Should the New York Times have handled its coverage of the Mueller investigation differently? The Reader Center, the loosely structured customer-service desk that took over the duties formerly done by the Public Editor, published an inquiry into the paper’s Mueller coverage—or, under the more narrow operating terms of the Reader Center, into whether the readers were right to complain about the coverage.
The answer, for readers, was that the Times will not even try to understand the ways in which it botched the job, and that it plans to boldly repeat the same mistakes through the next election cycle.
Even the packaging of the questions, directed to deputy managing editor Matt Purdy, was cynical:
Some readers on the left felt that the scope, the tenor and the quantity of our reporting on the Mueller investigation created outsize expectations about its impending conclusions. (A critic at Salon called it “defensible but arguably slanted reporting along the lines of ‘beneath all this smoke, there’s got to be a fire.’”) What would you say to readers who feel that they were led to expect a different outcome?
At the same time, many on the right have contended that The Times and other news organizations overplayed the Mueller story out of an anti-Trump bias. Could there be some truth to that? And how do you ensure that any implicit personal biases among Times journalists don’t affect the coverage of the administration?
Not only was the Times appealing to the dumb-journalist shibboleth that you must be right if both sides are mad at you, it couldn’t correctly name and identify the sides. Anyone who’s even roughly aware of the disputes about the Mueller investigation knows that everything fractures on multiple different lines: Democrats against Republicans, Democratic Socialists against the Democratic National Committee, Russia apologists against Russia conspiracists, Mueller fans against Mueller haters against Mueller agnostics, Resistance grifters against Trumpist grifters against people who want the grifters to all go away. The Salon piece that the Times cited as “from the left” was, on examination, positioned somewhere closer to the ends of the horseshoe where anti-Clintonism bleeds into anti-anti-Trumpism, and it worked its way up to presenting the wingnut/crank talking point that “[i]f you subtract California alone from the results, Trump won the popular vote.”
The point the Times wanted to discuss, though, was whether it had paid too much attention to the Mueller report. Purdy assured the readers that it had not. The Mueller investigation was very important:
Whether you were cheered or chagrined by the results of the Mueller report, I urge you to look beyond your political leanings and appreciate the historic nature of these events and why they demanded so much attention from the press.
Unlike the readers, who are prisoners of their political beliefs, the Times was responding objectively to the demands (demands!) of history. But was the thing Times did in response the right thing to have done? It asked itself the question:
Many readers who are critical of President Trump have expressed concern that we were overly trusting of Attorney General William P. Barr’s summary of the Mueller report, released on March 24, and, in our initial reporting, were not sufficiently wary of possible conflicts of interest or of his loyalty to the president. Readers have flagged two headlines in particular: “Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy” and “A Cloud Over Trump’s Presidency Is Lifted.”
Given that we later characterized Mr. Barr as acting as a defense lawyer for President Trump and that we now know that Robert Mueller objected to Mr. Barr’s descriptions of the investigation’s conclusions, were we sufficiently skeptical, in our initial coverage, of Mr. Barr’s analyses and motives? In retrospect, are there any articles or headlines that should have been framed differently?
Purdy replied, in part:
The front page on March 25 did carry those two headlines, which captured — in the space allowed for print headlines — the news of the day. But it is worth considering the many other words on the front page that day, which communicated the nuances of Mr. Barr’s actions beneath the headlines.
This was factually wrong: although “Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy” was a print headline, “A Cloud Over Trump’s Presidency Is Lifted” was an online one. The print version was “Burden Lifts, Leaving Trump Fortified for the Battles to Come.” Either way, had the cloud or the burden lifted from the president, as of March 25? It was a sweeping and decisive claim to have made, on limited evidence, and if the president’s tweets and tantrums about NO COLLUSION through the following weeks made the same claim, their frequency and repetitiveness conveyed something other than sunshine and ease.
And the editor was dodging his newspaper’s own question. Asked if the articles or headlines should have been framed differently, Purdy replied by writing about the “many other words on the front page” and how the “Times’s digital report that day had a range of stories examining every aspect of the letter.”
The headlines were wrong. The big one, “Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy,” which defined the front page, was disastrously and obviously wrong at the time. The real story on the morning of March 25 wasn’t Mueller’s conspiracy finding—which should have been, for accuracy’s sake, “doesn’t find Trump-Russia conspiracy,” rather than “finds no Trump-Russia conspiracy”—but the fact that the attorney general was running interference for the president. Other newspapers were able to get the headline right. The Times blew it.
So the Times was trying to make the case that the headlines didn’t matter, which was a shameless and insulting case for the Times to make. Headlines and packaging are the essence of what the Times does. It is a machine that exists to collect, prioritize, and summarize everything that happens in the world. A person could fill up on news—on some assortment of sundry facts and events collected from here and there—just fine, every day, without the Times. The job the Times has taken upon itself is to say what matters, either by breaking the news nobody else has broken, or by reading events as they happen into the record, in order of importance. “We are covering the Trump presidency as we cover all presidencies: for our current audience as well as for history,” Purdy wrote.
Purdy gave an example of the words he wanted the readers to have considered, from the top of the clouds-lifted story, “by Peter Baker, the most experienced White House correspondent in Washington”:
For President Trump, it may have been the best day of his tenure so far. The darkest, most ominous cloud hanging over his presidency was all but lifted on Sunday with the release of the special counsel’s conclusions, which undercut the threat of impeachment and provided him with a powerful boost for the final 22 months of his term.
There are still other clouds overhead and no one outside the Justice Department has actually read the report by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, which may yet disclose damning information if made public. But the end of the investigation without findings of collusion with Russia fortified the president for the battles to come, including his campaign for re-election.
This was clearly a foolish story the day it was written. It was both arrogant and pointless, an attempt to write authoritative-sounding conclusions about events that had not been concluded. It referred to a few truncated quotes from the Mueller report, supplied by the attorney general, as “the special counsel’s conclusion,” and it declared the president the winner of the whole struggle.
Yet this was what Purdy pointed to immediately after claiming that the paper had “communicated the nuances of Mr. Barr’s actions”: a passage that didn’t even mention Barr. It did include some of the nuances, if you read it backwards. But for the Times to suggest that the second paragraph of a story was more important than the first, or to disavow the importance of its front page headlines, or to argue that if, on balance, you absorbed everything it published, including the online versions, you ought to have been able to figure out the news yourself—this was the New York Times denying it was the New York Times.
Or, worse, it was the New York Times arguing that whatever it did was definitionally correct. That was why Purdy admonished the readers that Peter Baker, who declared the dark cloud lifted over the Trump administration, was the most experienced White House reporter in the country. Who he was was more important than what he wrote; who he was was the only meaningful standard of reference for what he wrote; no mere reader, reading the Peter Baker story and noticing that it was clearly contrary to the available facts, had the standing to criticize him.
Purdy went on to write that “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia,” the Times‘ notorious pre-election headline, “might have been a bit too definitive,” but that the story was not wrong to have reported that “none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.” True, there would be two more years of investigation to go, and multiple convictions of Trump’s associates, but would anyone have wanted to know that, if they could have, at the end of October in 2016?
And Purdy explained that any mismatch or lack of proportion between the Times‘ 2016 coverage of Hillary Clinton’s potential criminality and Trump’s potential criminality was beyond the paper’s control:
It is true that the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails received more coverage during the campaign than the investigation of Donald Trump and his aides, but that was largely a function of timing. The Clinton investigation played out during the campaign and came to a very public conclusion — and a brief revival — through the official actions of James Comey, the director of the F.B.I. at the time. All of that generated coverage — again, justified coverage, given Mrs. Clinton’s role as the former secretary of state handling classified matters and as the Democratic nominee for president.
By contrast, the Trump investigation began in the summer of 2016, was in its relatively early stages by Election Day, and was not the subject of public disclosure by the F.B.I. For those reasons, that inquiry received less press attention.
This was more tremendous effort at framing, for a column arguing that framing was not really important. If the two candidates’ misconduct was defined by official communications about law enforcement investigations, then it was hard to distinguish one from the other. If it were defined by things a newspaper could control, then the Times might have needed to explain why it kept multiple reporters digging at the dry hole of the Clinton Foundation, while never bothering to follow up on the Washington Post‘s reporting about how the Trump Foundation appeared to have operated as a flagrantly illegal personal slush fund.
But the Times will not explain itself, because it cannot think about itself. It refuses to. Judgement, decisiveness, and perspective are the weapons available to the press against corruption, abuse of power, and unlimited lies. The Times is bad at using them, and it is ideologically opposed to the idea that it could or should try to be good at using them. The news is a matter of objective reality, so the Times‘ subjectivity is not a legitimate subject for discussion.
The Public Editor, as an institution, was designed to be hapless and inane, but its replacement—the Times stuffing an effigy with reader comments and declaring itself the winner of a debate with it—is worse. The difference between the two turns out to resemble the difference between the old neoliberal establishment’s gross hypocrisies about foreign policy and the Trump administration’s affirmative enthusiasm for strongmen and brutality: a poor performance of caring at least conceded that there was something worth caring about.