As the most famous and powerful news organization in America, the New York Times prides itself on leading the press pack. And as the media world fragments into smaller and smaller slices, it's the Times that can still set the agenda like few other outlets can.
The good news for the Times in 2015 was that its collective fingerprints were all over key chapters of the year's campaign coverage. The bad news is the Times would probably like those fingerprints to be lifted.
Because rather than being heralded for its groundbreaking campaign work, the newspaper's editors and reporters spent an awful lot of time last year answering criticism about the paper's sloppy and erroneous coverage of Hillary Clinton, and specifically answering for why the Times newsroom and its opinion pages seemed obsessed with knocking down the Democratic frontrunner and getting key facts wrong in the process.
By the summer, the Times' Clinton miscues and slights had piled so high that there was a growing consensus among media watchers that the daily had allowed its disdain for Clinton to color its coverage, and that the Newspaper of Record was in desperate need of a course correction.
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.
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.
Three times last year, the Times presented would-be blockbuster stories that targeted Clinton with overheated tales of unethical, and possibly illegal, behavior. And three times last year, the Times swung and missed, badly.
Clinton became synonymous with “email” in 2015 when the Times in March broke the story that she had used a private account while serving as secretary of state. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell had also used a private email account while in office (and Jeb Bush had done something similar while serving as governor in Florida), but the Times argued Clinton's action was deeply secretive. The Times also accused Clinton of having possibly “violated federal requirements” with her use of personal email for official government business, specifically citing the Federal Records Act. It was that hint of criminality that gave the story so much pop in the press.
But it turns out that hint of criminality was invented by the Times, as several news outlets subsequently confirmed: Clinton did nothing illegal with her email account. (Ten days after its original dispatch, the Times published a new story that undermined the more heated claims from its original dispatch.)
Nonetheless, in the wake of its misleading email scoop, the Times led a months-long attack against Clinton. Times columnists published a series of weird condemnations (Maureen Dowd likened the Clintons to the Iranian regime) and often couched them in oddly personal terms. (i.e. Clinton's “prickly” and her “forced smile” is "practically cemented in place.") It was all part of the media's anti-Clinton guttural roar about emails, unleashed by the Times.
How heavy-handed did the Clinton bashing get? For one email story, the Times created an illustration in which Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, was portrayed as the Wicked Witch of the East, crushed to death by a smartphone.
The following month the Times doubled down on its Clinton crusade by forming a puzzling pact with Rupert Murdoch's right-wing media empire in order to promote an anti-Clinton attack book that was riddled with errors. The latter part wasn't surprising, since the book was written by a Republican partisan with a long history of corrections, retractions, and mistakes.
Relentlessly hyped by the right-wing media, including Murdoch's Fox News, New York Post and Wall Street Journal, the tome, Clinton Cash, tried and failed to paint a damning portrait of Clinton as a secretary of state who altered U.S. foreign policy based on donations to the Clinton Foundation charity.
Even before its publication, the Times trumpeted Clinton Cash as the “the most anticipated and feared book” of the campaign season, instantly elevating the book's status among the Beltway media.
The Times then signed an unusual “exclusive” arrangement to use author Peter Schweizer's reporting as a springboard for an enormous, front-page Times piece that tried to show how donations to the Clinton Foundation influenced Clinton's& State Department when it signed off on the sale of Uranium One, a Canadian company with uranium mining claims in the U.S., to the Russian atomic energy agency, Rosatom. But the piece was little more than an unsubstantiated, connect-the-dots Clinton hit piece that even Beltway media insiders conceded failed to deliver. (NBC News noted the Times report didn't “hold up that well.”)
But the Times still wasn't done with Clinton Cash. A Times reporter actually appeared on a Fox News 60-minute, anti-Clinton special, The Tangled Clinton Web. Based on Clinton Cash, the special, of course, represented a mishmash of half-baked Clinton conspiracies and loopy what-ifs that proposed Hillary and Bill Clinton operated at the center of a supposed vast web of international bribes and payoffs.
The show was pure Fox trash. Yet there featured amidst the purposeful misinformation was a New York Times reporter.
Talk about damaging the Times brand.
Footnote: Scores of news organizations that did not sign a Clinton Cash “exclusive” promptly found a multitude of mistakes in the book and reported them out, raising further questions about the Times' news judgment.
On July 23, the Times uncorked perhaps the biggest newsroom blunder of the 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 botched story began to unravel immediately simply because no such criminal referral targeting Clinton existed. Less than 24 hours after being published, the Times' exclusive morphed into a giant headache as the paper was widely ridiculed for not only getting the referral story wrong, but for then awkwardly trying to limit the original damage via stealthy online edits.
If you had to rank the newspaper's three enormous 2015 failures in order of awfulness, the Times' bungled “criminal” investigation story was the worst. A stellar example of bad reporting coupled with equally poor editing and oversight, the July fiasco was the event that really drew back the curtain. (The Times' public editor called the sorry chapter a “mess” that had damaged the paper's reputation.)
Media Matters for months, and indeed for years, had been raising red flags about the Times' Clinton coverage. But it wasn't until the “criminal” debacle that outside voices began to coalesce around the idea that there was something fundamentally, almost systematically, hostile with the Times' Clinton coverage.
To get the big “criminal” story that wrong on so many levels, and then to completely botch the correction process? That doesn't happen in a vacuum. It springs from a newsroom mentality where getting the Clintons is the top priority and where corners are invited to be cut. It's a hot house environment where careers are boosted by generating anti-Clinton buzz (see reporter Jeff Gerth's Times rise in the 1990s); where snark and suspicion -- rather than healthy skepticism -- are the cornerstone of the coverage.
How the Times ever went to print with a completely erroneous report that the Democratic frontrunner for president was the target of a criminal investigation, we'll never know. Because although Times reporters and editors demand transparency and accountability from the politicians they cover (and especially from Hillary Clinton), the daily offered little insight into what caused the July debacle, other than editors blaming anonymous Times sources for getting the story wrong (something that is becoming a trend), not Times reporters and editors for publishing an entirely erroneous story that could have changed the course of a presidential campaign.
“This story demands more than a promise to do better the next time, and more than a shrug,” wrote Norm Ornstein in The Atlantic. “Someone should be held accountable here, with suspension or other action that fits the gravity of the offense.”
2015 produced some egregious Times missteps. Looking ahead, there's plenty of time left in the 2016 campaign for the Times to prove itself to be an honest broker.