era are also political events, benchmarks by which a president’s abilities are measured.

Mr. Trump is behaving like a man whose future depends on getting this right.

Now the Post’s Jenna Johnson:

Even in visiting hurricane-ravaged Texas, Trump keeps the focus on himself

As rescuers continued their exhausting and heartbreaking work in southeastern Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the rain continued to fall and a reservoir near Houston spilled over, President Trump grabbed a microphone to address hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside a firehouse near Corpus Christi and were chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”

‘Thank you, everybody,” the president said, sporting one of the white “USA” caps that are being sold on his campaign website for $40. “I just want to say: We love you. You are special…. What a crowd. What a turnout.”

Yet again, Trump managed to turn attention on himself. His responses to the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey have been more focused on the power of the storm and his administration’s response than on the millions of Texans whose lives have been dramatically altered by the floodwaters.

As I said, these contrasts are a regular occurrence. I don’t know what to attribute them to, but I wonder if the Times’ bend-over-backwards approach to Trump is the flip side of its decades-long obsession with Clinton non-scandals, from Whitewater to emails. Yes, the Times has done plenty of great investigative reporting on Trump, and it seems to be locked in a steel-cage death match with the Post to see which paper can dig up the most dirt on him. But then there are these weird tonal lapses.

The Times and the Post are great papers. The Times features better writing and has a much broader mandate. But the Post’s fierce coverage of national politics and its unapologetic attitude toward Trump have long since made the Post my first read, along with The Boston Globe.

Update. From my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder:

I’m sure that has something to do with it. Yet Trump has been known to pick up the phone and call Post reporters, too. There’s no question that the Times is the paper Trump, a New Yorker, most cares about. I don’t know how much of a factor that is.

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Major errors at The New York Times destroy the premise of two stories

There have been two enormous mistakes in The New York Times this week — errors that completely undermined the premise of the stories.

1. On Monday, Lisa Friedman wrote that government scientists had surreptitiously given her a draft report on climate change because they were concerned that the Trump administration would suppress it. But as Erik Wemple of The Washington Post explained, the report had been publicly available for months, and was even parked at the Internet Archive.

2. On Wednesday, Adam Nagourney reported on an internecine battle among California Democrats that is supposed to tell us something about the struggle between the party’s progressive and establishment wings. It struck me as pretty thin gruel given that we learn both combatants in the bid for party chair, Eric Bauman and Kimberly Ellis, supported Hillary Clinton last year, although Bernie Sanders is supporting Ellis now.

But then we get to the bottom and see this: “An earlier version of this article misstated the candidate Kimberly Ellis supported in the Democratic primary race last year. It was Hillary Clinton, not Senator Bernie Sanders.”

Imagine reading this before the correction was made. It’s a completely different story. It’s not about the continued hostility between Clinton and Sanders supporters at all. As with the climate-change story, it’s the sort of article that might very well not have been published at all if the facts had been clear beforehand.

I know that quite a few copy editors lost their jobs at the Times recently. Could that have something to do with it? Maybe. But the Times still has a larger editing corps than any other paper. Moreover, these kinds of large, conceptual errors strike me as something that have been endemic at the Times for many years. I suspect it has more to do with the culture than the copy editing.

Sounds like a good topic for the public editor. Oh, wait. Never mind.

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Pence’s petulance undescores his tricky relationship with Trump

Mike Pence. Photo (cc) 2015 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Few members of the Trump administration have carried themselves with more unctuous sycophancy than Mike Pence. “Thank you, Mr. President, and just the greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to a president who’s keeping his word to the American people,” the former Indiana governor said at that North Korean-style cabinet meeting back in June. At joint public appearances, Pence gazes at President Trump with a mixture of admiration, gratitude, and sheer astonishment at finding himself just a heartbeat away from the presidency.

But now Trump and Pence may be on the outs. The proximate cause is a New York Times story over the weekend reporting the not especially earthshattering news that Pence is keeping his powder dry in case Trump does not run for re-election in 2020. Much of the article, by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, concerns the 2020 ambitions of Republicans such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. But we also learn that Pence has been unusually active in boosting his political prospects, although he “has made no overt efforts to separate himself from the beleaguered president. He has kept up his relentless public praise and even in private is careful to bow to the president.”

This is all pretty unremarkable stuff. Pence himself, though, erupted as though he had been accused of mocking the size of Trump’s hands, calling the Times article“disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team” as well as “categorically false.” As Chuck Todd of NBC News tweeted, “Sorta stunned that an obvious point from the NYT piece about a sitting VP’s own ambitions appears to be causing Team Pence such heartburn.”

What makes the Times article so sensitive, needless to say, is the nontrivial chance that Pence will be running for president in 2020 as the incumbent. Although it seems unlikely that Trump will be impeached and removed from office, the inexorable progress of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation may well yield the sort of information that could persuade Trump to disappear. It’s a prospect that no doubt gladdens the hearts of congressional Republicans even more than Democrats, since they would be rid of their rage-tweeting ruler and his record low approval ratings. A Pence presidency would give them a chance to start over.

Yet Bill Kristol, a prominent anti-Trump conservative, seems unimpressed with the vice president. Kristol stirred the pot after the Times story was published by tweeting, “It’s bold of Team Pence to plant the front-page NYT story on plans for 2020, then object vociferously. Multi-dimensional chess!” And when Times reporter Maggie Haberman noted that Pence’s over-the-top response would “make one think Pence had committed theft stead of fluffing own brand,” Kristol retorted, “Pence committed the crimes of 1) theft of spotlight from @POTUS and 2) suspicion of less than total subservience to @POTUS even in private.”

Even before the Times story revealed the extent of Pence’s politicking, the vice president’s standing with Trump may have been more fragile than we outsiders imagine. There is, of course, Trump’s one-way definition of loyalty: he demands total fealty and gives back nothing in return. But Pence has also shown that he is not immune to the scent of blood in the water. As the columnist Richard North Patterson observed in The Boston Globe, Pence — whom Patterson described as “an incompetent ideologue, an obsequious toady, and a self-serving schemer” — made it clear to everyone last fall that he was available for the drafting when it looked like the “Access Hollywood” tape might sink Trump’s campaign.

Thus for all the deference Pence has shown, Trump may regard him as someone who is no better than former chief of staff Reince Priebus, who, as head of the Republican Party, reportedly urged Trump to drop out after the tape was exposed by The Washington Post. As an elected official in his own right, Pence, unlike Priebus, can’t be fired by Trump. But that doesn’t mean Pence’s position is entirely safe.

For anyone of moderate or liberal views, a Pence presidency might be even worse than what we’ve got now. Pence is well regarded on Capitol Hill, especially by House Speaker Paul Ryan. He knows how to handle himself in public. And he is an extreme right-wing ideologue who, you can be sure, would stand a far better chance than Trump of rolling back years of progress on issues such as LGBTQ rights and reproductive choice. The Affordable Care Act would once again be in danger. (On the other hand, Trump would no longer have access to the nuclear codes — no small thing given his unstable behavior.)

If there was any doubt, the Times article reminds us that Pence is ambitious. It remains to be seen whether he is ambitious in the way vice presidents normally are or if he is aggressively trying to take advantage of Trump’s weak position. In either case, he’s not going away. Even if Trump wants him to.

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Christopher Caldwell ignores disturbing evidence of Bannon’s bigoted views

Stephen Bannon at CPAC on Friday. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.
Stephen Bannon at CPAC on Friday. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.

Christopher Caldwell, a conservative writer whom I admire, weighs in with a sympathetic profile of Stephen Bannon in today’s New York Times in which he ignores available evidence that Bannon may personally hold racist and anti-Semitic views. (This would be aside from the garbage published by Breitbart News, the alt-right website Bannon headed before joining President Trump’s campaign last summer.) Caldwell writes:

Many accounts of Mr. Bannon paint him as a cartoon villain or internet troll come to life, as a bigot, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a crypto-fascist. The former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, have even called him a “white nationalist.” While he is certainly a hard-line conservative of some kind, the evidence that he is an extremist of a more troubling sort has generally been either massaged, misread or hyped up.

The trouble with Caldwell’s attempt to blow past the alleged caricature and tell us about the real Steve Bannon is that there is, in fact, well-known, on-the-record evidence that contradicts Caldwell’s sanguine views.

Perhaps Caldwell’s most disingenuous ploy is to enlist Julia Jones, a liberal screenwriter and former collaborator of Bannon’s. Caldwell writes: “She regrets that Mr. Bannon ‘has found a home in nationalism.’ But she does not believe he is any kind of anarchist, let alone a racist.”

Now, this is not the first time that Jones has been quoted in the Times to the effect that Bannon is not a racist. The last time, though, we got the full context, and it turns out that Jones’ view of what constitutes not being a racist is rather different from the standard definition. This is from a profile of Bannon by Scott Shane that the Times published on Nov. 27:

Ms. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.

“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’”

I realize that this is hearsay. But it comes from a friendly source, and there hasn’t been a single suggestion since Shane’s story was published that either Jones or Bannon disputes the accuracy of that particular anecdote.

As for whether Bannon is an anti-Semite, well, it’s complicated. His chief ally within the White House is said to be Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who is Jewish. As Caldwell and others have noted, Bannon reserves his real animus for Muslims. Nevertheless, there is the matter of a sworn deposition by Bannon’s ex-wife, Mary Louise Piccard, in which she claims that Bannon assaulted her because he was upset that she was sending their daughters to a private school with too many Jews.

Jesse Singal, writing last Nov. 15 in New York magazine, did a good job of gathering together what we know about Bannon and the Jews. As Singal noted, Piccard’s statement did come in the midst of a nasty custody battle, and Bannon has denied ever saying such a thing. But it’s been confirmed that there was a domestic incident around that time. And it’s also been confirmed that Bannon once asked the director of a school “why there were so many Chanukah book in the library,” as Piccard put it. (What’s unclear is whether the question was friendly or hostile.)

A friendly source saying on the record that Bannon talked about the genetic superiority of some people and said it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if many African-Americans were banned from voting. Disturbing suggestions that Bannon has expressed anti-Semitic views. I would say these are more than “hyped up” charges, as Caldwell puts it. The fact that we are talking about President Trump’s right-hand man makes them pretty damn alarming.

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The Times wants you to know that not all black women are drug addicts or criminals

What the holy hell is this?

On Tuesday, The New York Times published a story headlined “Why Women Quit Working: It’s Not for the Reasons Men Do.” It is illustrated with a photo of a woman named Krystin Stevenson, who is black and has dropped out of the work force. And we learn:

At 31 with two children, she doesn’t turn her nose up at jobs that are considered women’s work. She hasn’t been swallowed by the wildfire of opioid addiction, dogged by a brush with the law or sidelined with a disability after years of heaving loads in manufacturing or construction.

Yes, if we’re reporting on the life of an African-American, we’d better establish right up front that she’s not a drug addict or a criminal. Because. Well, you know.

As it turned out, Stevenson stopped working because her mother got sick and was no longer able to help with the kids. Stevenson’s situation, Times reporter Patricia Cohen tells us, is emblematic of a broader trend.

But wow, that set-up. How did it ever get past an editor?

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The legend of the New York Times and the Bay of Pigs

At Cuba's Bay of Pigs Museum. Photo (cc) by Lens Envy.
At Cuba’s Bay of Pigs Museum. Photo (cc) 2014 by Lens Envy.

The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion—a failed US-backed attempt by Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro—is often cited as an example of how the New York Timesshamefully flinched in the face of pressure from the White House, thus helping to enable a foreign-policy catastrophe.

If only the Times had revealed everything it knew beforehand, so this line of reasoning goes, the Kennedy administration might have backed down from its disastrous scheme. President John F. Kennedy himself contributed to the legend, telling the Times’s managing editor, Turner Catledge, some months later: “If you had printed more about the operation you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.”

The problem with this narrative is that it’s not true—not exactly, anyway. Though the Times did withhold a couple of key details, on April 7 of that year it published a front-page story, above the fold, reporting that US-trained rebels were prepared to invade Cuba, and that the operation could begin at any time. Ten days later, the anti-Castro forces were routed on the beach.

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