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A.G. Sulzberger vs. The New York Times
The man has a lot of good ideas about journalism. If only he were in a position of authority to do something about it.
Two years ago, I wrote about the “borderline psychopathic” approach to journalism espoused by The New York Times’ chief White House correspondent Peter Baker and senior political correspondent Maggie Haberman:
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If you’ve spent years doing this, you train yourself to basically stop thinking like a real person, and to think like a journalist. Some of us choose not to vote. I don’t vote, even in the privacy of a polling booth, because it helps me stay as neutral as possible. In my own mind I’ve never made up whether this person is better than that person for the job. It doesn’t mean I’m not biased — we all are — but that’s how I try.
It’s the same as Peter — I try really to just basically remove myself from any semblance of real personage.
Well, it turns out I’m not the only one who finds this vision of journalism “a parody of the long debate over objectivity,” because that’s exactly how New York Times publisher2 A.G. Sulzberger describes this reportorial approach in a recent New Yorker interview with David Remnick:
One of the things that’s misunderstood about independence is that it doesn’t require you not to have a theory of the case, right? My great-grandfather had a line that he often quoted: “I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out”...
The posture of independence is not about being a blank slate. It’s not about having no life experience, no personal perspectives. That is an impossible ask. That’s a parody of the long debate over objectivity. The idea of objectivity, as it was originally formulated, wasn’t about the person’s innate characteristics. It was about the process that helped address the inherent biases that all of us carry in our lives. So the question isn’t “Do you have any view?” The question is “Are you animated by an open mind, a skeptical mind, and a commitment to following the facts wherever they lead?”…
The key isn’t being a blank slate. It’s not that you don’t have a theory going into any story. It’s a willingness to put the facts above any individual agenda.
Expounding on this same philosophy last month, Sulzberger wrote an essay for the Columbia Journalism Review titled “Journalism’s Essential Value.” In it, the Times publisher argued persuasively for the value of what he called “journalistic independence:”
Independence is the increasingly contested journalistic commitment to following facts wherever they lead. It places the truth—and the search for it with an open yet skeptical mind—above all else…
Independence doesn’t mean that a reporter has to be a blank slate.
This dissonance between Times reporters and its publisher is part of what makes the newspaper such an infuriating product for those of us who read its output closely: its own key personalities can’t seem to agree on its mission.
And their misalignment of objectives goes beyond an aloof publisher apparently divorced from his newsroom’s day-to-day operations. Here, for example, is then-executive editor Dean Baquet speaking at a 2019 event about Donald Trump’s use of social media:
It’s now so frequent, mostly we don’t cover the Tweets. Mostly the Tweets are repeats or baits. We cover the Tweets when he says something that affects policy, or when he says something outrageous. If he just criticizes, you know, a political candidate, it doesn’t feel newsworthy.
And here, published just two days after Baquet’s comment, is an entire Times article devoted to Trump calling Congressman Justin Amash a “loser” on Twitter:
And here was another piece seven days after that:
Indeed, Sulzberger’s laudable vision for journalism, as espoused in his lengthy CJR essay, is at times almost comically unrecognizable to anyone with a passing familiarity with the newspaper he publishes.
Times political reporters routinely write stories so stripped of historical and political context — indeed, devoid even of basic common sense — that they run brazenly afoul of Sulzberger’s “open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out” edict.
Take this Jeremy Peters article, for example:
This was published about six and a half months ago. In the article, whose central thesis is that Elon Musk’s politics are difficult to pin down, Peters describes Musk as “ever a bundle of contradictions and inconsistencies” and a figure who “continues to defy easy political categorization.” In the same piece, Peters nevertheless recounts that Musk:
endorsed Ron DeSantis for president in 2024
reinstated Donald Trump and formerly banned racists (like Kanye West) on Twitter
got into a Twitter spat with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
described COVID prevention measures as “fascist”
spread a baseless conspiracy theory about Nancy Pelosi’s husband after he was assaulted in his home
promoted allegations about Hunter Biden
linked to a Department of Justice report that claimed Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri did not have his hands raised when he was killed by a police officer
Exactly which facet of “journalistic independence” is served by this blatheringly willful ignorance of Musk’s politics?
Or take the newspaper’s commitment to accuracy and the avoidance of conflicts of interest. The Times (at times) quietly updates factually incorrect or unproven statements without issuing corrections. It publishes entire articles which serve as sheepish yet formally unacknowledged corrections to previous articles from the very day before. Its headlines and newsletters contradict each other. It concludes articles with uncontested and uncontextualized quotes by partisans spouting blatant disinformation. (Sulzberger in CJR: “We correct our errors openly because mistakes should be transparent and, honestly, painful.”)
Its reporters post false information on Twitter and never withdraw them. (Sulzberger: “…The obvious dissonance between the carefulness of some reporters’ published work and their informal, sometimes injudicious social media commentary have exacerbated the sense that standards are shifting.”)
Its star host of The Daily podcast, Michael Barbaro, devoted an episode to questioning executive editor Dean Baquet over the retracted podcast series Caliphate without disclosing that his own then-fiancee was the executive producer on it.
The Times’ opinion writers publish easily falsifiable false information. (Sulzberger: “The best opinion writing embraces many of the same values as an independent newsroom—with columnists and other opinion writers using reporting, analysis, and expertise to inform their work and editors holding it to high standards of accuracy, fairness, and intellectual rigor.”)
But it is the Times’ political desk that stands apart as an ongoing masterclass in both-sidesism and obfuscation. Last month Carl Hulse asked a good question about the latest manufactured debt ceiling crisis — “Is it the Biden default? Or the Republican Default on America?” — and then proceeded to misinform his readers about both parties’ complicity for the duration of the piece, prompting no less an “objectivity” stan than Jonathan Chait to devote an entire piece to this “Platonic ideal of ‘both sides’ reporting.” (Sulzberger: “There is good reason to disparage a model that elevates a pantomime of fairness over demonstrations of good judgment. It’s lazy journalism that fails readers and is easily exploited by bad-faith actors.”)
In 2019, as the House prepared to vote on Donald Trump’s first impeachment, Michael D. Shear wrote an astonishingly lazy, fact-free article consisting of he-said, she-said quotes about the impeachment’s central issue — withholding aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigating Joe Biden’s family — in which the facts were remarkably clear because there was a public transcript of the call in question. Metaphorically throwing up his hands, Shear nevertheless summarized: “Even for members of a profession who are used to talking past each other, it was striking how unwilling both Republicans and Democrats on the committee were to concede even an inch to the other side.”
Times political reporters gleefully engage in political forecasting, wishcasting, and — most alarmingly — issuing explicit guidance to partisan political actors on how to exploit the media environment that Times reporters themselves are helping to shape. (Sulzberger: Newspapers “have often felt compelled to shift increasingly scarce resources away from expensive original reporting to far cheaper but less journalistically nutritious efforts like punditry, aggregation, and clickbait…Reporting—not commentary or aggregation—is the essential ingredient of new ideas and new insights.”)
Earlier this year, for example, Peter Baker ludicrously equated Trump’s deliberate post-presidential hoarding of secret government documents — an act that has now led in part to a 37-count indictment — to the discovery of documents in Joe Biden’s home, despite admitting that “Mr. Biden has cooperated with the authorities, inviting them to search his home, while Mr. Trump defied efforts to recover documents even after being subpoenaed.”
Baker’s article, many of whose prognostications now appear laughably off the mark in hindsight, consisted in large part of unsubstantiated political speculation about hypothetical scenarios, and even provided suggestions for future partisan political attacks:
The discovery of documents at Biden’s home “has effectively let former President Donald J. Trump off the hook for hoarding secret papers.”
“As a practical matter Democrats can no longer use the issue against Mr. Trump politically, and investigators may have a harder time prosecuting him criminally.”
The line between Trump’s and Biden’s actions “will be even blurrier if additional drip-drip-drip revelations from Mr. Biden’s case produce more damaging information.”
“The public perception that everyone does it will only be fueled by the latest discovery of classified documents at the Indiana home of former Vice President Mike Pence.”
“Moreover, at the end of the day, Mr. Garland will still make the final call on what to do about both cases, inviting attacks for a double standard if he were to issue charges in one instance and not the other.”
Making predictions that age badly is a mini-cottage industry of sorts for Baker3, whose job is ostensibly covering the White House, not playing political bookie. Describing then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s strategy during the viciously contested Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh in late September 2018, Baker wrote:
But if Democrats win [the midterms], it would be hard for Mr. McConnell to proceed with confirmation during the lame-duck session given that he blocked Mr. Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland before the 2016 election by arguing that the vacant seat should be filled according to the will of the voters. By doing so, he saved the seat for Mr. Trump to fill last year with Judge Neil M. Gorsuch.
The absurdity of relying on McConnell as a good-faith interlocutor, given his extensive history of duplicity, was immediately obvious. (And not just to me.) Of course, less than two weeks after Baker’s article, The Washington Post reported that McConnell “signaled Monday that he would help fill a high-court vacancy if one emerges when President Trump is up for reelection in 2020.”
The following May, McConnell was even more explicit:
Speaking at a Paducah Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Kentucky, McConnell was asked by an attendee, “Should a Supreme Court justice die next year, what will your position be on filling that spot?”
The leader took a long sip of what appeared to be iced tea before announcing with a smile, “Oh, we’d fill it,” triggering loud laughter from the audience.
How was it infinitely easier for me, a random New York Times subscriber, to immediately comprehend what McConnell was going to do than it was for the guy whose entire career is centered on understanding these sorts of things? What value am I obtaining from my subscription here? Perhaps this is all downstream of Baker’s curious decision to “train yourself to basically stop thinking like a real person.” (True to his word, following Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in 2020, McConnell did fill the seat.)
But Baker’s vapid political speculation is in excellent company at the Times. In 2019, the day before special counsel Robert Mueller appeared before Congress to testify about his report on Donald Trump, Baker and his colleague Sheryl Gay Stolberg treated it as a parlor game: “But for all the anticipation, for all the fighting that it took to get to this day, many in Washington assume it will be more fizzle than sizzle.” (In a self-parodic Times-ian twist, the piece cited “a completely unscientific survey of out-of-town diners in a House cafeteria.”) Stolberg then tweeted her punditry victory lap the next day: “It may be too soon to say, ‘I told you so’…but [Peter Baker] and I reported [t]his morning that Mueller seemed unlikely to make news or change any minds.”
Indeed, as Mueller testified before Congress, Times political reporters on its liveblog alternately mocked the significance of the proceedings — an odd posture for an event to which their own employer had assigned no fewer than nine (!) reporters for live commentary — prognosticated about political fallout, covered for extremist Republicans, drew false equivalence between the Benghazi and Mueller investigations, and even coached partisan actors on how they should exploit the hearing:
Adam Goldman: “[GOP Congressman Louie] Gohmert’s exchange could have been worse. Many were expecting him to go off the rails.”
Katie Benner: “If the Republicans are smart, they’ll use the remainder of their time to air conservative conspiracy theories and to attack the special counsel’s office, now knowing that Mueller will not in any way push back.”
Adam Goldman: “Jordan says the Democrats want to keep investigating collusion. The Republicans know that playbook. They did the same thing with Benghazi.”
Nicholas Fandos: “My feeling is that this will give impeachment a brief bump, but the gains will not be durable in the August doldrums.”
Perhaps even all of these sins could be forgiven if the Times at least lived up to its publisher’s primary objective as elucidated in his CJR essay:
Journalists hold power to account by exposing corruption and abuse. Journalists reveal injustice and inequality. Their work regularly leads to a society that is freer, fairer, and more just.
But what the Times does in reality, over and over again, is cover for those in power and those it favors — whether that affinity be political, cultural, socioeconomic, or otherwise4 — adopt their preferred framing, take their (often questionable) statements at face value, and hide behind exculpatory euphemism even when facts are freely available.
To be fair to Sulzberger, the Times’ proclivity to pull punches when covering powerful subjects started well before he was in charge. In 2011, the Times’ executive editor at the time, Bill Keller, explained the newspaper’s reticence to use the word “torture” to describe the George W. Bush administration’s policy of waterboarding suspected terrorists:
For his part, Mr. Keller affirms that The Times has not “banished the word ‘torture,’ but we are careful how we use it” and avoid its use in contexts where it might appear The Times is taking sides.
Expounding on this principle several years later, Keller wrote:
Of course, I regard waterboarding as torture. But if a journalist gives me a vivid description of waterboarding, notes the long line of monstrous regimes that have practiced it, and then lays out the legal debate over whether it violates a specific statute or international accord, I don’t care whether he uses the word or not. I’m happy — and fully equipped — to draw my own conclusion.
This philosophical tap dance predictably resulted in the paper of record adopting the preferred vocabulary of the very Bush administration whose atrocities it was ostensibly covering. This practice is all the more eerie for its familiar echoes years later in Dean Baquet’s defense (in a 2019 Atlantic interview) of the Times’ Trump-era timidity in using the words “racist” and “lie:”
My view is that we are always better off telling and laying out comments rather than characterizing them. All the best journalism I have read about race and racism—and I grew up in the South—is usually describing what people say, and I think that’s a lot more powerful than to just use the word racist loosely. I think the same is true of lie. I think it is much more powerful to describe what someone says with some historical perspective than it is to use the word. I just do. I know many people disagree with me, and I understand that. But that’s my own view.
Leaving aside these arguments’ merits — which we shouldn’t: it is no coincidence that these “principles” accrue to the benefit of people in power — there is at minimum a fascinating continuity between Keller’s and Baquet’s defense of the Times’ (ahem) tortured use of language. So is it true? That is, is the Times-ian euphemistic house style at least consistent over time as relating to, say, its coverage of torture?
It turns out the answer is a definitive no. A 2010 Harvard paper, “Torture at Times: Waterboarding in the Media,” examined newspapers’ coverage of waterboarding in the wake of the George W. Bush administration’s extensive use of it:
From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject…
By contrast, from 2002-2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%)…
In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible.
The statistics cited here are stark. In short, the closer the story got to home — both geographically and in terms of the Times’ cultural and political proximity to the powerful subjects of its articles — the more extreme became the paper’s contortion of vocabulary in an effort to avoid using plain language. This phenomenon became so widely observed at the time that it inspired Boing Boing to create an interactive (but sadly no longer functional) “New York Times Torture Euphemism Generator.”
Bizarrely, Sulzberger once again appears to be blissfully unaware of all of this history, claiming:
Journalists today use plainer language, show a greater willingness to expose lies, and produce more analytical work grounded in their own reporting and expertise, even when doing so opens them up to calls of bias. While that shift was already well underway, it was solidified through the norm-shattering presidency of Trump, whose statements—whether they were about crowd sizes, the birthplace of his predecessor, the COVID pandemic, or election results—were often demonstrably untrue and were typically called out as such without euphemism or counterpoint.
This is a strange statement to make, particularly because Baquet’s above-mentioned defense of fuzzier language5 — “I think it is much more powerful to describe what someone says with some historical perspective than it is to use the word [lie]” — took place well over halfway into the Trump presidency and was a near-identical restatement of TimesTalks comments he had made during the Trump administration’s first year.
It actually gets worse. In that same 2019 Atlantic interview (as well as in an earlier 2016 conversation with NPR), Baquet proffered a revealing peek into what it took to finally break the Times’ reticence to use the word “lie” — the fact that Donald Trump himself had admitted to doing so:
Well, we use the word lie, and we were among the first ones to use the word lie. And that was when, during the campaign, Trump acknowledged that he had been lying when he said that he had evidence that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. I think that was a moment when it was important for us to use the word lie on the front page of the paper.
It is difficult not to draw the obvious conclusion: the Times will hesitate to call something a “lie” until and unless its subject admits to it. One need not be a journalist to understand how this is an entirely unsuitable version of Sulzberger’s “journalistic independence,” particularly so in an age of charlatans, grifters, and demagogues. If the journalists Sulzberger commends are truly using plainer language today, his own newspaper’s masthead appears to have not only collectively missed the memo, but is in fact actively resisting the practice.6
This is so self-evidently true that it has repeatedly caught the attention of other journalists. In 2019, for example, CNN reported:
Unlike some other major newsrooms, more than two years into Trump’s presidency, The Times has not plainly labeled Trump’s series of racist actions and statements as such. Instead, Baquet has opted to explain what Trump has said, allowing readers to decide for themselves whether they consider his comments racist.
That CNN article was centered around a Times headline, “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism,” that faced a deluge of criticism for its head-scratching credulousness about Trump’s response to a pair of mass shootings (in which he restated now-ritualized generic Republican talking points about violent video games and social media while ignoring the role of guns).
The headline proved so glaringly unfit for purpose that the Times changed it and uncharacteristically published an apologetic article acknowledging the backlash, Baquet acquiesced to the aforementioned Atlantic interview as part of an informal mea culpa tour, and he even held an internal Times town hall to address employee anger, where (per CNN) “he explained his position, that it is more powerful to show the reader Trump’s actions than to merely attach a label to them” — the antithesis of Sulzberger’s embrace of “plainer language,” with the publisher himself inexplicably at Baquet’s side.
Weirder still, even this Baquet edict isn’t adhered to with any consistency by the Times newsroom. This 2020 piece describes Trump’s “remarks widely seen as racist,” but links to another Times article in which the retweet in question is described more plainly as a “racist video.” Similarly, in 2018 the Technology section referred to Trump’s 2015 proposed Muslim ban as “racist sentiment,” while the Times’ original reporting at the time simply described it as “an extraordinary escalation of rhetoric…and an idea more typically associated with hate groups.” And this 2019 piece originally quoted Democrats calling Trump’s comments “a racist trope” (demurring to use bluntly factual language in its reporting unless it can be attributed to someone else is itself a New York Times trope), but was then quietly updated to use the more confusing and unattributed description of “that insult, which was widely established as a racist trope.” The Times’ commitment to avoiding plain language on racism at times borders on lunacy.
But the Times’ problem with power extends well beyond its (non-)use of words like “lie” or “racist.” Times reporters go out of their way to provide political cover for powerful or favored (often — although not always — Republican) subjects. Last June, for example, in an article about former Trump aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s explosive testimony on the January 6th insurrection, reporters Michael C. Bender and Maggie Haberman allotted space right at the top — in the second and third paragraphs — to grant anonymity to Trump allies solely to pooh-pooh the significance of Hutchinson’s allegations: “some confidants of the former president said they doubted whether the testimony…ranked particularly high in the pantheon of controversies” and “one Trump associate…[acknowledged] that it painted a picture of Mr. Trump as unhinged on Jan. 6 but saying that this should surprise no one at this point.”7
Elsewhere, the political desk ignores uncomfortable stories entirely. When the writer E. Jean Carroll first accused Donald Trump of raping her — a claim which was partially validated last month when she won her civil case against him, and she’s now in the midst of another one — The New York Times covered her claim under its Books section. (Baquet later admitted that the newspaper had “underplayed the article.”)
When Donald Trump was indicted by Manhattan prosecutors this March, Peter Baker devoted his extensive concern not to Trump’s allegedly unlawful behavior, but to the novelty of indicting a former president: “That taboo has been broken. A new precedent has been set.” Not until the twenty-second paragraph did Baker finally get around to acknowledging that democracies have routinely, and even recently, charged their leaders with crimes, citing Israel, Italy, France, South Korea, and Taiwan.
The Times repeated this pattern for Trump’s second indictment this month. The first sentence of its primary article on the indictment began: “The Justice Department on Thursday took the legally and politically momentous step of lodging federal criminal charges against former President Donald J. Trump…” After very briefly listing the charges, the reporters continued (in the fourth paragraph) to emphasize that the indictment “puts the nation in an extraordinary position.”
As some noted, this is not the framing the same newspaper used two days later in reporting the arrest of Scotland’s former first minister Nicola Sturgeon. Once again, The New York Times had pulled its punches on domestic political subjects while covering similar news from abroad far more straightforwardly:
As Trump has blasted through norm after norm (and broken not a few laws along the way, per recent indictments), the Times has repeatedly recast his and his allies’ unprecedented attacks on democratic institutions as run-of-the-mill political behavior:
A piece centered on House Democrats’ demands for Trump’s tax returns and then-Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s subsequent refusal completely omitted the fact that the House clearly possessed the legal right to do so. (This relevant information was instead published by the editorial board in an opinion piece.)
With the 2020 election in full swing, Trump blocked funds for the U.S. Postal Service out of fears that Democrats’ mail-in ballot advantage would cause him to lose to Joe Biden. The Times covered this as “Trump Admits Postal Service Needs Billions for Mail-In Voting,” while The Washington Post was unafraid to spell out the obvious impact: “Trump says he’s blocking postal funds because Democrats want to expand mail-in voting.”
When Hope Hicks was issued a subpoena to appear before Congress, Maggie Haberman’s article — headlined “Hope Hicks Left the White House. Now She Must Decide Whether to Talk to Congress.” — presented her lawfully compelled duty as a choice. Hicks, Haberman wrote, “is facing a crucial question: whether to comply with a congressional subpoena in the coming weeks.”
A mere two days before the January 6th insurrection, which was prompted by Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to violate the Constitution by refusing to certify Joe Biden’s victory, The New York Times headlined a highly sympathetic article on Pence’s potential options — to break the law or not — with the headline “Pence’s Choice: Side With the Constitution or His Boss.”
Other than Donald Trump himself, perhaps no one benefited more from the Times’ relentless mission to flatter its sources than Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner. In piece after piece, the Times depicted the extremely PR-conscious couple — once a mainstay in the casually liberal New York social scene and clearly desperate to remain in its good standing — as alternately upset by, uninvolved with, or even helping to mitigate the politics of the president they nevertheless both worked for, despite the gaping lack of evidence of any moderating impact:
Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman, October 30, 2018 (“Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner Shape Trump’s Pittsburgh Response”): “His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who keeps a photograph of his grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, in his West Wing office, and a mezuza on the doorway, as well as his daughter Ivanka, who converted to Judaism to marry Mr. Kushner, have quietly and persistently shaped the president’s response to one of the nation’s deadliest cases of anti-Semitism.”
Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman, August 19, 2019 (“After Lobbying by Gun Rights Advocates, Trump Sounds a Familiar Retreat”): “Behind the scenes, Ivanka Trump, the president’s elder daughter and senior adviser, has been talking to lawmakers like Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, helping out a depleted White House legislative affairs team that has recently had major departures. Ms. Trump favors passing legislation on background checks, but her involvement on the issue is not welcomed by most Republicans, who privately say the perception of her as a liberal voice in Mr. Trump’s circle will not help them sell more aggressive measures in their states.”
Peter Baker, June 8, 2022 (“How Jared Kushner Washed His Hands of Donald Trump Before Jan. 6”): “No matter how vociferously Mr. Trump claimed otherwise, neither Mr. Kushner nor Ivanka Trump believed then or later that the election had been stolen, according to people close to them…[On January 6] Ivanka Trump had spent much of the day trying to keep her father from going too far. She had refused to address the rally on the Ellipse but at the last minute was so concerned by her father’s anger toward Mr. Pence that she decided to accompany him there in hopes of avoiding a worse clash. Over the following hours, as rioters rampaged through the Capitol, she ran up and down the stairs in the West Wing from her office to the Oval Office hoping to persuade her father to issue stronger statements calling off the attackers. By the time Mr. Kushner finally arrived at the White House, his wife had gotten her father to release a video telling supporters to go home.”
Trump’s pliable attorney general, Bill Barr, received similarly credulous coverage despite a multitude of lies. After his confirmation hearing, the Times article emphasized his vague promise to let Special Counsel Robert Mueller continue his Trump investigation, while other publications (like The Guardian, pictured above) focused on the more specific details of what that could actually mean in practice.
When Barr then mothballed Mueller’s final report for nearly a month and instead released his own highly misleading four-page summary imputing far less misconduct by Trump, the Times gleefully fell for Barr’s ersatz version, claiming that “the release of the findings was a significant political victory for Mr. Trump and lifted a cloud that has hung over his presidency since before he took the oath of office.”
Only after the full report was finally released did the Times begin to view Barr’s truthfulness with skepticism, acknowledging that he “took Mr. Mueller’s words out of context.” In a separate piece, the Times again found that Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report was “a sparse and occasionally misleading representation of their exhaustive findings” and it “made the report appear far less damning for the president than it turned out to be.” Taken together, these findings effectively refuted the entirety of the Times’ uncritical initial reporting from the month prior. (It hasn’t been corrected.)
The next year, when U.S. attorney for Manhattan Geoffrey Berman was fired, the Times had clearly learned nothing from these earlier episodes. Once again its reporters adopted Bill Barr’s framing that it was Trump who had personally ordered Berman’s firing — which Trump immediately denied. Other national newspapers, having learned from their earlier scars not to unreservedly believe Barr’s interpretation of any event, were far more circumspect about who had actually carried it out:
And even days after the 2020 presidential election had ended, as Republicans’ lies and conspiracy theories about voter fraud began to percolate, the Times once again framed Bill Barr’s complicity with Trump’s attempted coup as standard political business: “Barr Hands Prosecutors the Authority to Investigate Voter Fraud Claims,” its headline read.
And thus reading Sulzberger’s essay in the context of this blizzard of bad reporting from the newspaper he oversees is a whiplash-inducing experience. He admirably acknowledges the dangers of both-sidesism (although he misses the mark on its severity today) — and in so doing is more persuasive than most members of the Times’ masthead, who prefer to pretend the phenomenon doesn’t exist. He writes powerfully about journalism’s imperative to cover uncomfortable and politically awkward stories. He defends original reporting and rigorous fact-checking, and he believes in having “an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”
You could be forgiven for wondering, therefore, whether the cognitive dissonance between the brand of journalism he praises and the daily reality of the newspaper he publishes would be enough to make A.G. Sulzberger want to cancel his subscription. But given the yawning chasm between the two models, it’s not clear he has one to cancel in the first place.
Unless otherwise noted, bolded phrases in quotes are my own emphasis, not the speaker’s.
And, it must be said, nepo baby. To his credit, A.G. is well aware of this, writing in his recent Columbia Journalism Review essay: “Let me first acknowledge that my background may make me uniquely, perhaps even comically, unpersuasive as a participant in this particular debate. I am the publisher of one of the most scrutinized media institutions in the world; a wealthy white man who succeeded a series of other wealthy white men with the same first and last name; and someone whose family has starred in a full century of shadowy media conspiracy theories.”
In addition to his questionable predictions, Baker has a long and storied pedigree in casting Republicans in the best possible light. In his 2013 book Days of Fire, he memorably summarized the George W. Bush presidency thusly: “The unnecessary controversies combined with the devastating misjudgments in Iraq ended up detracting from what otherwise might have been a solid record for the 43rd president.” One imagines that, aside from a few unnecessary diversions, Mrs. Lincoln might similarly have enjoyed her visit to Ford’s Theatre.
The New York Times’ inexplicable sympathy for alleged white-collar criminal Sam Bankman-Fried probably deserves its own newsletter.
At the same event, the Times’ then-media columnist Jim Rutenberg concurred with Baquet: “You don’t want it to feel like name-calling.”
This is, to my knowledge, the only #Resistance The New York Times has ever joined, Dean Baquet’s many straw men notwithstanding.