Nervous that critics might view the paper as too partisan and too liberal, The New York Times has told some of its reporters to stay off MSNBC, and specifically off Rachel Maddow’s award-winning program in prime time. MSNBC president Phil Griffin sat down with Times executive editor Dean Baquet in hopes of smoothing things over, but no agreement was reached, CNN reported. “Baquet and other managers have become increasingly concerned that if a Times reporter were to go on one of these shows, his or her appearance could be perceived as being aligned with that show’s political leanings,” Vanity Fair recently noted. Read: The Times is nervous about being tagged as progressive.
Why, amidst the never-ending crisis that Donald Trump represents to this country and to journalism, would Times editors focus their attention on sparking a feud with a cable news channel, not over content but over booking guests? Instead of banding together with major news outlets to combat Trump’s unprecedented war on the free press (“Enemies of the people!”), the Times is pulling reporters off MSNBC because of optics? And because of optics that only conservatives care about?
And that is key: The whole policy seems designed as a way for nervous Times editors to inoculate the paper from more accusations of “liberal media bias.” The paper is foolishly altering long-standing policy in desperate hopes that right-wing critics will back off the newspaper. Yet that just proves that the editors have no idea how the “liberal media bias” game works, since those allegations are launched with no regard to honest debate or facts. In fact, Fox News has feasted on stories of the daily newspaper snubbing MSNBC: “The New York Times didn’t want its reporters appearing on Maddow’s show, because she was too far left.”
The whole kerfuffle comes across as petty and highlights the Times’ identity crisis in the age of Trump. Instead of rushing to the frontlines and aggressively confronting America’s first pathological liar president, the Times too often embraces timidity, as in its bewildering policy of not calling Trump a liar in the news pages. The paper clings to the idea that sophisticated reporters can’t actually tell if he is lying or just confused and misinformed. In essence, the paper is choosing its role as insider White House chronicler over that of aggressive truth teller.
The newsroom knows it should be unabashedly critical and confrontational, and that’s how the paper markets itself. But who can forget how, in 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 official reason behind the unfolding MSNBC ban is that the Times’ newsroom guidelines urge reporters to stay away from overly opinionated programming. And I appreciate the significance of that. Years ago I argued that National Public Radio was badly damaging its brand of independent journalism by allowing reporter Mara Liasson to constantly appear on Fox News, which broadcasts racist, hateful programming without pause. NPR allowed the Liasson appearances despite the fact that the radio network’s code of ethics stipulated that reporters should not take part “in shows, electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”
That was concerning in the case of Fox News, a network that openly broadcasts propaganda. There’s obviously nothing in MSNBC’s programming day that even remotely mirrors the hallmark dishonesty that Fox News proudly displays. The Times’ newsroom policy currently states, “Staff members should avoid strident, theatrical forums that emphasize punditry and reckless opinion-mongering.” Does anyone at the Times actually believe meticulous-minded Maddow engages in “reckless opinion-mongering”?
Note that, in the past, the Times didn’t mind sending reporters onto Fox News when it meant attacking Hillary Clinton. Back in 2015, Times reporter Jo Becker happily cooperated with Fox News for its 60-minute special The Tangled Clinton Web. Based on the sloppy, partisan book Clinton Cash, which was published by Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins and heavily promoted by Murdoch’s Fox News, Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, and Murdoch’s New York Post, The Tangled Clinton Web was a mishmash of half-baked Clinton conspiracy theories that had Hillary and Bill Clinton at the center of a supposed vast web of international bribes and payoffs. Why did Becker appear? Because she wrote a controversial Times piece that was inspired by Clinton Cash. Part of the Times‘ misguided “exclusive” arrangement with the book’s author, Becker’s article tried, and failed, to show that donations to the Clinton Foundation influenced Clinton’s State Department when it signed off on the sale of Uranium One, a Canadian company with uranium mining claims in the U.S., to the Russian atomic energy agency, Rosatom.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to shake the idea that institutional jealousy isn’t driving some of the Times’ current policy toward MSNBC and Maddow. The host, of course, has certainly dedicated more airtime than anyone in television to the Russia investigation, dissecting all the details and providing a wide context for the still-unfolding scandals. The Times, on the other hand, famously bungled the Russia hacking story during the 2016 elections, to the point where the paper’s public editor wrote two stinging columns about the newsroom’s Russia failure. (The public editor’s position was soon eliminated.)
A tip: The New York Times should spend more time standing up to Trump, and less time standing up to MSNBC.