Earlier this week, John Sexton wrote about “the unbearable smugness of the media” with a specific focus on CBS News’ Will Rahn. His critique of his own profession was almost admirable and no doubt caused a number of other media outlets to engage in some navel gazing. There was another admission of sorts this week coming from the New York Times. The editors sent out a letter which only went to their paid subscribers and in it they supposedly address some of their shortcomings in covering the 2016 election. This led Michael Goodwin at the New York Post to describe the missive as an admission that the Gray Lady “blew it” throughout the process and others have chimed in along similar lines. I’m not sure what letter they read, but I’m not seeing it that way at all. I’m going to begin by reprinting the letter here in its entirety since it’s rather short. You should be able to judge for yourself rather than taking an excerpted section from me.
To our readers,
When the biggest political story of the year reached a dramatic and unexpected climax late Tuesday night, our newsroom turned on a dime and did what it has done for nearly two years — cover the 2016 election with agility and creativity.
After such an erratic and unpredictable election there are inevitable questions: Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters? What forces and strains in America drove this divisive election and outcome? Most important, how will a president who remains a largely enigmatic figure actually govern when he takes office?
As we reflect on this week’s momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you. It is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly. We believe we reported on both candidates fairly during the presidential campaign. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.
We cannot deliver the independent, original journalism for which we are known without the loyalty of our subscribers. We want to take this opportunity, on behalf of all Times journalists, to thank you for that loyalty.
Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.
Goodwin describes this letter as, “part apology and part defense of its campaign coverage,” along with, “a pledge to do better.” I beg to differ with Michael because I’m simply not seeing it. The only segment of this letter which even begins to sound like an admission of any wrongdoing is the portion where they ask (not admit) if Trump’s unconventionality led them “to underestimate his support among American voters.” I could easily translate that as saying, “Gee… we had no idea so many of you cretins would actually vote for this loser and we’re sorry so many of you turned out to be gullible fools.”
The rest of the letter is full of glowing self-praise, talking about how they turned on a dime to cover the election with agility and creativity. (I think we can all agree they were “creative” but the Times isn’t supposed to be in the business of publishing fiction.) They even have the audacity to claim that they, “believe we reported on both candidates fairly.”
That’s neither an apology nor an admission. Goodwin himself goes on to point out some of the actual sins the paper should be addressing.
Ah, there’s the rub. Had the paper actually been fair to both candidates, it wouldn’t need to rededicate itself to honest reporting. And it wouldn’t have been totally blindsided by Trump’s victory.
Instead, because it demonized Trump from start to finish, it failed to realize he was onto something. And because the paper decided that Trump’s supporters were a rabble of racist rednecks and homophobes, it didn’t have a clue about what was happening in the lives of the Americans who elected the new president.
Goodwin then makes a point of highlighting Times columnist Jim Rutenberg’s letter from this August where he flatly admits that they were throwing the rule book out the window when it came to reporting on Trump. The editors and reporters at the New York Times knew exactly what they were doing and why they were doing it. They decided on behalf of the rest of the country that Trump was not simply a candidate with policies and proposals which were inferior to those of his opponent, but that he was an active element of evil in society. They did their level best to hammer that message home on a daily basis while laughably presenting Hillary Clinton as not only one of the most experienced and best qualified candidates of all time, but one whose email “misunderstanding” was much ado about nothing.
So much for the New York Times’ “apology.” But at this point we might also be asking where a similar mea culpa is on the pages of the Washington Post? As I’ve noted in the past, I subscribe to a number of their article summaries by email and I have frequently taken screen caps of the collection of anti-Trump screeds which show up in my inbox and posted them on Twitter. The words found just in the titles tell the story of a paper doing an even worse job than the New York Times. Trump was repeated declared to unfit, a racist, a liar and pretty much anything else which could be hurled at the wall.
By contrast they seemed to have almost zero concerns about Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings. Throughout the repeated hammer blows coming from the Wikileaks revelations we learned that Hillary Clinton lied repeatedly to the public and either lied or had dozens of convenient memory lapses when being interviewed by the FBI. Her top aides also lied, and on at least one occasion Huma Abedin appears to have lied under oath during testimony. (Isn’t that still a federal offense?) But to read the output from the Washington Post you’d quickly conclude that such matters were of scant importance and such character flaws shouldn’t bar her from the Oval Office.
This letter from Arthur Sulzberger was far from an admission of wrongdoing or even incompetence. It was a plea for people to stop cancelling their subscriptions (which has apparently been happening in significant numbers) and costing the already financially floundering publication even more money. The elite liberal echo chamber in Manhattan hasn’t even been dented, folks. Don’t take this as an indication that fair and balanced coverage is on the way.