Responsible parties at the New York Times explain to the country what went wrong with Times journalism in the election of 2016. Part Two.

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.

5 Feb 2020 11:04 am 7 Comments

This is part two. Part one is here.

On January 31, 2020, The Daily with host Michael Barbaro sent out to its two million listeners a 50-minute interview with the executive editor of the New York 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.

I think we should read and examine what they 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 was said, but not to alter it in any important way. 

This is not a transcript. The original podcast is here. I recommend it. 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. It’s made for your ears.  

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.

Reader’s guide: If the words are in quotes, that means I took it verbatim from the audio. If they’re 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 here. 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.

9. Did our assumption that she was going to be the next president influence coverage of her emails?
10. The next time we find a foreign government is behind a document release, what standard will apply?
11. “We do have a tendency to beat ourselves up a little too much.”
12. What have been the biggest changes to our election coverage this time around?
13. Is there a risk of over-representing the Trump voter’s perspective?
14. “The white working class midwestern voter: We tell that story a lot.”
15. “The Times has sometimes been accused of engaging in what’s called ‘both sides-ism.”
16. Has Times journalism adjusted to the reality of a president and allies who reject established facts? 
17. How do you cover Trump’s deceptions without disparaging the voters who support him?
18. After what happened in 2016, don’t we have a special obligation to get it right this time?

9. Did our assumption that she was going to be the next president influence coverage of her emails?

Michael Barbaro: About those emails from the Clinton campaign stolen by Russia and released by Wikileaks: Did the assumption that she was going to be the next president influence the coverage of those emails?

Dean Baquet: People forget there were big important stories in those emails.

Michael Barbaro: There were also less important stories. We did them. Did we apply more scrutiny to her because we were covering her in a sense as if she were the president-in-waiting? And we wanted to show we could be tough vetters of the next president?

Dean Baquet: No. I ran our coverage of Wikileaks and Snowden. You look at it carefully, but I think you have to report the newsworthy stuff.

Michael Barbaro: There are going to people who push back on this answer. This seemed like a leak designed to inflict political damage.

Dean Baquet: “I know. I get it.” At the time we didn’t know Russia was behind the release of the emails. 

Michael Barbaro: “We knew they were ill-gotten.”

Dean Baquet: We knew they were ill-gotten, but here is my view, and I understand it may not be popular: “When we learn important things, to not publish is a political act. It’s not a journalistic act.” “There should not be a whole lot that we learn about important stories that we don’t publish.” “My view is that publishing is journalism, not publishing is political balancing.”

10. The next time we find a foreign government is behind a document release, what standard will apply?

Dean Baquet: “The next big document dump comes in… I’ve even seen other journalists say I hope we understand that we can’t publish that stuff. No. I will read it. We will evaluate it. We will look at in the new context that we understand, which is Russia is actively trying to influence American elections. That will be part of the calculation. But the calculation cannot be, we’re just not going to publish because that would screw up American politics. At that point I will go into business as like a campaign adviser to people and not a journalist.”

Michael Barbaro: The next time it happens, and if we believe it’s the act of a foreign government, will we apply a different standard?

Dean Baquet: Sure. We will take all these events into account, and make a judgment about the importance of the material vs. the risk of being manipulated. “If it’s the tax returns of a candidate, and it’s really important and compelling, and we’re being manipulated, my view is we have to publish it and say we’re being manipulated… And I’m sure the debate will be more fierce that it was in 2016. But in the end if there is information the American public should know, we’ll publish it. And that’s what we do.”

11. “We do have a tendency to beat ourselves up a little too much.”

Michael Barbaro: On election night, “it felt in that moment like our asssumptions had truly guided us all the way to the final moments of election night and then they had been burst.”

Dean Baquet. Yeah. Of course that’s true. “If I could say one thing about journalism, though. We do have a tendency to beat ourselves up a little too much.” Yes, we didn’t have a handle on the turmoil in the country. “Something surprising and shocking happened with the election of Donald Trump. And it would be a little bit too narcissistic [for] my tastes to spend forever beating ourselves up over it.” This was a very unlikely event. He “walked in and captured the country at a particular moment.”

“Some things you can anticipate. But there are 300 million Americans. Some things you can’t anticipate.”

Michael Barbaro: “You used the word narcissistic, and I’m not judging that… But I think what we’re up to here is an exercise in explaining to the country what we learned.” What happened in 2016 is no small thing, “and the implications are still playing out.”

Dean Baquet: Yes, and that election changed journalism. “Something giant happened and while we should change our rules to understand it, to keep from missing a story like that in the future, I don’t think we should go into it with the assumption that all of our rules are wrong.” That’s all I meant by “narcisstic.”

12. What have been the biggest changes to our election coverage this time around?

Michael Barbaro: From our conversation “it feels clear that the source of these assumptions was in very large part a kind of institutional decision to cover the candidates so heavily, and to not cover as much or as prominently the country.” With that in mind, what have been the biggest changes to our coverage this time around?

Dean Baquet: Well, we’re covering the country better. We have plans to place writers in 7-8 states we are not usually in. We added a religion writer to our political team. “We give huge play now to stories about the anxiety in the country.” The Times now reflects the turmoil, the divisions in the U.S. We have doubled the number of people who cover the internet as a cultural and political force. “It’s a damatically different set up.” I don’t think we have annointed anyone the “inevitable” candidate. Or the long shot. “I am extremely proud of where our coverage is now, and nobody’s even voted yet.”

13. Is there a risk of over-representing the Trump voter’s perspective?

Michael Barbaro: “After 2016, there was an understandable emphasis on understanding Trump voters. Do you see any risk in giving those voters and those Trump allies and even the President himself too much of a platform in pursuit of that understanding, and over-representing their perspective, and maybe as a result missing the many other perspectives that are out there?” 

Dean Baquet: “I don’t. Not as long as you write about the other perspective.” Like Black people who are anxious about Trump and love Joe Biden. “One of the greatest puzzles of 2016 remains a great puzzle: why did millions and millions of Americans vote for a guy who is such an unusual candidate?” How did religious voters come to support someone like him? “Those puzzles are reporting targets.” When we go out and do these stories I know some critics roll their eyes. But understanding how these people voted and how they will vote in the future, that’s a pretty big thing. To dismiss 35-40 percent of Americans as people who should not be in our pages, “that’s not journalistic to me.”

14. “The white working class midwestern voter: We tell that story a lot.”

Michael Barbaro: “You’re bringing me to one of the biggest questions I have about over-correcting or over-simplifying what we learned in 2016.” There’s justifiably a very signifcant focus on the economic grievances of, for example, the white working class midwestern voter. “We tell that story a lot. But moderate voters may be driven as much by these questions of culture and morality and identity as much as anything in the economy. There may be Democrats who support universal health care and taxing the rich, but they oppose open borders, they oppose abortion, they oppose the culture of political correctness. And it’s very challening to capture that. Do you think we’re capturing that?”

Dean Baquet: “I do. I think we are capturing it.” We’re doing much more in this vein. “I always feel weird being called a member of the political elite. I’m a black guy who grew up in a poor neighborhood in New Orelans in a religious Catholic family.” I know from experience there’s a big chunk of America for whom cultural issues are a huge deal.

15. “The Times has sometimes been accused of engaging in what’s called ‘both sides-ism.”

Michael Barbaro: “When efforts are made to fairly cover this President, his voters, his allies, the Times has sometimes been accused of engaging in what’s called ‘both sides-ism,’ …this tendencty to represent both sides of a debate as equal, or both sides as having contributed equally to something.”

A few weeks ago there was a Times story about the impeachment hearings that was criticized for that. Among the lines people zeroed in on was this: “Throughout the committee’s debate, the lawmakers from the two parties could not even agree on a basic set of facts in front of them.”

The criticism is: there can only be one set of facts, so lay them out. At another point in the same article, it read: “They called each other liars and demagogues and accused each other of being desperate and unfair.”

The criticism there is: “We can tell who is lying or who is not lying based at the testimony and the evidence we have, but the story didn’t do that. It suggested both sides had equal, legitimate cases. Are stories like that a kind of both side-ism abdication?”

Dean Baquet: I will stick my neck out here and offer a “spirited defense” for “sophisticated objectivity.”

“We’re at a moment where people very much want us to take sides. And I don’t think that’s the right stance for the New York Times. I do think about the person who picks up his paper in the morning and just wants to know what happened. I do think we have an obligation to that person.” We’re sort of pretending we don’t.

Yes, there is a tendency in the American press to go for easy objectivity, especially under deadline pressure. Slap two quotes together and tell the reader: you figure it out. It happens. But that’s not what I mean when I say “sophisicated true objectivity as a goal.” True objectivity means “you listen, you’re empathetic, if you hear stuff you disagree with but its factual and its worth people hearing, you write about it.”

Do we fall into on the one hand, on the other hand sometimes? Absolutely. “It’s not the best formula for covering Trump and the impeachment trial.” “Both sides-ism and too easily saying on the one hand, on the other hand is not healthy for the discussion we’re having.”

Michael Barbaro: Who are the people who want us to pick a side?

Dean Baquet:: “Many of our readers hate Donald Trump and want us to join the opposition to Donald Trump, right? Well, I am not going to do that.” Then there are those who may have good reason to disagree with “sophisticated” objectivity. “There are people on our staff who disagree with that as a goal. I get that. I really do. That premise of sophisticated objectivity and independence? We should always debate it and question it.”

“I think of the reader who just wants to pick up his paper in the morning and know what the hell happened. I am beholden to that reader and I feel obligated to tell that reader what happened.”

16. Has Times journalism adjusted to the reality of a president and allies who reject established facts? 

Michael Barbaro: “Where do you draw the line between picking a side and holding truth to power? At this point there is a well documented pattern of President Trump, some of his allies and supporters denying established facts, speading misinformation, embracing conspiracy theories and frankly —  and this is uncomfortable to say it, it was not easy to kind of embrace this reality over time as a reporter, it’s against our nature— many of them have a different relationship to the truth than the Democrats and the Democratic Party. Do you think our journalism has sufficiently adjusted to that reality, and how central should that understanding and that reality be to our 2020 coverage?”

Dean Baquet: “I do, actually.”

Michael Barbaro:  But do you agree with that description of the pattern in the way the truth is being handled by the two parties? 

Dean Baquet: “Yes. I think it’s less the parties, it’s more Donald Trump.”

Michael Barbaro: What about the Republican Senators out there, saying what they are saying?

Dean Baquet: Yes. And there’s climate change. Trump is the most exteme version. “Donald Trump has made it his business to attack all independent arbiters of facts. And I think that you will find in the pages of the New York Times very powerful reporting that illustrates that.”

“What we haven’t done, which some people want us to to do, is to say, repeatedly, he’s a liar.  That’s the language, the word. But the reporting? No question we have done that.”

Michael Barbaro: Or racist. Another thing people have asked you to do.

Dean Baquet: “There was a big debate in our newsroom and outside our newsroom about whether the New York Times should use the word racist. And I accept disagreement.” In my view the most powerful writing let’s the person talk, and it is usually so evident that what they have to say is racist or anti-semitic, that to actually get in the way and say it yourself is less convincing.

17. How do you cover Trump’s deceptions without disparaging the voters who support him?

Michael Barbaro: How do you cover the reality of a president — and the party that supports him — repeatedly acting deceptively, spreading disinformation, without appearing to ignore or to disparage the very voters who support him, thus suggesting that we have picked a side?

Dean Baquet: This is hard. I will acknowledge that. You report the heck out of what they say. “We’ve done two or three reconstructs of what happened with the U.S. attack on the Iranian general that shows that some of the descriptions were false. That’s reporting. That’s not like labeling or cheap analysis. That’s deep reporting, lot of reporters. That’s my answer to how we cover Donald Trump… Let someone else call it a lie.”

The world is filled with pundits who can label or characterize things. There are not many institutions that can do powerful and independent reporting. And that’s what I want to do.

To convince his voters that you’re listening? “You show up.” Don’t do the cliched diner stories, or give voice to racists, you go talk to them, you listen empathetically. “I’m talking about the big unanswered question of 2016. For all our hand wringing and all the discussion, why did so many millions of  Americans vote for this very unusual candidate? I don’t think anyone has answered it, and I think one of our goals should be to come as close as we can.”

18. After what happened in 2016, don’t we have a special obligation to get it right this time?

Michael Barbaro: “In having a significant portion of the electorate share the assumptions of the media that we’ve been talkling about, that Clinton would win, Sanders and Trump wouldn’t, that when that all flipped on its head, the electorate was left feeling that they didn’t really understand and maybe still don’t understand what made for a winning candidate.”

Dean Baquet: “We don’t fully understand it, right?”

Michael Barbaro: After an election in which faulty assumptions “coursed through our veins, influenced our coverage,” leaving voters so uncertain, does this “create a special obligation to get it as right as possible, to show a certain amount of restraint, to show a tremendous amount of care and nuance?”

Dean Baquet: Yes, we have a special obligation to not to jump to conclusions too quickly, not to declare anyone inevitable and to “hold back and war against the assumptions of the political class,” which said that Trump couldn’t win. “I do think we have to keep reminding ourselves that what happened in 2016 was a remarkable, a remarkable upset and moment.”

Michael Barbaro: On Monday we’re launching a new show, The Field, that is about all of this, the lessons of 2016. Each week we’ll be going somewhere new in the country, with a Times reporter, “to talk to people and to listen, to do it in your words empathetically, and to do our part to make sure that we are not guided by assumptions.”

Dean Baquet: That’s terrific. That feels like an important contribution to not only our coverage but coverage of American politics.

7 Comments

He could break his arm patting himself on the back. He basically blows off the fact that we get excessive coverage of Middle America White Republican leaders posing as “person on the street,” along with almost nil representation of any kind of Democrats of any persuasion.

No wonder its FTFNYTF

I was disappointed that Barbaro didn’t ask Baquet about “Clinton Cash” and partnering Schweizer. I probably would have also gone back as far as the Times coverage of Whitewater, which certainly contributed to why Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” resonated. It’s not like the Times is not an active player in all of this.

Andrew Dabrowski says:

I’ve always assumed that the Clintons are the perfect avatars of the NYT’s political stance, so any injury the Times caused to Hillary’s election chances was unintentional.

Andrew Dabrowski says:

I’ve always assumed that the Clintons are the perfect avatars of the NYT’s political stance, so any injury the Times caused to Hillary’s election chances was unintentional.

Mark Flowers says:

“I think of the reader who just wants to pick up his paper in the morning and know what the hell happened. I am beholden to that reader and I feel obligated to tell that reader what happened”

Wow. Just, f-ing wow. That’s *exactly* why the both-siderism is soooo wrong. That reader who just wants to know what happened picks up the paper and learns . . . that Republicans and Democrats can’t agree and the Times has no freaking clue what happened. That’s sure helpful.

at the end of the day, i think baquet has made two fundamental errors in belief:

1. that there is a version of journalism that is not political
2. that the times is doing that

(also, “sophisticated objectivity” get oooouuuut of here with that! do you hear yourself!)

George Colvin says:

Barbaro let Baquet off the hook far too easily on the Clinton E-mails issue. The point of that criticism was not that the “Times” covered the matter, but that the coverage was wildly disproportionate relative both to the coverage of other topics and to the importance of the E-mails issue itself.

Barbaro had an easy way into this issue. The CJR in December 2017 had an article reporting on both sentence-by-sentence analyses of 2016 election coverage in major press sources and front-page articles in the “Times” itself from September 1 to Election Day on November 8:

https://www.cjr.org/analysis/fake-news-media-election-trump.php

Both analyses found extraordinarily heavy coverage of the E-mails issue. Indeed, from October 29 to November 3 (six days), the “Times” ran as many front-page articles about E-mails as it did about “all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”

Baquet was the single person most responsible for that situation. All Barbaro had to do was to lay the facts in front of him and ask if he thought that was a defensible exercise of editorial judgment. That’s the question that has been demanding an answer for more than three years; and because he didn’t do his homework, Barbaro left it hanging.

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