With the recent revelation that the FBI has long suspected Donald Trump of being a Russian puppet, Dean Baquet owes Liz Spayd an overdue apology. In May 2017, Baquet, as New York Times executive editor, oversaw the elimination of the paper’s public-editor position, effectively firing Spayd before her two-year term was up. As public editor, it was Spayd’s job to act as an internal Times watchdog, answer reader questions, and address concerns about news coverage.
Why was Spayd pushed out?
In November 2016 and again in January 2017, Spayd wrote columns that criticized the paper’s “timid” coverage of the Russia hacking scandal during the presidential campaign. Complaining that the Times essentially missed the blockbuster story, and that the newsroom was far too slow in covering the unfolding scandal, Spayd lowered the boom. She claimed readers had been “shortchanged” on the Russia hacking story, while the Times newsroom seemed completely “turbocharged” in covering Hillary Clinton’s emails during the same election cycle.
“The Times should have assembled a strike force and given it a mandate to make this story its top priority,” Spayd wrote of the Russia hacking story. “There are few more crucial assertions than whether a possible occupant of the White House participated in an act of espionage against his country.”
She also took aim at a now-notorious election-eve Times article from October 31, 2016. “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia,” read the Times headline. Investigators “have become increasingly confident, based on the evidence they have uncovered, that Russia’s direct goal is not to support the election of Mr. Trump,” the Times reported. It’s a passage that brings instant embarrassment today, given the avalanche of evidence that has surfaced confirming a strong connection between Russia and the Trump campaign.
At the time, the Times’ no-Russia-connection claim provided the Trump camp with crucial political cover during the closing days of the campaign. The article helped put the media brakes on the unfolding Russian hacking story that could have crippled Trump. Yet the newspaper itself last week confirmed that Trump’s ties to the Kremlin appear to run so deep that the FBI itself opened up an investigation.
Back in January 2017, Baquet was so furious with Spayd’s valid criticism of the Times‘ soft Russia coverage that he actually aired his complaints to the Times’ archrival, the Washington Post, denouncing the Times’ public editor’s work as “bad,” and insulted Spayd by claiming, “She doesn’t understand what happened.” Four months later Spayd’s position was axed, and Times insiders told Politico that Spayd was shown the door specifically because her criticism of the paper’s Russia coverage was seen as being too negative.
Fast-forward to 2019, and everything Spayd wrote about the Times‘ timid Russia coverage in 2016 has proven to be true.
That’s why Baquet owes her an apology. And more importantly, that’s why Baquet and the Times owe readers a long-past-due explanation for what went wrong on the Russia beat in 2016.
Keep in mind that during the previous decade, when the Times suffered two cataclysmic embarrassments in the form of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal and the paper’s deeply flawed reporting during the run-up to the Iraq War, the newspaper—eventually—conceded its mistakes and offered readers detailed explanations of what went wrong.
Compare that with the blanket of denial that covers the Times’ Russia failure.
Note that when announcing that the position of public editor was suddenly and summarily being eliminated, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. explained in a memo to staff in 2017 that—believe it or not—social media would serve as the paper’s collective public editor, because readers would hold the paper accountable. Yet for nearly two years, readers and countless Twitter users have demanded answers about the Times’ Russia reporting from 2016, and received few if any substantive responses. (Last May, Baquet blamed bad headline-writing for the Times’ infamous no-Russia-connection debacle.)
Meanwhile,Times leaders duck the tough questions, which persist, unanswered.
Keep in mind that, for that awful October 31, 2016, story, Sen. Harry Reid’s spokesman claimed Reid was interviewed for the Times’ article. Reid had pushed back hard against the paper’s timid premise that there was no Trump-Russia connection, but his comments were omitted from the story.
Meanwhile, who were the anonymous “law enforcement officials” quoted in the no-Russia-connection Times story that appear to have flat-out lied about Trump’s behavior? And do reporters still use those sources today?
How dubious was the Times’ Russia coverage in 2016? Prior to the election, Times reporters knew about the blockbuster Steele dossier, which detailed international concerns about Trump’s Russia alliance. Over time, the dossier has proven to be remarkably accurate. During the 2016 campaign, the Times knew that the dossier’s author was a respected British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, and could find no holes or red flags in the dossier information that was checkable. Yet the newspaper sat on the sensational news of the dossier’s existence.
This is the same newspaper that had spent 18 months treating Hillary Clinton’s emails like Iran-Contra and Watergate put together.
Can you imagine, for instance, the Times ever ignoring a story during the last campaign season about a British intel officer who had collected allegations that the Clinton Foundation was illegally funneling donations?
Now that we know the FBI was actively investigating whether Trump was a Russian asset, the Times really needs to embrace a modicum of transparency and explain why the paper sat on the dossier story; why it seemed afraid of upsetting Trump with Russia reporting while the newspaper simultaneously waged war on the Clinton email story; and why the daily infamously reported that the FBI saw no connection between Trump and Russia, when that just wasn’t true.