Responsible parties at the New York Times explain to the country what went wrong with their journalism in 2016. Part One.

The Daily's interview with Dean Baquet is a key document in the study of the American press and politics. Here is what it says.

4 Feb 2020 4:23 pm 8 Comments

The New York Times has a franchise product in podcasting, The Daily with host Michael Barbaro. Last week it sent out to two million listeners a 50-minute interview with the executive editor of the Times, Dean Baquet. It was largely about the mistakes made by the Times and others, but especially the Times, in covering the election of 2016.

Since that is a subject I am known to care about, people on Twitter kindly alerted me to the appearance of this text.

I think we should read and examine what Michael Barbaro and Dean Baquet said about the lessons of 2016. That can be hard to do in the flow of a podcast. So I decided to summarize their exchanges, using a combination of my paraphrase and their quotes to condense what they said, but not to alter it in any important way.

This is not a transcript. Get the original podcast here. There is no substitute for listening to Baquet phrase and frame what the Times misunderstood, or describe his own background and class position. If you have ever wondered why the Times does what it does in covering politics, a careful listen to The Lessons of 2016 will be repaid.

The participants: Dean Baquet is the executive editor who was ultimately responsible for the Times coverage of the 2016 election. He is still responsible as the voting begins in 2020. Michael Barbaro, who has since become hugely valuable to the Times as host of The Daily, was then a political reporter and writer assigned to the 2016 campaign. He co-wrote the “Trump wins” story on Nov. 9. Mike put questions to Dean, but Mike already had some of the answers because he participated in the coverage.

He also went back and looked at stories the Times published at key moments. He asked newsroom colleagues for their recollections. Barbaro clearly paid attention to some of the most common and solid criticisms of the Times performance in 2016 and since. He was determined to put (at least some of) these points to Baquet. This was not an off-the-cuff discussion, but a sculpted event.

These, then, are the “responsible parties” mentioned in my headline. Mike Barbaro described the interview as an “exercise in explaining to the country what we learned.”

This PressThink post — in two parts — is my attempt to record for study not everything the participants said, but their body of thought on mistakes made and how to correct for them. In my opinion as a press blogger since 2003, the original interview is a key document in the study of American politics and media. That’s why I did this.

Reader’s guide: If the words are in quotes, that means I took it verbatim from the audio. If it’s not in quotes that means I am paraphrasing and condensing from many listens of the audio. I am not attempting to add my own views. This is a representation of the interview’s pressthink, using their own words or a close paraphrase, broken into 18 good exchanges with headlines that I wrote.

It’s not what I think, but how they explained themselves to what they repeatedly called… “the country.”

Part One is points 1-8.  Here is part Two.
1. By focusing on Clinton so early, we were annointing her the favorite?
2. “It feels a little pre-emptive to call someone a long shot the day they enter the race.
3. You have to tell people what to think sometimes.
4. “An assumption that Clinton was more or less inevitable.”
5. “He was an irresistable television candidate. He just was.”
6. We let party insiders guide us. We treated them as experts.
7. Do you think the Times newsroom reacted well to the discovery that its assumptions were flawed?
8. “Why is the country pushing ahead with these two very unusual candidates?”

1. By focusing on Clinton so early, we were annointing her the favorite?

Michael Barbaro: Coverage of the 2016 election has come to be criticized for three key assumptions. One: Hillary Clinton was inevitably going to be the Democratic nominee. Two: Trump would almost certainly not win. Three: Once he did win the nomination, Clinton would almost certainly defeat Trump. Today on The Daily, “a conversation with the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, about the lessons of 2016.”

Welcome Dean. Your first time on The Daily.

Amy Chozik was put on the Hillaryland beat in July 2013, three years before the election and two years before she announced her candidacy. By focusing on Clinton so early, we were annointing her the favorite? And setting ourselves up to do skeptical stories about her before she even declared?

Dean Baquet: I do not think it was a mistake to put a reporter on the Hillaryland beat so early, no. But: “I would edit more carefully so that we did not give a sense of inevitability.”

Michael Barbaro: When Clinton officially announced her candidacy in April 2015, Amy Chozik wrote the story, which began this way: “Ending two years of speculation and coy denials, Hillary Rodham Clinton announced on Sunday that she would seek the presidency for a second time, immediately establishing herself as the likely 2016 Democratic nominee.”

Hearing that now, it jumps out at me. “We are writing the day she enters the race that she is the likely nominee. In retrospect, should we have written that a little differently?”

Dean Baquet: “Yes, of course…. If I had to edit that story all over again, I would have toned down the inevitability of it.”

2. “It feels a little pre-emptive to call someone a long shot the day they enter the race.”

Michael Barbaro: When Bernie Sanders announced in 2015, the Times story said: “Mr. Sanders’s bid is considered a long shot, but his unflinching commitment to stances popular with the left — such as opposing foreign military interventions and reining in big banks — could force Mrs. Clinton to address these issues more deeply.”

What do you think about this framing? “It feels a little pre-emptive to call someone a long shot the day they enter the race.” And by talking about him for the effect he might have on Hillary Clinton, aren’t we discounting his own candidacy? 

Dean Baquet: “I think that’s a good lede.” He was an unlikely candidate. Democratic socialist, from a small state. “I actually think it would have been sort of weird to not pull up and say: this guy’s a long shot.” We told our readers what he stood for. We described his key proposals, and the issues he cares about. The story is not too horse racey. I think we met our obligations with this one.

3. You have to tell people what to think sometimes.

Dean Baquet: “Journalism is by its very nature flawed.” (It’s also great and I love it.) One of its flaws is that “you do have to tell people what to think” sometimes— like when they’re just coming to a story because it’s new. 

Michael Barbaro: So what you’re saying is “contemporaneous understandings are by definition ephemeral.” Okay, but word choice and language are enduring. The way you characterize someone can stick. Couldn’t we have said: Clinton has advantages that might be hard to overcome, rather than characterizing Sanders as a long shot right out of the gate?

Dean Baquet. I go back to what I said: Journalism is imperfect. Political reporting especially because of the ups and downs of the horse race. Most Americans had not heard of Bernie Sanders. “I think we gotta tell the readers in the moment: how should we think about this? I think the reader picks up the New York Times and says, Bernie Sanders, I’ve never heard of him, how should I think about him? And I think this [story] captures that.”

4. “An assumption that Clinton was more or less inevitable.”

Michael Barbaro: “If we can agree that the media’s 2016 coverage reflected something of an assumption that Clinton was more or less inevitable, I wonder what you think the impact of that was… Part of what the Sanders campaign was so frustrated by, and angry about, is that they thought this coverage [had] real world consequences, that in presenting his candidacy, intentionally or not, as less valid, the mediia perpetuated those assumptions and helped to make them a reality. And if the New York Times thought that Sanders was a long shot, a voter might think that too. If they thought Clinton was the likely nominee, a voter might think that too.” 

Dean Baquet. “Part of my response to that would be we thought Jeb Bush was inevitable too and he lasted about 15 minutes… We just figured okay this going to be Bush vs. Clinton, this is going to be the old establishment… We probably should be very wary of language that seems to make somebody’s run inevitable. Because I think what we learned in 2016 is that none of the inevitable candidates were inevitable.”

5. “He was an irresistable television candidate. He just was.”

Michael Barbaro: I want to ask about our story from June, 2015 announcing that Trump will run:

Donald J. Trump, the garrulous real estate developer whose name has adorned apartment buildings, hotels, Trump-brand neckties and Trump-brand steaks, announced on Tuesday his entry into the 2016 presidential race, brandishing his wealth and fame as chief qualifications in an improbable quest for the Republican nomination…

It seems a remote prospect that Republicans, stung in 2012 by the caricature of their nominee, Mitt Romney, as a pampered and politically tone-deaf financier, would rebound by nominating a real estate magnate who has published books with titles such as, “Think Like a Billionaire” and “Midas Touch: Why Some Entrepreneurs Get Rich — And Why Most Don’t.”

But Mr. Trump, who has never held elective office, may not be so easily confined to the margins of the 2016 campaign. Thanks to his enormous media profile, he stands a good chance of qualifying for nationally televised debates, where his appetite for combat and skill at playing to the gallery could make him a powerfully disruptive presence.

Dean Baquet: “Look, nobody took Donald Trump seriously as a presidential candidate.” That story captures the moment. “The reality was Donald Trump was a long shot.”

Michael Barbaro But unlike Sanders, who was also called a long shot, the media seemed very interested in the long shot candidacy of Donald Trump, and gave it a lot of attention. Not in the belief that he could win, but from an interest in the “stunning unorthodoxy of the candidacy,” the way it broke all the known rules.

Dean Baquet: “He was an irresistable television candidate. He just was. He was funny, he was charming.” At the Times, “while we didn’t think he could win, that did not keep us from, if I can be frank, putting a lot of energy into digging into him as a candidate.” And to me that’s the test. We examined his real estate holdings. We broke the story that he barely paid taxes. We covered his mistreatment of women. We didn’t think he could win, but we still examined him critically.

In a way the Sanders and the Trump coverage is all of a piece. After the economic crisis, “more Americans than we understood at the time were rattled, and were looking for something dramatic,” which was reflected in the rise of Sanders and certainly in the rise of Trump.

6. We let party insiders guide us. We treated them as experts.

Michael Barbaro: How much do the faulty assumptions we had spring from our reliance on insiders and establishment sources? “I know as a political reporter how much I used to call figures within the party establishment, operatives, party leaders. And those become important sources in how you think about the party and the candidate.”

We know now that the Democratic establishment clearly favored Clinton over Sanders. They didn’t want him to win. The GOP establishment was horrified at the idea of Trump being their nominee. Looking back, seems we let party insiders guide us, and treated them as experts when they had their own agenda and weren’t reflecting voter sentiment. “Maybe the media allowed them to have outsized influence on the way we understood the situation.”

Dean Baquet: “I think that’s true. Coupled with, we weren’t out in the country enough.”

7. Do you think the Times newsroom reacted well to the discovery that its assumptions were flawed?

Michael Barbaro: Once the actual voting started, some of these assumptions started to give way. Sanders did much better than expected. Trump began sweeping the primaries. Do you think the newsroom reacted well to what was happening on the ground?

Dean Baquet: Yes and no. We turned up the volume on our scrutiny of Trump. It certainly felt at that moment that we started to treat both of them a little more seriously: Sanders and Trump. But I am also not pulling back from what I said: “We didn’t quite have a finger on the country…”

When Sanders started doing well it meant, “the country was a little more radically inclined than we thought.” But also that Hillary Clinton was not the perfect candidate and obvious winner that we thought she was. I do think we started to look harder at the chinks in her armor that Sanders was exposing.

Michael Barbaro: But again, that’s covering him by what he was doing to her, and framing her as the likely winner.

Dean Baquet: Yeah, but that framing was right. She was the front runner. She had all the money. She had the machine. She ultimately won the nomination. Won the popular vote.

8. “Why is the country pushing ahead with these two very unusual candidates?”

Michael Barbaro: “Is it fair to say we turned up the volume, to use your phrase, on covering the candidates” at this point in the campaign, but we did not turn up the volume on the country, the people who are voting?

Dean Baquet: Yes. I think that’s right. “That’s my biggest self-criticism.” We did cover voters and what was going on in the country, but we did not elevate those stories. We did not dig in and say, “why is the country pushing ahead with these two very, you know, unusual candidates: Donald Tump and Bernie Sanders? I don’t think we quite understood that.”

Michael Barbaro: Why did we not learn from the primary that Trump was not to be under-estimated and that he could in fact win?

Dean Baquet: “It sure looked like he was going to lose.” We bought into what the establishment was saying. We had the experts on the phone, McConnell included. We didn’t have a handle on the country. All these things we’re talking about today came together in the final months.

Tomorrow: Feb. 5. Part Two. Points 9-18.

8 Comments

Mark J. McPherson says:

Why devote so much ink to a candidate that the Times did not, by their own admission, take seriously?

Their entire campaign coverage was suffused with a lack of respect for the essential workings of a democracy — the actual casting of votes. Instead, they reported stories driven by personalities postering towards the press rather than interactions with potential voters. Coverage-favored candidates were only too happy to adopt the press as the ultimate constituency. How is it playing in the press became more important than how it was playing on the stump in the primaries.

This explains why the idea of sending reporters “out in the country” was, for the Times, the equivalent of dispatching Stanley to find Dr. Livingstone. We didn’t need the insular Times to tell us what to think; we needed to hear what all of the candidates were saying, in detail, about what they offered the country.

The nominating process has become endless, attenuated, remote and unwieldy. The Times failed utterly to redress the designed-in dysfunction of the process and instead used it as an excuse to go fulltime inside baseball.

Andrew Dabrowski says:

My favorite data point: Michael Moore predicted in August 2016 exactly what would happen in November. Why did the Times ignore Moore in favor of self-serving political insiders? How could a nominally mature and experienced journalist like Bacquet fail to understand that insiders use their press contacts to manipulate events? Why has Bacquet been allowed to keep his position? The NYT seems determined not to learn from the past, otherwise they would fire Bret Stephens and hire Moore.

sanford sklansky says:

Bill Maher also said Trump could win. But that is a small sample size to go on. I don’t know of too many other liberals who said Trump could win. I doubt many Conservative types thought Trump would win. She might have won if Comey hadn’t started a second look at her emails 10 days before the election. While I am sure the Times has a wide reach, I wonder how many people outside of the New York area actually read the paper. I find it hard to believe the paper has that much influence on the rest of the country. That goes for the Washington Post as well.

I am guessing most people in rural areas on not reading what are the 2 most important papers in the country. Trump and conservatives attack the two papers all the time as does probably Fox. I don’t know how accurate this is but the Times has just over 4 million subscribers over all and reaches 8 million people a month. This is a rather small percent of the country. I am guessing the Post has less. I assume there are articles that get picked up by other papers, as I see them once in a while in the Chicago Tribune. I am a subscriber.

Nicholas Finn says:

Calling Sander’s a “long shot” was the least offensive thing they did when reporting on his campaign. They edited an entire article after it was already published to make him look worse. Their public editor even brought it up in this piece

https://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/17/new-york-times-bernie-sanders-coverage-public-editor/. (so glad they got rid of that position…..)

But that wasn’t the only time this sort of thing happened. There was the time the Times and others ganged up on him for supposedly not knowing how his simple bank breaking bill would function after his interview with the New York Daily News. Which was really just another cynical hit.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/04/07/bernie-sanders-has-a-plan-to-break-up-the-big-banks/.

There were just so many examples of this behavior. I don’t consider myself a huge Bernie fanatic like some but the joking/insulting way The Times and many other big media platforms dealt with his campaign created a lot of room for the cynicism we see on the left today to take hold.

I don’t think he would have won the nomination against someone who might be the most famous woman in the world. But they should have treated him (and more importantly his millions of supporters) better and then maybe a few more of them might have considered voting for Hillary in the general.

sanford sklansky says:

The fix was kind of in for Hillary. I don’t mean it was rigged, because I think any one would have lost due to the way the DNC runs the way they nominate a candidate. I believe she already had something like 750 super delegates before the process got underway.

Chris Pedler says:

Interesting where Baquet decides it’s okay or preferred to “tell people what to think” — like proclaiming Sanders a “long shot” — and when, as I imagine Jay will note in the next entry, he favors “sophisticated true objectivity” and presents BothSides’ claims and allows readers to decide — like when Republican politicians, especially the president, tell transparently bad faith lies.

The way Baquet leans seems determined less by any neutral journalistic standard and more by the amount of institutional power the people being covered wield. This is not a flattering look for a newspaper editor.

Mark Loomis says:

In points 6, 7 and 8, both men admitted to over reliance on the information stream fed to them by political insiders and a lack of circulation among the electorate throughout the country. Should not this distinction be readily apparent with every story covered by what is supposed to be considered one of the ‘premiere’ global media institutions?!?

Ralph Wyman says:

It also sure seems from the stream of stories since 2016’s election, that the Times has deemed Trumpish, vaguely swingy counties in the Midwest as the epicenter. Have they done a story at a Denver (or perhaps Fort Collins, CO to be more midsize) diner to balance an Ohio or Michigan eatery view?

In the apparent quest to understand the Trump voter, they’ve skipped right over looking at non-coastal, non-elite ‘flyover’ liberals. To the extent they saturate Iowa for the caucus bubble, it’s mostly horse race, and over before any general election views would be valued.

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