What’s happening with The New York Times?
For a paper with exceedingly high standards – the best newspaper ever, in my view – it’s making too many mistakes, some of which play right into the small hands of media demonizer Donald Trump.
These are not just errors of “terminological inexactitude” to borrow a Winston Churchill expression. As the recent example of an essay about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh published in The Times illustrates, it’s far more serious.
The Times’s brand is built on trustworthiness. Confidence in its accuracy, the integrity of its reportage, reason over emotion, historical perspective. But its trustworthiness is taking a pounding not just because of the choleric onslaught by Mr. Trump and his multitudes on the populist right but as a result of its own carelessness.
It’s a distressing development. If it comes to the point where you can’t trust The New York Times, who can you trust?
The country’s other great newspaper is The Washington Post. Given the input of resources from billionaire owner Jeff Bezos, it now rivals The Times for quality and influence. You can make a good argument that it has become a better paper. But it doesn’t have the tradition of trust The Times has earned.
In its latest embarrassment, two New York Times reporters co-authored an essay adapted from their forthcoming book about Justice Kavanaugh that said a university classmate of his, Max Stier, told senators and the FBI before Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing that he allegedly saw Justice Kavanaugh exposing himself to a woman at a Yale dorm party as an undergraduate decades ago. What was missing from the essay was the part that said the alleged victim could not recall the incident and that she declined to be interviewed and she hadn’t mentioned any such incident to friends.
The story-deflating information didn’t get inserted into the piece until after the damage was done. The Times also had to issue an apology for promoting the adapted excerpt on Twitter by saying some guy thrusting his penis in someone’s face at a dorm party “may seem like harmless fun.”
Mr. Trump made great hay of this, of course, but the condemnations weren’t limited to the right of the political spectrum. Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, by no means a Trump supporter, “could not believe” the paper had made such a glaring omission. The news value of The New York Times story – that the FBI had received the Stier information but didn’t follow up on it during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings – was lost.
If this was a big one-off blunder for The Times, okay. The problem is that it followed several other botch jobs by the paper of record. To cite just a couple, there was the example of it running a positive headline that summed up a Trump speech after the Texas mass shooting as “Trump urges unity vs. racism.” Following a raft of complaints from left-leaning readers that the headline was too positive, it changed it to a negative headline – “Assailing hate but not guns” – for later editions.
In 2017, the paper ran a story that falsely implied the White House would “change or suppress” a climate-change report. The problem? The draft report had been available online for months.
The Times also had to correct a story that alleged 17 intelligence agencies believed Russia was responsible for election interference. In reality, there was nowhere near that number; the assessment was made by four agencies.
Many agree that while there may not have been serious errors in The Times’s reporting on the Russian collusion story – nothing, for example, like its reporter Judith Miller being led around by the nose by Dick Cheney on the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – the tenor of its coverage in so many front-page headlines pointed too heavily in the direction of Trump culpability.
In the online media culture, opinion journalism is taking over. It’s difficult to maintain an image of objectivity. CNN doesn’t even try. Many reports on The Times’s front page, in contrast to the old days, are news analyses. Some are titled as such. Many aren’t but should be.
The Trump presidency brings with it an impoverishment of standards. If he can make thousands of misstatements, untruths, monumental exaggerations and get away with them – as he has with a big slice of the population – it is the obvious consequence. There is no right or wrong, only people claiming things are right and wrong. Only those who shout the loudest.
As a newspaper of integrity, The New York Times has always been the leading bulwark against this kind of sophistry. To continue to function in that critical role, it has to stop giving Mr. Trump ammunition. It has to up its game.
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