A nice catch by Byron York from this transcript of audio from a Times staff meeting that was leaked to Slate — a meeting that was held to address concerns from the left about the Times’s Trump coverage, of course, not the right. The paper recently sustained a double whammy among the progressive activist class, first for the Bad Headline it published on the day Trump spoke in the White House about the El Paso and Dayton shootings and second for some Bad Tweets that its Washington editor posted about Ilhan Omar and other minority women pols. I wrote about both; you can catch up here and here. The headline was the greater offense — “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism,” it read, an accurate summary of his remarks about the El Paso shooting but one which glossed over his emerging campaign strategy of picking fights with minority pols like the Squad, Elijah Cummings, and Al Sharpton to try to galvanize the white working class.
The story that accompanied the Times headline did provide that context, but that wasn’t enough. For a paper with the Times’s outsized influence, at a moment when the Resistance is preparing for battle to oust Trump next year, even a headline can be guilty of treason against the cause.
So executive editor Dean Baquet called a meeting. The staff would huddle and consider ways to address the plague of Problematicness that had recently befallen them. Nothing will tune you into the tone of what followed better than this single quote, from a question posed by a Times staffer:
— Elliot Kaufman (@ElliotSKaufman) August 15, 2019
The Times should consider appending that to every story it publishes, as a sort of standing disclaimer: “Racism is in everything.”
Read the transcript and you’ll see that much of the meeting involved Times staffers pressuring Baquet to let them frankly describe Trump or the things he says as “racist.” Baquet was ambivalent about that, encouraging staffers to use concrete examples of things Trump has said that might qualify rather than inject their own verdict. Who, what, when, where, why, and how — just give the readers the facts and let them come to their own conclusions. “I think that a bizarre sort of litmus test has been created,” he complained to staffers. “If you don’t use the word racist, you’re not quite capturing what the president said.” That’s exactly what his staff and their activist cohort are suggesting, and it’s of a piece with their objection to the Bad Headline. It’s not enough for the Times to note, say, that Trump’s Telepromptered call for unity after a mass shooting sounds like it came from a different person than the one who invited the Squad on Twitter to go back where they came from. They want the Times to be as aggressive as possible in expressing their moral objections to Trump. Are they on the team or not?
But then, towards the end of the meeting, Baquet seemed to reassure his staffers that he wasn’t insisting on a pure “just the facts” approach to Trump, with the Times content to let the day’s news cycle carry it along to destinations unknown. There will be a narrative frame to the next 18 months:
Baquet: OK. I mean, let me go back a little bit for one second to just repeat what I said in my in my short preamble about coverage. Chapter 1 of the story of Donald Trump, not only for our newsroom but, frankly, for our readers, was: Did Donald Trump have untoward relationships with the Russians, and was there obstruction of justice? That was a really hard story, by the way, let’s not forget that. We set ourselves up to cover that story. I’m going to say it. We won two Pulitzer Prizes covering that story. And I think we covered that story better than anybody else.
The day Bob Mueller walked off that witness stand, two things happened. Our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought, “Holy shit, Bob Mueller is not going to do it.” And Donald Trump got a little emboldened politically, I think. Because, you know, for obvious reasons. And I think that the story changed. A lot of the stuff we’re talking about started to emerge like six or seven weeks ago. We’re a little tiny bit flat-footed. I mean, that’s what happens when a story looks a certain way for two years. Right?
I think that we’ve got to change. I mean, the vision for coverage for the next two years is what I talked about earlier: How do we cover a guy who makes these kinds of remarks? How do we cover the world’s reaction to him? How do we do that while continuing to cover his policies? How do we cover America, that’s become so divided by Donald Trump? How do we grapple with all the stuff you all are talking about? How do we write about race in a thoughtful way, something we haven’t done in a large way in a long time? That, to me, is the vision for coverage. You all are going to have to help us shape that vision. But I think that’s what we’re going to have to do for the rest of the next two years.
This is no longer a story where the Washington bureau every week nails some giant story by [Washington correspondent] Mike Schmidt that says that Donald Trump or Don McGahn did this. That will remain part of the story, but this is a different story now. This is a story that’s going to call on different muscles for us. The next few weeks, we’re gonna have to figure out what those muscles are.
What’s revealing about that is how explicit Baquet is in framing the recent coverage of Trump and white nationalism as part of a grand anti-Trump narrative comparable to Russiagate, a new “chapter” in how Trump’s presidency will be organized by historians. He could have presented the paper’s coverage lately as a matter of simply following where the news leads. There was a terrorist attack by a racist in El Paso; Trump has in fact been sparring with a series of minority pols, the Squad foremost among them; therefore the paper needed to devote resources to both stories and whether they converge. Instead Baquet is explicitly focused on what the paper’s anti-Trump readership wants to see as a means to the end of ousting him. They craved Russiagate material because they thought it would lead to him being indicted and eventually removed from office. With that having failed, they’re craving material on Trump The Racist, doubtless with an eye to galvanizing suburban voters against him next fall. There’s no reason *right now* to think that Trump The Racist is how voters will organically think of the next 18 months; if I had to bet on a single narrative to define the rest of his presidency at this moment in time, it’d be “Trump the trade warrior copes with the economic and electoral fallout of his protectionism.” But Baquet doesn’t have that luxury. He’s writing for a readership that leans a certain way and which includes a noisy activist class that leans further and so their narratives to some extent need to be the Times’s narratives. He might not let his reporters call Trump a “racist” overtly but he’s making clear here, it seems, that they’re free to make that the moral of their news stories about him. Encouraged, even.