When you’re covering a presidential campaign, these are not the types of headlines you want to see posted by veteran journalists:
*“Is This The Dumbest New York Times Story Ever?” (Philly.com)
* “The New York Times’ Latest Clinton Foundation ‘Scandal’ May Be The Dumbest One Yet” (Vox)
*“The New York Times Screws Up Its Clinton Coverage, Part Infinity” (Esquire)
Amazingly, all three of those headlines ran within just a three-day span last week. But it’s been that kind of summer for the newspaper, whose campaign coverage, and specifically its coverage of the Democratic Party nominee, has come under withering criticism by longtime pundits and commentators.
Writers like Josh Marshall at TPM, Matthew Yglesias at Vox, Charles Pierce at Esquire, James Fallows and Norm Ornstein from The Atlantic, Will Bunch at Philly.com, and Paul Glastris at Washington Monthly have been weighing in. So too has the Times’ own Paul Krugman, (although his critique of the Clinton coverage did not mention the newspaper by name).
Some of the published critiques are specific to Times coverage, while others take a larger view of recent campaign journalism missteps and include examples of significant Times failures. There’s no indication that if the Times were uncovering concrete Clinton misdeeds these writers would attack the paper for solid, factual reporting.
Instead, the running critique is that with its “Ahab” pursuit of hollow Clinton ‘scandal’ stories, the Times has lost its way. Unable to admit Republican promises of Clinton wrongdoing aren’t panning out, the newspaper insists on adhering to the same accusatory script. This, while the newspaper often holds Donald Trump to a lower standard and ignores or underplays embarrassing news developments for him.
Note that it took the Times five days to catch up to The Washington Post regarding the illegal $25,000 check the Trump Foundation wrote to a political group supporting Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi at a time when her office was contemplating an investigation of Trump University and allegations of fraud. (After the donation arrived, the Florida investigation into Trump University never materialized.)
When Krugman recently lamented that Trump scandals “like what appear to be clear payoffs to state attorneys general to back off investigating Trump University, get remarkably little attention,” it was seen as a swipe at the Times newsroom, which hadn’t yet covered the juicy story about possible corruption.
Context: The Times has published 16 articles on its front page that referenced the Clinton Foundation since July 1, 2015, according to Media Matters research.
Aside from its slow motion Trump/Bondi coverage, last week the Times’ public editor responded to widespread criticism from readers after the newspaper initially offered up a very soft and misleading report on Trump’s trip to meet with the Mexican president and subsequent immigration speech in Phoenix. The newspaper erroneously portrayed Trump as “remak[ing] his image” on immigration when in fact Trump doubled down on his virulent anti-immigrant policies.
The heavy-handed rewrite between the article published online at night and the one that appear in print the next day, “led to the oddity of the printed paper I held in my hand saying the exact opposite of what the online version of the ‘same’ story said, ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’-style,” wrote Fallows at The Atlantic.
Following Wednesday night’s televised presidential forum, the paper was widely criticized for initially omitting from its write-up the fact that Trump had lavishly praised Russia’s president. (A reference was later added in.)
Are the Times’ Clinton-related miscues new? They are not. The newspaper “has a decades' long history of being lead around by rightwing opposition researchers into dead ends which amount to journalistic comedy - especially when it comes to the Clintons,” noted Marshall at TPM last week.
And recall that last year, former Times executive editor Jill Abramson acknowledged that her former employer routinely provides an unfair “level of scrutiny” to Hillary Clinton.
Even with that well known, built-in antagonism, lots of observers were utterly bewildered by an accusatory Times article, hand-delivered to the paper by the right-wing group Judicial Watch, in which the newspaper strenuously tried to jam a set of extremely non-controversial facts into a Bad News For Clinton narrative.
The facts: In 2009, a Bill Clinton adviser and Clinton Foundation player reached out to the State Department seeking diplomatic passports for a secret Bill Clinton trip to North Korea to help get two detained American journalists released. The State Department didn’t issue the passports.
From that, the Times claimed newly released emails raised all kinds of “questions” about “special access.” Actually, it was the opposite. “The reporting in the piece itself, however, doesn’t so much raise new questions as answer old ones,” wrote Glastris at Washington Monthly.
Or, as Pierce at Esquire put it:
Consider how it is constructed—to believe that there is even any smoke here, let alone any fire, you have to believe that the Clinton Foundation was somehow shady in its dealings with HRC's State Department, which is assuming a lot of actual facts not in evidence. That enables you to believe that an unsuccessful attempt to arrange diplomatic passports for what ultimately was a successful mission of mercy is proof of said shadiness. It also forces you to loan your journalistic credibility to a monkeyhouse like Judicial Watch.
Just days earlier, Philly.com columnist Will Bunch took a hammer to another dubious Times piece, this one regarding Clinton aide Huma Abedin separating from her husband Anthony Weiner in the wake of news about more lewd behavior by him.
The colossal, impossible-to-miss problem with the article was it tried to connect Abedin’s private life, and specifically the private actions of Abedin’s husband, to the public Clinton campaign. The newspaper insisted the aide’s separation had cast a “shadow” over Clinton’s White House run, and that it "threatens to remind voters about the troubles in the Clintons’ own marriage over the decades.”
Wrote Bunch, “[I]t's the worst piece of political analysis I've ever seen in the Grey Lady in my adult lifetime.”
Of course if they want, Times editors can choose to wave off the mounting criticism and point to harassing rhetoric from Donald Trump denouncing their newspaper. The Times can take the easy way out by claiming Both Sides are upset by the Times’ coverage, therefore they must be doing something right!
But I can tell you that as someone who’s been watching the Times for decades and observing criticism of the paper, I can’t remember a time when so many seasoned journalists set aside so much time to simultaneously document how unfair and misleading they thought the Times’ presidential campaign work had become.
These are in-depth, detailed critiques cataloging an array of Times missteps that have more and more writers seeing red. Or, as Pierce lamented in Esquire, “Oh, for the love of god, mother Times. Are you freaking kidding me?”