During Sunday’s Reliable Sources, host Brian Stelter and his panel discussed a book by former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson that argues that the paper has become too anti-Trump. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni did his best to justify the paper’s coverage of the President, describing the negative coverage as “the only honest way to cover this President.”
The segment began with Stelter reading aloud a passage of Abramson’s forthcoming book, Merchants of Truth, that specifically references her successor, Dean Baquet: “His news pages were unmistakably anti-Trump. Some headlines contained raw opinion as did some of the stories that were labeled as news analysis.” Stelter continued: “she also wrote in the book that the Times has a mostly liberal audience ‘so there was an implicit financial reward for the Times in running lots of Trump stories, almost all of them negative,’ in order to gain subscribers.”
Stelter asked Bruni to respond to Abramson’s comments in the book and he tried to downplay the idea that the paper has an anti-Trump bias, arguing that those comments only constituted “a small part of what she said.” According to Bruni, “when she asks questions about coverage and coverage of 2016, she spends more time questioning the way we covered Hillary Clinton… than she does the way we covered Donald Trump. So this one little strand… it’s not being reported inaccurately, has been blown out of proportion as her main point and it is one of many, many points.”
Bruni disagreed with “the idea that news coverage of Trump is negative,” arguing that his behavior justifies the unflattering press: “No one has lied like him...no one has had the sort of ethical problems that he does, no one has had the areas of ignorance. To call that out accurately is to end up with a body of coverage that is unusually negative but it is absolutely appropriate to the man and the situation at hand.” Stelter then asked Bruni if the Times’s coverage was “negative but accurate.”
After responding in the affirmative, Bruni argued that “I don’t think we have been anti-Trump. I think we have been negative and I think that’s the only honest way to cover this President.”
Bruni did admit that “I think the one way we leave ourselves vulnerable is that the tone can become mocking and sneering and I don’t just mean on the opinion pages, where that’s not so unusual, but sometimes in news coverage.” Still, it seems unlikely that Bruni’s colleagues at the Times will take his advice and modify their tone.
Shockingly, this exchange on Reliable Sources was followed by Never-Trumper David Frum complaining that “the prestige press in this country has a pro-Trump bias,” as Newsbusters has previously reported. While the panel on Reliable Sources might not be able to figure out which side the media favors, polls of journalists and the American public at large paint a picture of an overwhelmingly liberal media bias that looks unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
A transcript of the relevant portion of Sunday’s edition of Reliable Sources is below. Click “expand” to read more.
BRIAN STELTER: Anti-Trump. What does that actually mean? In this forthcoming book, Merchants of Truth, former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson says her former paper, and The Washington Post too, have an anti-Trump bent. When Fox wrote about her comments a few days ago, she said she was taken out of context. But here’s what she wrote in the book about the editor who replaced her, Dean Baquet. “His news pages were unmistakably anti-Trump. Some headlines contained raw opinion as did some of the stories that were labeled as news analysis.” She also wrote in the book that the Times has a mostly liberal audience so “there was an implicit financial reward for the Times in running lots of Trump stories, almost all of them negative,” in order to gain subscribers. Now Trump is out there saying she’s 100 percent correct. I’ve actually read the book and I can tell you Abramson praises the Times at length. But let’s dig into her anti-Trump claim. Frank Bruni, David Frum, Karen Finney are back with me. Frank, I used to work at the Times, you work there now. You used to be in the newsroom, now you’re on the opinion side. How did people react to Jill’s comments in the book?
FRANK BRUNI: They were not as aghast as you might think. First of all, there’s a lot of respect for Jill. Also, we are…we accept criticism and we criticize ourselves every day. We try to take a tough look at ourselves. But also I think most of us have seen more of the book or talked more to Jill about it. I interviewed her recently for a piece that’ll come out in a few days, and this is a small part of what she said.
BRUNI: If you look at what she says in full, it’s respectful of the Times, on balance. She gives us a lot of compliments. And when she asks questions about coverage and coverage of 2016, she spends more time questioning the way we covered Hillary Clinton…
STELTER: That’s true. That’s a good point.
BRUNI: …than she does the way we covered Donald Trump. So this one little strand…
BRUNI: …while it’s not being reported inaccurately, has been blown out of proportion as her main point and it is one of many, many points, all of which have some merit.
STELTER: But this idea that news coverage of Trump is negative, is too negative, where does the truth lie?
BRUNI: I disagree wholeheartedly with that. He’s a singular President, he was a singular candidate. No one has lied like him, I mean, at that altitude. No one has had the sort of ethical problems that he does. No one has had the areas of ignorance. If you, to call that out accurately is to end up with a body of coverage that is unusually negative but it is absolutely appropriate to the man and the situation at hand.
STELTER: So negative but accurate?
BRUNI: Yeah. Anti-Trump connotes driven by some sort of animus regardless of the facts. I don’t think we’ve been anti-Trump. I think we have been negative and I think that’s the only honest way to cover this President.
STELTER: What about tone though? Do you think that tone is sometimes off?
BRUNI: Yes. I think the one way in which we leave ourselves vulnerable is our tone can become mocking and sneering and I don’t mean just on the opinion pages, where that’s not so unusual, but sometimes in news coverage. When we do that, we hurt ourselves because we give his supporters a way to say, look, they can’t give him a fair shake because they feel so negatively toward him. So I think we do have to watch our tone.
STELTER: So Karen, as a Democratic Strategist, where do you come down on this anti-Trump conversation?
KAREN FINNEY: Well, a couple of things. I mean, I think…I look forward to reading the book because certainly as having worked for Hillary Clinton, I did think that some of the way she was covered and some of the ways frankly in 2016 that Trump was covered may have meant that initially there was a little bit of an overcorrection to…in the way that Frank was discussing. But I think, again, this goes back to our nomenclature, right? And this is something as we go into 2020 and as we evaluate Donald Trump and sort of the way language and our use of language has really shifted, you know, it is not anti-Trump when you say that Robert Mueller is investigating him for potential collusion, or that you know, that, that someone…that there is…the evidence that there was you know, campaign finance violations. Those are not negative. That is not anti-Trump, those are facts.
STELTER: So you’re saying anti-Trump versus pro-Trump is the wrong framing, the wrong axis.
FINNEY: I think that’s absolutely the wrong axis. I think it has to be more about what is false and what is true, and then what is opinion. And yet…but what, the thing that Trump does so well is again, lumps it all together and his people, and frankly many Republicans in their defense of him, they say oh you’re just attacking Trump, you’re being anti-Trump.