Two years ago when The New York Times eliminated its public editor position after the ombudsman wrote two tough critiques of the paper’s “timid” Russia hacking coverage in 2016, executives at the publication suggested the Times didn’t need an internal watchdog to hold the staff accountable, because that’s what Twitter does today. The reasoning was a dopey dodge, since short tweets raising concerns about the paper’s performance obviously don’t carry the same weight as 900-word columns published in the Times and written by a full-time public editor. But on the off chance that retreating Times executives actually meant what they said about Twitter holding the paper accountable, then Memorial Day weekend proved to be a strong example as the daily was absolutely pummeled by tweets for days, roundly and loudly criticized for some atrocious Trump-era reporting. “It truly is a weekend of wtf for the @nytimes,” tweeted journalist Soledad O’Brien. “Bad reporting. Poor framing. Terrible editing. Bad decision making. Just a mess.”
Indeed, the rhetorical Twitter beatdown helped shine a spotlight on the fact that the Times, and specifically its Washington bureau, simply isn’t up to the task of covering Donald Trump’s presidency. These are extraordinary times, as the radical Republican shreds norms on a near-daily basis. But the Times cannot, or will not, rise to the occasion. Instead of brave, groundbreaking reporting we get timidity, and we get Times reporters still coddling dishonest Trump-era sources, such as former White House communications director Hope Hicks. It’s all part of the Times’s current-day identity crisis: The newsroom knows it should be unabashedly critical and confrontational, and that’s how the paper markets itself under Trump. But in reality, the paper’s reporters and editors are too timid to regularly deliver the goods.
Note that I’m not writing an entire column detailing all the Trump-era missteps at CNN, or the Washington Post, or CBS News, or the Los Angeles Times. I’m not suggesting those news operations are without fault, because they definitely are not. But I am saying there is no major news outlet in America today that so consistently advertises its shortcomings the way the Times does, and there’s no other news organization that so staunchly refuses to concede missteps. A cult-like defense now permeates the newsroom, where staffers remain convinced every Times critic is naïve and misguided, and can’t possibly understand how the sophisticated players at the paper are keyed into the Trump-era truth.
But wait! The Times has won Pulitzer Prize awards for its Trump reporting, so that proves the paper is doing a great job, right? Nope. What that proves is that Times journalists who operate outside the paper’s Washington bureau often score with important and deeply reported investigations into Trump’s disturbing past, while the Times’s Beltway crew works to normalize his presidency. Two egregious Times articles in particular stunned media observers in recent days.
One was a deeply peculiar article about former White House communications director Hope Hicks and how she faces, as the Times put it, an “existential choice” of whether or not to comply with a congressional subpoena. The news article also featured an oddly glamorous, stylized photo of Hicks. Think about the mindset that the piece even required, both from the reporter who wrote it, (Maggie Haberman) and the editor who oversaw the article—the mindset being that of course, members of Trump’s inner circle have a “choice” of whether they want to comply with a congressional subpoena, as if that’s the legal norm for you and me. Think about how deep into the dysfunctional game of normalizing Trump you have to be to even think about framing the Hicks story the way the newspaper did. (The puff piece was also riddled with missteps, and follows a long line of fawning Hicks coverage at the Times.)
The Hicks article really did seem to capture how badly the paper has lost touch with its calling, and the dangerous consequences of those failures. “When a respected paper such as @nytimes calls this an ‘existential’ question, rather than a question about complying with the law, we have a very serious problem with our democracy,” stressed Princeton University historian, Julian Zelizer. “This is what it looks like to become dysfunctional.”
The other piece that produced Twitter howls was an in-depth Times article, complete with a timeline, that documented the array of insults Trump has used to describe Democratic candidates. All the article did was amplify Trump’s idiocy by repeating his childish taunts about his political opponents and treating them as important news. (They’re not, and the press shouldn’t treat them as such.)
But honestly, that’s not all that’s been glaringly wrong with the paper recently. Late last week, after Trump used Twitter to share a doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Times completely ignored the incident in its write-up of what the paper claimed was a Both Sides “war of words” that had broken out between Trump and Pelosi as they questioned each others’ fitness for office. Please note that Pelosi questioned Trump’s fitness based on his erratic behavior and comments, while Trump questioned Pelosi’s fitness based on a manipulated video. Yet the Times treated those as equal.
This train of timidity travels on and on. Last month while covering a Trump rally where he told a ghastly lie about Democrats supporting infanticide, the Times could only summon enough courage to call Trump’s hideous declaration “a standard, and inaccurate, refrain.” Back in February, Trump told a gargantuan lie when he claimed that 72% of arrested undocumented immigrants don’t show up for mandatory court appearances. He was off by 70 points: The actual figure is 2%. The Times politely labeled that a “false statement.” The daily has been extraordinarily reticent in telling the truth about Trump being a pathological liar.
That’s when the paper hasn’t been busy hyping White House talking points. In late March, having read not one page of Robert Mueller’s report on his Russia investigation, the Times rushed to announce that Trump had been exonerated and that Mueller’s conclusions had provided Trump with a “powerful boost” toward reelection. The Times made that sweeping conclusion having only been given Attorney General William Barr’s four-page press release, which we now know was riddled with false spin.
The New York Times is the most famous and powerful news organization in America. It’s a shame the newspaper’s not up to the Trump-era challenge.