Can The New York Times Salvage Its Clinton Coverage?

Email Blunder Fits Disturbing Pattern Of Misinformation

“What the hell is happening at the New York Times?” -- Newsweek senior writer Kurt Eichenwald

It's been four days since The New York Times uncorked perhaps the biggest newsroom blunder of the 2016 campaign season, when Michael Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo erroneously reported that two inspectors general were seeking a criminal probe of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state. The Times' would-be blockbuster landed online on July 23 and on the front page of the print edition July 24.

But even before many readers picked up the paper on Friday morning, the story had begun to unravel. By Friday afternoon, the Times' exclusive had suddenly morphed into a humiliation for the Times itself. The paper was widely ridiculed for getting the referral story wrong, and then for awkwardly trying to limit the damage via stealthy online edits.

Almost four days after its initial publication, Times public editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in on the “mess” this morning, suggesting that the paper should have waited to publish until it had developed the story more extensively: “Losing the story to another news outlet would have been a far, far better outcome than publishing an unfair story and damaging The Times's reputation for accuracy.” 

Meanwhile, executive editor Dean Baquet pinned much of the blame for the debacle on the Times' sources -- rather than the reporters and editors involved -- suggesting that this might not be the last mistake of this nature we see from the paper: “You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral ... I'm not sure what they could have done differently on that.”

If you were surprised by the Times' face-plant, then you haven't been paying attention. Media Matters has been chronicling the Times' problematic Clinton coverage in recent months. (And for years.) Yet it wasn't until the email fiasco that the paper's ongoing Clinton troubles exploded into full view, prompting condemnations as journalists and commentators not only questioned the Times' competence, but also its fairness.

Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen:

There's also no getting around the fact that the Times coverage of Hillary Clinton is a biased train wreck.

Vanity Fair contributing editor and Newsweek senior writer Kurt Eichenwald:

I worked at NYT for 20 yrs. I know what standards are supposed to be. The Hillary/email story violated all of them.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen:  

I have resisted this conclusion over the years, but after today's events it's fair to say the Times has a problem covering Hillary Clinton.

The unsettling question the Times now faces as it grapples with the fallout from the email debacle is whether or not the newspaper can be trusted to be an honest player when covering Clinton. It's an extraordinary position for the Newspaper of Record to be in. But the Times has been feeding this credibility crisis for a very long time.

The Cliff's Notes to this conflict: With the bogus pursuits of Whitewater, the Loral spy satellites story, would-be spy Wen Ho Lee, and many more, the Times uncorked supposedly blockbuster allegations against Bill Clinton during the 1990s that were based on vague reporting that later turned out to be flimsy. The stories imploded, but not before Republicans grabbed onto the “liberal” New York Times gotchas and launched investigation after investigation. Fast-forward two decades and the same newsroom dysfunction persists.

Let's be clear: The Times is hardly alone in terms of having trouble reporting factually on the Clinton email story. Beltway journalists have strained for months trying to turn what is largely a process story into a simmering scandal. (See here.)

But the Times remains the country's most influential news outlet and the daily has been carrying around an unmistakable Clinton grudge for nearly 20 years. And it's a collective disdain for the Clintons that stretches from the opinion pages to the newsroom that arguably leads to spectacular blunders like the one we saw last week.

There seems to be a world view within the Times that taking cheap shots at the Clintons is not only allowed, it's preferred; it's a way for Times journalists to raise their profiles and generate buzz. But not only is the practice unfair and unethical, it carries with it profound political implications.

Apparently making no effort to check with the lead Democrat on the panel about the anonymous claims of a criminal referral -- Rep. Elijah Cummings would have demolished the entire premise of the gotcha story -- the Times essentially acted as stenographer for sources who either manufactured the claim about a criminal referral or unknowingly botched the facts.

The Times' oddly personal crusade against Hillary Clinton is also a crusade against the Democratic frontrunner for president, so the Republican Party benefits. The stakes really could not be higher, which makes the Times' behavior all the more disturbing.

Back in May, Margaret Sullivan noted her objections to the paper's “oddly barbed tone” in some of its Clinton coverage. (That was putting it mildly.) At the time, readers were upset with a nasty, condescending news article by Jason Horowitz that referred to Clinton as a standoffish “regal” “freak.” Additionally, in his tweet promoting the article, the Times reporter mocked the Democrat as “Queen Hillary.”

But when Sullivan asked Times political editor Carolyn Ryan about the complaints, Ryan absolved the Times of blame by arguing Times readers had simply “misread” the Horowitz piece. And that has been the Times pattern for years -- impenetrable denial that the paper had jumped the rails while covering Bill and  Hillary Clinton. The result of that institutional denial? Last week's fiasco.

More from former Timesman Kurt Eichenwald and his bone-rattling denunciation of the paper's recent blunder: 

Democracy is not a game. It is not a means of getting our names on the front page or setting the world abuzz about our latest scoop. It is about providing information so that an electorate can make decisions based on reality. It is about being fair and being accurate. This despicable Times story was neither.

Election Day is 400-plus days away. Can the New York Times' Clinton coverage be salvaged, or is the paper no longer an honest player?