After Donald Trump’s victory shocked a media that was confidently and happily predicting a safe, historic win for Hillary Clinton, the New York Times seems to dimly recognize it has a credibility problem. Times media writer Jim Rutenberg noted in a front-page mea culpa on behalf of both his paper and his industry Thursday: “Most ominously, it came in the form of canceled subscriptions, something that will surely be monitored.”
It turns out the Times can’t really shape public opinion, much as the it has tried over the years. The latest evidence is a fascinating story posted to Deadline on Friday, by former Times-man Michael Cieply describing how editors put news reporting on the backburner in favor of trying to shape the news itself, by establishing a narrative of coverage and then finding facts and assigning stories to fit it (here’s one notorious example from the Iraq War by James Dao from October 2005.)
Cieply rehashed post-election comments by Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Public Editor Liz Spayd (which Newsbusters addressed here) before some inside observations on how the Times’ ambition to control the national narrative has left it adrift from much of America:
Having left the Times on July 25, after almost 12 years as an editor and correspondent, I missed the main heat of the presidential campaign; so I can’t add a word to those self-assessments of the recent political coverage. But these recent mornings-after leave me with some hard-earned thoughts about the Times’ drift from its moorings in the nation at-large.
For starters, it’s important to accept that the New York Times has always -- or at least for many decades -- been a far more editor-driven, and self-conscious, publication than many of those with which it competes. Historically, the Los Angeles Times, where I worked twice, for instance, was a reporter-driven, bottom-up newspaper. Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?”
It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.
Reality usually had a way of intervening. But I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the Los Angeles bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: “My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?”
The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: “We set the agenda for the country in that room.”
Cieply poo-pooed the NYT’s institutional arrogance:
....To believe the national agenda was being set in a conference room in a headquarters on Manhattan’s Times Square required a very special mind-set indeed....the paper seemed to lose interest in much that was happening on the ground even in Los Angeles -- New York’s palm tree-lined sister city -- never mind those half-forgotten spots in Pennsylvania or Oklahoma.
Sensing a disturbance, Times brass sent an unusual note to subscribers Friday, signed by Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Executive Editor Dean Baquet. They glossed over what they acknowledged was the “unexpected climax” of Trump’s win, then praised the newsroom, which “turned on a dime and did what it has done for nearly two years -- cover the 2016 election with agility and creativity.”
After such an erratic and unpredictable election there are inevitable questions: Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters? What forces and strains in America drove this divisive election and outcome? Most important, how will a president who remains a largely enigmatic figure actually govern when he takes office?
As we reflect on this week’s momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you. It is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly. We believe we reported on both candidates fairly during the presidential campaign. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.