Dear New York Times…
Hey, folks. Been spending way too much time on Twitter lately, ranting about coverage and the election, and hence have sucked up all the would-be blogging time. But in doing so, I’ve managed to begin a conversation with some folks who actually perform such coverage. One of them asked me to be specific about a charge they found hard to swallow: that there is a systematic difference between the way Trump is covered and Clinton is in the major venues.
That correspondent and others pointed out, accurately, that at least since May, and in many cases before then, there have been major, damning, utterly critical stories about Trump. Given that, wouldn’t complaints about, say, stories on Clinton’s emails or the alleged corruption inherent in the Clinton Foundation-State Department nexus suggest more a partisan reaction, hypersensitive about stories critical of the side I favor, rather than a measured accounting of the full coverage record?
My answer was and that while there are indeed such stories, and that many of the Clinton pieces that have enraged me are at some definition of accuracy perfectly on-the-beam. But then I go on to say that the question of systematic bias is not about each single story. Rather, it turns on the entire editorial apparatus of campaign coverage: how those stories are assigned, pursued, resourced, and extended past day one or two coverage, and how the facts within them are set up for interpretation.
That argument leads to an obvious and appropriate response:
It’s going to take me some time to do so across the range of questions I’ve actually received. But there was a piece in today’s New York Times that provides a case study (the fancy name for anecdata) that offers an example of the gap between fine-scale factual accuracy and a truthful exercise in journalism
For the record: what I’m attempting to do isn’t simply to say “You Suck!” to The New York Times, the first target of my logorrhea below, or anyone else. It is to help smart and incredibly hard working people realize what’s often hard to notice deep in the weeds and the mud. That would be exactly where one is in the maze — which would be the first step to navigating to somewhere better.
With that as prologue, here’s what I just wrote to one of my correspondents. That reporter challenged me on several points, and I began what will be a multipart response by walking back, just a little, my somewhat incendiary claim that current campaign coverage reminded me of the Times’ Iraq war lead-in coverage — to which I added my own desire to give a specific example of what I meant by a biased approach to a story. So here goes, in a slightly edited version of what I sent in private:
…The Iraq War mention isn’t a perfect analogy, I’ll agree: there’s no comparison to Judith Miller in the Times’ current campaign coverage, and there’s no sign I can see of the editorial or management errors that allowed her coverage (and other stuff too, TBH) such impact.
The Iraq war serves for me, and I think many critics of the Times as a kind of existence proof: the Times is capable of major failures that have huge consequences, which means, to me, that it’s important to be very vigilant. I know this seems obvious, and perhaps even insulting to those inside the organization – but from outside the newsroom, it often appears that the NYT has a difficult time admitting errosr, especially those more complicated than a straightforward factual mistake. A personal anecdote: I had drinks some years ago with a NYTimes reporter (still there, not on the politics desk) and at one point in our conversation (late, after a number of rounds) he said something like NYTimes reporters don’t write stuff that’s not true; we get more scrutiny than you believe so we make sure it doesn’t happen. (Fallible memory, some years, but that was the gist). And I’m sure the scrutiny is there (heck – here I am part of it.) But that was not a reassuring statement, as I think you can see.
I’ll get into this more below but my broad framework is that with exceptions, the way the thumb is on the scale (from my point of view) in NYT coverage of the campaign is not at the level you work, on the reporting day by day and the production of individual stories. It is rather on the editorial apparatus that creates the framework for readers to interpret your coverage.
You ask for specifics – let me give you an example from today’s paper, “Emails Raise New Questions About Clinton Foundation to State Dept.”
[Edited to add: Hmmm, didn’t realize how long this sucker was on the page. Continued after the newly inserted jump]
The headline suggests a new problem, one that implies conflict of interest and/or corruption (pay-to-play and all that). The lede makes that inference explicit, as it says the emails raised “new questions about whether people tied to the Clinton Foundation received special access….”
If one then reads the story with care, one finds that the person “tied to” the foundation is actually an aide to former President Clinton; his tie is that he (in a prior position, implied though not stated in the article) helped set up one arm of the Foundation. So already the bald statement of the headline is undermined by the second paragraph of the story. “Aides to Former President seek Diplomatic Passports” is a headline that still implies criticism, but is less so, I think than the reach to the foundation – and is more accurate.
Digging a little further, the story states that the passports are not sought for some general privilege, but for a specific and at least quasi-diplomatic reason, President Clinton’s North Korea trip in which he sought the release of two American citizens. Not sure how this supports the Foundation-State pay to play framework.
And yet, paragraph three makes the suggestion, however, that this is part of that alleged scandal:
“Mrs. Clinton has long denied that donors had any special influence at the State Department.”
This is clearly a problem, from a reader’s point of view. Douglas Band is a staffer, not a donor. The piece here has Secretary Clinton answering a different charge – or at least different facts – than the preceding paragraphs actually contain.
Finally, and crucially, the story never actually says whether Band the others got their passports. It quotes a State Dept. release on the policy, but never quite closes the loop. Other media sources say that they didn’t – which is what makes the story and its headline so problematical as journalism, at least as I see it.
Here’s the question: does the foundation have a pay-to-play relationship with the State Department. Let’s ask: a deep foundation association (not a donor, no cash changing hands) asks for a seemingly out-of-the-ordinary favor. Do they get it? No. Question raised and answered. Had the story been framed: latest emails show no special favors at State – then you’d have advanced a complicated story. But the headline, the lede, and many other aspects of the story suggest an interpretation at odds with the actual facts reported.
It’s also fascinating to me the way the whole anecdote is presented as something out of the ordinary for State Department business. As you know, so this is a PGO – State is the agency that does things like try to get imprisoned Americans out of danger. North Korea is a nation in which the only channels we have are back channels. A former president serving as such a back channel is hardly a radical innovation in US statecraft – and yet this whole incident is given in this story the aura of corruption and scandal.
That’s what makes the last third of the story problematic as well. Here you have an actual donor, getting a meeting. Two thoughts on that: first, I’d love context, if not in this single story, in your extended coverage: what did Condoleeza Rice’s appointment book contain? Powell’s? and so on. We know that the Bush administration had both accuracy and secrecy issues – think Cheney’s still shadowed energy task force. But we don’t know to what extent Clinton’s approach as SoS is standard response to influence and power in Washington or some distinctive pathology that deserves all the attention the Times and others have brought to bear on it. I’ve got my suspicions – but this is in fact something that I rely on the world’s best journalistic venue to contextualize and explore.
Second: this particular donor was providing the infrastructure for the backchannel aimed at freeing two Americans imprisoned by an adversarial regime. How surprising – how inappropriate – is it for this meeting to take place?
Finally: the story gives the Clinton campaign space to assert Judicial Watch is “a right-wing organization that has been going after the Clintons since the 1990s.” It seems to me that it would be useful for the Times as a standard matter to note in its own voice that its reporting is based on Judicial Watch’s original work (which it does not do before the Clinton campaign quote) and to describe, again in its own terms and voice, what Judicial Watch is. Putting the argument in quotes from one side or the other is a he-said-she-said tactic. I’m not saying how the Times should describe one of the two adversaries in this story, just that it should do so in a way that allows the reader to draw a more nuanced understanding of the terms of this argument.
All of the above is a dissection of a story that I concede is accurately reported. There are no wrong facts in it, as far as I can tell on a quick review – except, perhaps, for the implication that Band’s connection to the Foundation is as a donor.
But even that’s suggestion by juxtaposition rather than an outright error. And yet it all adds up to a deeply misleading account, one that hints at and suggests corruption through “questions.” It thus adds up to a deeply misleading account, an outcome that emerges from editorial choices (like the headline) and from the way facts that don’t support the headline are placed next to suggestions or queries that reinforce the sense or smell of corruption – which just in case anyone missed it was made explicit in the closing quote from Trump.
And that leads to the last example within the article that looks to me very strongly as if there’s a presumption of Clinton wrongdoing that surrounds the decisions made about assigning, constructing and writing, editing this piece and placing it high on the website. The penultimate paragraph in the piece reads in full:
A separate batch of State Department documents released by Judicial Watch last month also revealed contacts between the State Department and Clinton Foundation donors. In one such exchange, Mr. Band sought to put a billionaire donor in touch with the department’s former ambassador to Lebanon.
That link leads to an August 9 NYT story by Eric Lichtblau that discusses the release of a net of 44 new emails, and it presents the story at its head as one detailing Judicial Watch’s success in getting those emails and their interpretation of their meaning.
Left out of that story is the crucial fact: again, a major donor sought a favor from the State Dept., a meeting and didn’t get it. Even more, the donor sought a visa from State, and had it denied. In other words the actual underlying facts explicitly contradicted that claim that Lichtblau allowed Judicial Watch to make in the piece – that there was “no daylight” between the foundation and State –without any challenge or exposition by Lichtblau himself.
So here again, you have a possible example of corruption that wasn’t: the relationship with the foundation, even at the major $ level, did not produce either a violation of State procedure (a visa where there shouldn’t have been) or access. So that’s bad journalism on its own terms – and it’s badness is amplified when today’s flawed story draws on that prior flawed story for support.
I’ve got to run to do some actual work – talking to a guy about an 18th c. stock market fraud (don’t call it history; think of it as extremely long lead-time journalism). So I’ll have to get to the rest of your argument below over the next few days. I’ll close for now then with this observation: the Times story that seems to me to be so deeply flawed is having exactly the impact you’d expect for significant story in your extremely powerful venue. My home-town Boston Globe ran it verbatim. The usual suspects on the right – the Daily Caller and such – are touting it, with the inevitable “Even the liberal New York Times” slant to their accounts, gaining credibility not for the actual facts within the story, but for the aura, the feeling the piece imparts.
There’s more to the question of whether or not the Times is putting the same effort and the same interpretative rigor on coverage of Trump vs. Clinton, of course, and I will try to get to at least slightly more quantitative arguments in a later email. But if you want a case study why I, both a partisan and a practitioner and teacher of journalism, argue that the Times has its thumb on the scale, this story seems like a pretty powerful example.
Note: if I’m right, and this is a systematic problem and not just an issue in a Sept. 2 and August 9 pair of stories, then I’d bet that the issue is one of unconscious (and hence much harder to detect and deal with) than conscious bias. I’m guessing – and it’s always a fool’s game to diagnose at a distance – that the long-nourished sense of the Clintons as dodgy has an effect. But note also that the criticism doesn’t depend on any presumed path to the ultimate effect….
So that was an attempt to persuade a member of the working press that there might truly be a problem. (And by the way — I do mean persuade. I’m trying to get past my rage to get those who are doing what is genuinely a difficult job to do it better.)
Images: Norman Rockwell, Fact and Fiction, 1917
Elihu Vedder, Corrupt Legislation, mural in the Library of Congress, 1896
Antoniazzo Romano, Virgin and Child with Donor, 1480.