Today we are switching our coverage of Donald Trump to an emergency setting

"This means our journalism will work in a different way, as we try to prevent the President from misinforming you through us."

19 Mar 2020 9:45 pm 157 Comments

Even this far into his term, it is still a bit of a shock to be reminded that the single most potent force for misinforming the American public is the current president of the United States. For three years this has been a massive — and unsolved — problem for the country and its political leadership.

But now it is life and death. On everything that involves the coronavirus Donald Trump’s public statements have been unreliable. And that is why today we announce that we are shifting our coverage of the President to an emergency setting.

This means we are exiting from the normal system for covering presidents— which Trump himself exited long ago by using the microphone we have handed him to spread thousands of false claims, even as he undermines trust in the presidency and the press. True: he is not obliged to answer our questions. But neither are we obligated to assist him in misinforming the American people about the spread of the virus, and what is actually being done by his government.

We take this action knowing we will be criticized for it by the President’s defenders, by some in journalism, and perhaps by some of you. And while it would be nice to have company as we change course, we anticipate that others in the news media will stick with the traditional approach to covering presidents.

This we cannot in good conscience do.

Switching to emergency mode means our coverage will look different and work in a different way, as we try to prevent the President from misinforming you through us. Here are the major changes:

* We will not cover live any speech, rally, or press conference involving the president. The risk of passing along bad information is too great. Instead, we will attend carefully to what he says. If we can independently verify any important news he announces we will bring that to you— after the verification step.

* We plan to suspend normal relations with the Trump White House. That means we won’t be attending briefings. (We can watch them on TV.) We won’t gather around him as he departs in his helicopter. We won’t join in any off-the-record “background” sessions with Administration officials. We won’t enter into agreements of any kind with the Trump team, which includes those nameless “senior advisers” who mysteriously show up in news stories.

* We have always tried to quote public officials accurately, including President Trump. In emergency mode we add a further check. In addition to, “does this fairly represent what he said?” we will ask: is what he said something we should be amplifying? If it is simply meant to demonize a group of people, rewrite a history that now embarrasses the President, or extend his hate campaign against journalists who are doing their job, we may decide not to amplify it, even though it happened. An old tenet of White House reporting states that what the president says makes news— automatically, as it were. Today we are disabling that autoplay system and replacing it with a manual one.

* In general, we will be shifting the focus of our coverage from what President Trump is saying to what his government is doing. We will be de-emphasizing the entire White House beat and adding people who can penetrate the bureaucracy from the rim, rather than the center of the distortion machine.

* Experience has taught us that there will occasionally be times when the President makes a demonstrably false claim, or floats a poisonous lie, and it is too consequential to ignore. We feel we have to tell you about it, even at the risk of amplifying his deceptions. In those special cases, we will adopt a news writing formula that has been called the “truth sandwich.” It is a more careful way of reporting newsworthy falsehoods. First you state what is true. Then you report the false statement. Then you repeat what is true. Like so:

In January and February, President Trump minimized the danger of the coronavirus. “We have it totally under control,” he said on Jan. 22. But two days ago he tried to erase that fact and escape accountability for his prior statements. “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” he said. If we judge by his public statements this is an outright lie. On Feb. 27, at a White House meeting he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

Refusing to go with live coverage. Suspending normal relations with his White House. Always asking: is this something we should amplify? A focus on what he’s doing, not on what he’s saying. The truth sandwich when we feel we have to highlight his false claims. This is what you can expect now that our coverage has been switched to an emergency setting.

One more thing. Because we don’t know that we have done this right, and because your confidence in us describes the limits of what we can achieve as journalists, we will be hiring immediately a public editor who is empowered to field complaints, decide if something went wrong, find out how it happened, and report back.

Early in President Trump’s term, Marty Baron, the editor of the Washington Post, spoke these memorable words about the President’s “enemy of the people” rhetoric: “We’re not at war, we’re at work,” said Baron. This was a smart warning not to get caught up in bringing down a president.

Today we are recognizing that our journalism must shift, not to a “war” but to an emergency footing. (Donald Trump, meanwhile, is calling himself a “wartime president.”) We feel we cannot keep telling wild and “newsy” stories about the unreliable narrator who somehow became president. Not with millions of lives at stake. We have to exit from that system to keep faith with you, and with the reason we became journalists in the first place.

Notes

I need to clarify what kind of text this is. I am not a news organization with a White House press pass. I am a journalism professor and writer who is also a press critic. Since 2015, I have written a lot about the problem of covering Donald Trump. This post is a further elaboration of that work. It is written in the voice of an editor’s note “announcing” a new policy. But I am not a news executive in a company of journalists, and I don’t want to give the impression that a national news organization has made this shift. As far as I know that has yet to happen.

 

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.

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 9 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.

The Christmas Eve Confessions of Chuck Todd

That disinformation was going to overtake Republican politics was discoverable years before he says he discovered it.

26 Dec 2019 1:40 am Comments Off on The Christmas Eve Confessions of Chuck Todd

‘Round midnight on Christmas eve, Rolling Stone posted a short interview with Chuck Todd, host of “the longest running show on television,” NBC’s Meet the Press.

Its contents were explosive, embarrassing, enraging, and just plain weird.

Three years after Kellyanne Conway introduced the doctrine of “alternative facts” on his own program, a light went on for Chuck Todd. Republican strategy, he now realized, was to make stuff up, spread it on social media, repeat it in your answers to journalists — even when you know it’s a lie with crumbs of truth mixed in — and then convert whatever controversy arises into go-get-em points with the base, while pocketing for the party a juicy dividend: additional mistrust of the news media to help insulate President Trump among loyalists when his increasingly brazen actions are reported as news.

Todd repeatedly called himself naive for not recognizing the pattern, itself an astounding statement that cast doubt on his fitness for office as host of Meet the Press. While the theme of the interview was waking up to the truth of Republican actions in the information warfare space, Todd went to sleep on the implications of what he revealed. It took him three years to understand a fact about American politics that was there on the surface, unconcealed since the day after inauguration. Many, many interpreters had described it for him during those lost years when he could not bring himself to believe it. (I am one.)

You cannot call that an oversight. It’s a strategic blindness that he superintended. By “strategic blindness” I mean what people mean when they quote Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The ostensible purpose of the Rolling Stone interview was to promote a special edition of Meet the Press on December 29 that will focus on the weaponization of disinformation. But its effect is to bring MTP — and by extension similar shows — into epistemological crisis. With Todd’s confessions the mask has come off. It could have come off a long time ago, but the anchors, producers, guests, advertisers and to an unknown degree the remaining viewers colluded in an act of make believe that lurched along until now. One way to say it: They agreed to pretend that Conway’s threatening phrase, “alternative facts” was just hyberbole, the kind of inflammatory moment that makes for viral clips and partisan bickering. More silly than it was ominous.

In reality she had made a grave announcement. The nature of the Trump government would be propagandistic. And as Garry Kasparov observes for us, “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” This exhaustion, this annihilation were on their way to the Sunday shows, and to all interactions with journalists. That is what Kellyanne Conway was saying that day on Meet the Press. But the people who run the show chose not to believe it.

That’s malpractice. Chuck Todd called it naiveté in order to minimize the error. This we cannot allow.

Now let’s look more closely at his Christmas Eve confessions

* “The Ukraine story for me really crystallized it,” Todd said. By “it” he meant the damage that disinformation “was doing to our politics.” His show has been “at the forefront” of the problem, he said. “Whether we’d liked it or not, our platform has been used, or they’ve attempted to use our platform” to disseminate fabrications. (What has to change to prevent this went unremarked upon.)

* “We have a systemic issue here.” Which is that it’s easy to spread lies through social media. (And on Meet the Press!)

* Peter Wade, the Rolling Stone interviewer, asked about Sean Spicer’s inauguration crowd size rant. “Were you surprised that the president and other administration officials and their allies just kept it going?” Todd’s answer: “I guess I really believed they wouldn’t do this. Just so absurdly naive in hindsight… if people want to read my answer to your question, ‘Boy, that Chuck Todd was hopelessly naive.’ Yeah, it looks pretty naive.”

* Todd said he had been studying up on Trump’s methods. “He learned at the feet of a master of deception in Roy Cohn, who learned at the feet of the original master of deception of sort of the modern political era in Joe McCarthy.” (But McCarthy not only deceived the country. He exploited existing routines in journalism to do it, which is the theme of this book. “He was able to generate massive publicity that made him the center of anti-communism because he understood the press, its practices and its values; he knew what made news.” The press was implicated in McCarthy’s rise because he had gamed it by, for example, announcing wild new charges just before the wire services deadline. The accusations would be out there. The investigation of them took more time and made less news.)

* Todd said he recognized that “the right has an incentive structure to utter the misinformation” when they come on his show. And they welcome a confrontation with journalists over it because fighting with the press helps them with core supporters. (Again, this seemed to be new information to him.)

* He said he he was “stunned” that Ted Cruz came on MTP and did as Senator John Kennedy had done before: repeat the debunked claim that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election in a material way. “I was stunned because he’s a Russia hawk… I was genuinely shocked.” He revealed that the Cruz camp had asked to come on Meet the Press in order to spread a false story! Another shock. “And I really naively thought, maybe he wants to remind people.” Meaning: remind them that the Ukraine plot is Russian disinformation. “And it turned out not to be the case.”

* “One of the things we don’t fully appreciate in mainstream media,” he said, is that “it’s become fun to attack the press,” and “it doesn’t matter if we’re right or wrong.” The attacks keep coming. “Trump has turned this into sport.”

* As if discovering this for the first time, he marveled at pervasive bad faith on the right. He said that prominent people he knows in the Republican coalition who would normally trust skeptical accounts in the establishment press over Sean Hannity’s latest conspiracy theory will now parrot the conspiracy theory. “Wow, have we gone off the rails on the right side of the silo of the conversation that’s taking place.”

* He confessed to not understanding the motivations of Republican office holders who spread lies that are easily disproved. “I don’t get why so many people are comfortable uttering stuff that they may know will look ridiculous in three or four years.”

* He said that when the Trump era is concluded, “we’re going to have another reckoning” over how the press performed during it. About journalists in the run-up to the Iraq war, he said it’s not that they didn’t believe what they were reporting, but reported it anyway. Rather: “They were too trusting of their sources. They maybe were too naive.” (That word again…)

* Throughout the interview, Todd repeatedly changed the term “disinformation” in Rolling Stone’s questions to “misinformation” in his answers, as if United States Senators were just poorly informed and not actively and deliberately misleading the public. (Thus he continued to perform his naiveté while simultaneously calling himself out for it, a weird combo.)

* In a crucial error of omission, he said nothing about what he or his show would do to change course— other than broadcast his Dec. 29th special on the problem of misinformation.

* And to cap it off, he said of Republican operatives and office holders. “I think we all made the mistake of not following Toni Morrison’s advice, which is when people tell you who they are, believe them.” (Fact check: It was Maya Angelou who said this, not Toni Morrison.)

What to make of this performance?

It’s not naive of him. It’s malpractice. Chuck Todd’s entire brand is based on the claim that he understands politics. Since 2007 he has been NBC’s political director, which means he has influence over all coverage. He is literally the in-house expert on the subject. You don’t get to claim you are naive about politics when you have these kinds of positions. It would be like a chief risk officer saying, “I didn’t understand the gamble we were taking.” Well, that’s your job.

It’s not that he was naive. He did not care to listen. I am going to use my own writing to show what I mean, but there are many others who could be quoted in similar fashion. On January 22, 2017, two days after Trump was inaugurated, I wrote about Sean Spicer’s crowd size spectacular. There are several audiences for it, I said. One of course was the press. For them the message was…

We are not bound by what you call facts. We have our own, and we will proceed to put them out regardless of what the evidence says. It’s not a problem for us if you stagger from the room in disbelief. We’re not trying to “win the news cycle,” or win you over. We’re trying to demonstrate independence from and power over you people. This room is not just for briefings, announcements and Q & A. It’s also a theater of resentment in which you play a crucial part. Our constituency hates your guts; this is the place where we commune with them around that fact. See you tomorrow, guys!

Another message went to core supporters:

To the core Trump constituency — and an audience primed for this over years of acrid ‘liberal media’ critique — two things were said. “We’re going to rough these people up.” (Because we know how long you have waited for that.) But also, and in return, you have to accept our “alternative facts” even if your own eyes tell you otherwise. This too is a stark message. The epistemological “price” for being a solider in Trump’s army is high. You have to swallow, repeat and defend things that simply don’t check out.

That disinformation was going to overtake Republican politics was discoverable years before Chuck Todd discovered it. That attacks on the press were baked into Trump’s political style was knowable from 2015 on.

It’s not naiveté. It’s a willful blindness to what the Republican Party had become. Four years before Trump was elected, Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein wrote, “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Chuck Todd as NBC’s political director, and Meet the Press as its premiere politics show could have taken seriously what these exemplary members of the Washington establishment were saying back in 2012. They chose not to, but not because of their naiveté. They thought they knew better than Mann and Ornstein. And they were probably afraid of sounding too extreme themselves.

He’s not naive. He’s an insider who thought his read was better. You can smell on his Christmas eve confessions the regrets of the insider who thought he knew these people well because he broke bread with them, rang them up for off-the-record conversations, and enjoyed the kind of green room bonhomie that says, “sure, we have different roles, but we’re all part of the same industry called Washington.” He thought he could predict what a Ted Cruz would do because he has behind-the-scenes knowledge. Naiveté is not a good word for that. He thought himself savvier than the rest of us. I was not at all shocked that Senator Cruz took the party line on Ukraine interfering in 2016. Were you? Todd was because he had miseducated himself.

It’s not naive. It’s a lack of imagination, a failure of insight. The practices common to political journalism have premises to them. When the premises shatter, the practices make less sense. This has been the central problem of covering the Trump movement since 2015. (I wrote about it here.) A simple example is fact-checking. One of its premises is that candidates and office-holders can be shamed into staying roughly within factual bounds. A president who has no sense of shame “breaks” the practice by busting the premise. Doesn’t mean you stop fact-checking. But you do have to alter your expectations, and start thinking about alternatives.

A key premise for Meet the Press is symmetry between the two major political parties. The whole show is built on that. But in the information sphere — the subject of Chuck Todd’s confessions — asymmetry has taken command. The right wing ecosystem for news does not operate like the rest of the country’s news system. And increasingly conservative politics is getting sucked into conservative media. It makes more sense to see Fox News and the Trump White House as two parts of the same organism. As these trends grind on they put stress on Meet the Press practices. But it takes imagination to see how the show might be affected— or changed. In place of that we have Chuck Todd pleading naiveté.

So what will they do now? My answer: they have no earthly idea. This is what I mean by an epistemological crisis. Chuck Todd has essentially said that on the right there is an incentive structure that compels Republican office holders to use their time on Meet the Press for the spread of disinformation. So do you keep inviting them on air to do just that? If so, then you break faith with the audience and create a massive problem in real time fact-checking. If not, then you just broke the show in half.

There is simply nothing in the playbook at Meet the Press that tells the producers what to do in this situation. As I have tried to show, they didn’t arrive here through acts of naiveté, but by willful blindness, malpractice among the experts in charge, an insider’s mentality, a listening breakdown, a failure of imagination, and sheer disbelief that the world could have changed so much upon people paid so well to understand it.

Bad headline, small changes at the New York Times

Anxiety over the core audience's rising influence helps explain events after 'Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.'

15 Aug 2019 6:20 pm 70 Comments

Knowing the characters involved — columnist Joan Walsh and the New York Times — this announcement last week caught my eye:


Separating from the Times was not a decision she took lightly, Walsh said. “I’ve put this off for almost 3 years. They are blowing their coverage of this crisis. I’m out.”

I’m still in. I consider myself a Times loyalist. My loyalty is expressed through criticism and watchfulness, and by paying for a digital (plus print on weekends) subscription. I have no stake in the company, but in the institution of the Times, especially the ongoing journalism of it, I do feel a kind of stake, a public one. It’s not clear to me how I am supposed to protect it. So I write.

What do you do?

At this site ten months ago, I tried to explain why there was such tension between Times journalists and many of their core readers— like say, people who follow Joan Walsh! (Absorb that earlier post before this one if you really want my sense of the situation.)

The core readers have more power now. They are a bigger part of the mix. How that power should be recognized, when it might be used, how to listen carefully to it without listening too much… no one really knows yet. The digital audience itself, the Times own interconnected public, does not know its own power.

But how to achieve independence from the newest corrupting influence — the most attached part of the audience — is already a live concern among Times editors. These events lie in the background of Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism, which is not just a hastily abandoned headline but the name of a public episode now.

The readers have more power:

They have more power because they have more choices. And because the internet, where most of the reading happens, is inherently two-way. Also because Times journalists are now exposed to opinion and reaction on social media. And especially because readers are paying more of the costs. Their direct payments are keeping the Times afloat. This will be increasingly so in the future, as the advertising business gets absorbed by the tech industry. The Times depends on its readers’ support more than it ever has.

1.) Depends on readers’ support more than it ever has. 2.) Got rid of the public editor. That’s an example of the kind of disconnect that has created tension.

Meanwhile, pressures on the news system because an authoritarian got into office are exposing to public view parts of the Times that have never been strong. For example, filtering out the more lurid and unfounded criticisms to hear what concerned people are trying to tell you. The Times is not great at that.

The Times is not great at learning from past mistakes when the fuller dimensions of that mistake come into view. Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia. Or at reframing the way they approach Trump’s racism, away from a long string of deplorable incidents to a structural, load-bearing and thus central feature of his campaign and presidency.

Steven Greenhouse is a former reporter for the New York Times:

Maybe that “decades-old journalistic reflex” no longer applies. Maybe this is the kind of updated thinking people outside the Times are pushing for. James Fallows of the Atlantic said it on Twitter today:

the NYT is overall by far the most ambitious and “best” US news organization. But its framing of US national politics, “what about the emails!” onward, [is] really not at the standard of rest of the organization, or what the country needs.

The people outside the Times trying to tell the Times this are for the most part liberal and cosmopolitan, part of the core readership. They are appalled by Trump and want to see his dark sides further exposed. They want the Times to be tougher on his supporters and more relentless in calling out his lying, his racism, his misogyny, his xenophobia. They want Times journalists to see what they see — an assault on democratic institutions — and to act accordingly. And they want a reckoning with the coverage of Hillary Clinton in 2016 because they know that somehow this is in the way of all other things.

They are not wrong to want these from the New York Times. Each point can be acted upon within the rules of hard-hitting investigative journalism and a traditional check-on-power stance, adapted to the urgency of the hour. The reckoning with 2016 is something any good institution would do to learn and progress after a major failure. But the Times seems unable to get to that place.

In October, 2018 I made an easy prediction.

In so many ways since the election, the Times has risen to the occasion and excelled. But it has a problem with its core supporters. Until it is put right, there will be blow-ups, resentments and a lot of misunderstanding.

The mixture I described came to a boil this week and last. Not a boil over. Just a boil. But contained movement is still movement. I will try to isolate for you some of the small changes.

It started on August 5th. Public reaction to a majestically bad headline, Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism, was so strong that executive editor Dean Baquet had to do multiple interviews to explain what happened and limit the damage. These pieces are still coming in.

On Monday, August 12, Baquet called a staff meeting at the Times to air complaints. According to reports in the Daily Beast and Vanity Fair, journalists of color and younger generations of Times journalists often led the questioning. Inconsistency and lack of logic in calling things racist were said to be some of the items on the table. Though quickly corrected, the bad headline remained a flashpoint inside the paper and out.

One of the editors on Baquet’s team explained it this way:

“I think this is a really difficult story to cover, the story of Donald Trump and race and his character. We’re in a bit of uncharted territory. There is definitely some friction over, how does the paper position itself?

A Times newsroom in uncharted territory. Uncertainty over where to stand in the triangle formed by Trump, race and American politics. These were not the confident tones the editors had been striking before Monday’s meeting, or before the wildly discordant headline. Small change.

That nameless Times editor (there are lots of them in this episode) asks a good question: how does the paper position itself toward the Trump movement, which incorporates the New York Times as a hate object and tries to disqualify Times journalism in the minds of Trump supporters before they have read it, even though Donald Trump lives and dies by what the New York Times says about him?

What kind of public actor can readers, supporters and subscribers realistically expect the Times to be? And what kind of actions — what range of proper motion — can its own journalists expect from the institution they have joined?

These are some of the problems that came to a boil this week. But as I said, only a mild boil.

There is still no public editor to push the discussion along. But “why did we get rid of the public editor?” is now a question on the floor at staff meetings, the Daily Beast reported. It was asked of Dean Baquet in one of his sorry-for-that-bad-headline interviews. A decision announced in June 2017 is being publicly doubted two years later. It’s like the case against it has been re-opened. Small changes.

According to Vanity Fair, an editor at the Times said this week:

Reporters on the front lines, particularly reporters of color, are really attuned to something happening in the country that is, to a lot of them, deeply scary, both personally and politically, and there’s a hunger to have a conversation about it. If this rhetoric continues, how is the Times covering it? What are the rules of engagement for a president who traffics in this stuff? How do we, as a newsroom, grapple with that?

Does it sound like they know what to do next? Not so much, right? That too is movement.

Check out this attitude among the editors, as reported by Vanity Fair. “There’s a clear feeling from the top that we’re not gonna be a part of the resistance, and how that gets translated day to day can frustrate people.” (My emphasis.)

That clear feeling came through when Dean Baquet spoke to CNN this week.

What Baquet is certain about is that The Times should not serve as a publication of the left. “Our role is not to be the leader of the resistance,” he said, adding that “one of the problems” that would come about if the paper took that role is that “inevitably the resistance in America wins.” Baquet further explained, “Inevitably the people outside power gain power again. And at that point, what are you? You’re just a chump of the people who won. Our role is to hold everybody who has power to account.”

As a Times loyalist, I kind of resent the implication: Come join our resistance, New York Times! As if that’s what we want from the journalism, to do our politics for us. We’re not gonna be part of the resistance says nothing about how to provide less assistance to Trump’s othering instincts. We’re not gonna be part of the resistance doesn’t tell you what to do if Trump breaks through all barriers and runs a specifically racist campaign from the pulpit of the presidency.

I asked earlier what kind of public actor can readers, supporters and subscribers realistically expect the Times to be? We got an answer this week. The kind of actor that still thinks it’s just an observer. But in August 2019 there is greater pressure on that piece of pressthink than there was in July. It’s not only coming from the people who read Joan Walsh and watch her on CNN. There’s a generational divide within the Times newsroom. The source for that claim is Dean Baquet:

Baquet himself acknowledged this tension inside his newsroom. He also acknowledged that it is playing out largely across generational lines. Younger staffers generally feel The Times should be more aggressive and explicit in its coverage of Trump. Older staffers generally prefer taking the more traditional approach espoused by Baquet.

“There is a generational divide in newsrooms right now,” Baquet said. But he flatly rejected the notion that The Times has not covered Trump boldly enough, saying, “My own view is that we are covering Donald Trump very aggressively.”

I close with something you are not hearing from other commentators on these bumpy days at the New York Times .

Anxiety about the core audience’s rising influence is interfering with the newsroom’s ability to listen to its environment. A segment of the most attached readership has been vocal about its dissatisfactions. That’s good; it means they care. The editors have been adamant about hearing this criticism as a call to abandon journalism and do politics instead: join the resistance.

But now there’s a new factor. Some of the same dissatisfactions are shared by a younger and more diverse generation of Times journalists, people the organization cannot succeed without. The restiveness of this cohort changes the equation some. Instead of “we do Times journalism” vs. “please do resistance politics,” which is Baquet’s way of framing the choices — and dumbing down the debate — the next generation have made it about different ways to stand toward the staggering reality of Trump’s racism.

That’s a small change for now. But it could turn out to be big.

Update: The Transcript, August 17, 2019

Shortly after I posted this piece, Ashley Feinberg of Slate published a lightly edited transcript of the staff meeting between Baquet with his top editors and the rank and file. “The New York Times Unites vs. Twitter” was the headline Slate put on it. Feinberg wrote:

The problem for the Times is not whether it can navigate social-media controversies or satisfy an appetite for #resistance-based outrage, both of which it can tell itself are not a newspaper’s job to do. It’s whether it has the tools to make sense of the world. On this point, Baquet was not reassuring or convincing.

Exactly! (My italics.) Here are some quotes from Times staffers that show what I meant above by a generational divide.

Unnamed staffer: “I am concerned that the Times is failing to rise to the challenge of a historical moment. What I have heard from top leadership is a conservative approach that I don’t think honors the Times’ powerful history of adversarial journalism.”

Unnamed staffer: “Wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know?”

Unnamed staffer: “A headline like that simply amplifies without critique the desired narrative of the most powerful figure in the country. If the Times’ mission is now to take at face value and simply repeat the claims of the powerful, that’s news to me.”

Unnamed staffer: “One of the reasons people have such a problem with a headline like this—or some things that the New York Times reports on— is because they care so much… They are depending on us to keep kicking down the doors.”

Meanwhile, David Roberts of Vox, who normally writes about climate change, put it this way in an exasperated thread reacting to this post:

What frustrates people is not that they want to see the word “racist” in the paper. What frustrates them is that the country’s core institutions are under assault by a radical ethnonationalist minority and the sense of crisis is not being conveyed.

It has always struck me that while the people at the New York Times consider it the apex of journalism, the highest the ladder of excellence goes, they have not extended that reputation for quality to the acts of listening, receiving criticism, sorting signal from noise, and changing their work. It’s like they know they can’t do it well, so they don’t even try. And being the best in the world at listening and evolving isn’t even an aspiration there. “We are not the resistance” is a crappy read on what people are trying to tell you. But this is one area where mediocrity and worse — incompetence — is tolerated at the Times. Responsibility for that has to flow to Dean Baquet. There is no other place it can pool.

A current list of my top problems in pressthink, August 2019

These are the things I spend the most time puzzling about. Ranked by urgency. Updated from time to time.

6 Aug 2019 4:28 pm 20 Comments

1. The entire system for covering the Trump presidency is wrongly conceived. It needs to be rebuilt, faulty premise by faulty premise. But there has never been such a rebuild while the story is running hot. No one knows how it can be done. Reporting what he said today amplifies his falsehoods and hatreds, which is unacceptable, but ignoring what he said pretends it never happened, which is unacceptable in a different way.

(Here’s my thread about that problem. Here’s an article about it. This podcast is also good.)

2. Explicitly or implicitly, it seems likely that Trump is going to run a racist re-election campaign in 2020, in which “othering” (not a word I like, but it’s the best I can do…) is basic to his appeal to voters. This goes way beyond noisy controversies like whether to use the term “racist.” Is the press ready for a campaign like that? Does it have the people and practices in place to respond? Is it willing to break with precedent to meet a threat without parallel? I doubt it.

3. If there somehow arises among American journalists a determination to assume a more forceful role within the atmosphere of civic emergency created by Trump, what are the best sources of inspiration — from press history, from journalists in other countries, or from adjacent fields — that can be drawn upon to guide, shape, justify and delimit these efforts?

4. So far the debacle in 2016 has not brought forth any dramatic shift in approach in covering the 2020 election. An alternative to the horse race model does exist. It’s called the citizens agenda. It starts by asking the voters you are trying to inform, “what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” But how do we get more newsrooms to give it a try?

5. Something has gone awry in the relationship between New York Times journalists and core readers of the Times, a category in which I include myself. I tried to describe the problem here. As far as I can tell, no one in leadership is concerned about it. And there’s no longer a public editor who can inquire. The Washington Post seems far more agile and fluent in adjusting to new conditions. The Times is still great, still essential, still (for now) the flagship in the American fleet. As a business it has recovered its bearings and it is doing well. But the newsroom and the editorial page are having trouble navigating the culture wars. They seem to think that backlash from their most loyal readers is proof of a job well done, or something they must ignore— on principle, as it were.

6. Now in its 14th year, the collapse of the news industry’s business model is still unresolved, leading to an especially acute crisis in local news. Google and Facebook dominate the digital ad market because they own the data required to target individual users. Among legacy producers like the local newspaper, the consensus strategy is to push for digital subscriptions. But there are huge problems with that. These are companies accustomed to monopoly conditions in a manufacturing business. With a handful of exceptions, they are unprepared for technology-rich, data-centric and customer-first models. Many of the professionals in these newsrooms believe that people ought to pay them for the same journalism they have always practiced. That attitude is not going to get it done.

7. Membership models are an alternative to subscription plays but people in journalism tend to group them together as rough equivalents. In fact they lead in opposite directions and imply different requirements for newsrooms. Subscription is a product relationship: you pay your money and you get the product. If you don’t pay you don’t get it. Membership means you join the cause because you believe in the work. If you believe in the work you want it to spread, even to non-members. Therefore membership does not require a digital paywall. Subscription does. But for membership to work, there first has to be a cause worth joining, as well as opportunities for members to participate. Again, that is unlike a subscription business. Grouping them together just fuzzes everything up.