Both Sides!

As much as I love my NYT, one thing I don’t actually read a lot of is there basic Trump/national politics reporting.  Talk about “both sides!” bias to the extreme.  Terrific column from Dan Froomkin laying this out in extensive detail.  Also worth following the link to the article where there’s a ton of great embedded tweets on the issue.

The New York Times’s three-year struggle to sustain its reporting algorithms, built for two political parties that have comparable relationships to reality, collapsed into sordid heap of nonsense over the weekend.

The two central political truths of the moment are the profound asymmetry between the parties – one relying mostly on facts and the other trafficking almost entirely in deceit and division — and the wildly abnormal nature of the Trump presidency.

But smart, capable Times reporters, corrupted by an editorial regime that prevents them from acknowledging those elemental truths, over the last few days put forth such epically, historically bad examples of pox-on-both-your-houses, boring-what-else-is-new, and self-contradictory political coverage that press critics on social media – including several former Times editors — were appropriately united in despair.

The fault, at the end of the day, clearly lies with New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, who has frequently defended the Times’s political coverage as appropriately non-confrontational and measured.

This is a collapse of leadership, and a disaster for American journalism at the most critical moment imaginable.

As I tweeted on Sunday, if you’d asked Times editors five years ago whether people who deny basic facts, traffic in conspiracy theories, demonize immigrants and otherwise fight against a pluralistic society should be given equal (or more than equal) time in their news columns, they would have said no.

Trump’s election doesn’t change the truth. What it did change was the way Baquet triangulates. And it shouldn’t have…

Exhibit A for Failure:

Michael Shear’s Saturday front-pager, “The Breach Widens as Congress Nears a Partisan Impeachment,” was about the “different impeachment realities that the two parties are living in.”

It established a new low in “both sides” reporting, which is really saying something. A few sample paragraphs:

Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, described Mr. Trump’s July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine one way, saying it “shows that the president tried to get President Zelensky to interfere in the upcoming presidential election.” His Republican colleague, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, saw it differently: “We saw the call transcript, and there is no conditionality.”

And after Representative Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona, said it was “clear” that Mr. Trump cared about rooting out corruption in Ukraine, Representative Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California, scoffed: “The president never brings up corruption.”

How can anyone write something like that and not take sides?

Okay, here’s one terrific tweet featured therein:

What are the biggest differences between the Clinton and Trump impeachments? Well, if you ask me, for starters:

  1. Clinton’s offense didn’t involve the abuse of power to pervert the electoral process for personal gain.
  2. Members of his party actually listened to the evidence against him and quite a few of them found it persuasive.
  3. The public was soundly opposed to his impeachment.

But no, for Baker, the biggest difference is that this one is boring:

Back in 1998, the impeachment battle felt like the ultimate drama, so intense that the rest of the world seemed to have stopped spinning on its axis, yet so fluid and suspenseful that it was never entirely certain how it would play out.

This time it feels like one more chapter in an all-out clash that has been fought for three years, hugely consequential yet of a piece with everything that has come before, with less suspense and an outcome seemingly foreordained.

So there’s no suspense because the Republicans are paralyzed by unthinking fealty. And relative to everything else, it’s nothing special.

It’s almost like Baker’s saying: Three years of normalizing the Trump presidency, and we’re going to stop now?

There was plenty of false equivalence to go around in Baker’s piece as well. For instance, he actually likened Ken Starr, the obsessive independent counsel who relentless pursued the Clintons for over three years before springing a successful perjury trap, and Rep. Adam Schiff, who led a short, fact-based inquiry into bribery and abuse of power that he really had no choice but to launch.

And yet arguably the most poisonous assertion in Baker’s story was that, compared to the case against Clinton, the case against Trump is “for many Americans a little esoteric.”

There is nothing remotely esoteric – defined as “intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest” – about what Trump has done. If only a small number of people understand it, the fault lies with the people whose job it is to help the public understand…

The Times and Trump are inextricably bound. The paper arguably helped him get elected by over-covering Hillary Clinton’s scandals and under-covering Trump’s. Trump rewarded it by calling it the enemy of the people.

Subscriptions surged after the election as readers craved solid reporting. And some Times reporting — particularly investigative and legal — has been outstanding. But its short-lived “Trump Urges Unity Against Racism” headline was emblematic of the credulous stenography and normalization of the Trump presidency that is so prevalent on its front pages.

With impeachment imminent and an election less than a year away, it’s almost a national emergency that it still can’t seem to get the Trump story straight.

The only way that will happen is with changes at the top.

Also, very much on-point, a nice Jay Rosen piece on what’s wrong with the NYT leadership that brought us to this point:

Recently the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, said something that I believe touched on this anxiety. 

We won’t be baited into becoming ‘the opposition.’ And we won’t be applauded into becoming ‘the opposition.’

By “baited” he clearly meant the taunts of people like Steve Bannon and President Trump. By “applauded” he meant, I think, the pressure coming from Times loyalists. For the most part these are people appalled by Trump who want to see him further exposed. They want the Times to be tougher on his supporters and more relentless in calling out his lies. They want Times journalists to see what they see — an assault on democratic institutions, the corruption of the American Republic — and to act accordingly. 

But these people are perceived as a threat by the Times newsroom. The fear is that they want to turn the Times into an opposition newspaper. This is not how the Times sees itself. The fear is that they want the Times to help save American democracy. This too is not how the Times sees itself…

The rising power of Times readers has, I believe, unsettled Times journalists. They are both grateful and suspicious. They want the support, they also want to declare independence from their strongest supporters. (And they do not want to open the box that is marked Coverage of Hillary Clinton, 2016.) They are tempted to look right and see one kind of danger, then look left to spot another, equal and opposite. They want to push off from both sides to clear a space from which truth can be told. That would make things simpler, but of course things are not that simple. The threat to truthtelling — to journalism, democracy, the Times itself — is not symmetrical. They know this. But the temptation lives. [emphasis mine]

These are matters of institutional psychology, which I observe from the outside. I am sharing my impressions as a close reader, a subscriber for 30+ years, a loyal critic myself, and a watcher of Times journalists. In any relationship, a shift in power alters the dynamic between the parties. In so many ways since the election, the Times has risen to the occasion and excelled. But it has a problem with its core supporters. Until it is put right, there will be blow-ups, resentments and a lot of misunderstanding.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Both Sides!

  1. Lawrence Wittenberg says:

    This was a very helpful post. I was confused by the coverage the NY Times was often giving, by giving Trump a seemingly like pass after one of his enablers would spout their view of his actions when clearly the matter that Trump had done was well supported by the truth given by other witnesses or commentators. Being fair does not mean that you accept the absurd and frankly accepting anything Congressman Gaetz, who rather scream over anyone else’s view, is simply doing a disservice to the public.

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