The New York Times has published a self-debunking story which suggests there was something scandalous about Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ effort as mayor of Burlington in the late 1980s to establish a sister-city relationship with the Soviet city of Yaroslavl. The effect is analogous to past coverage of Democrats during the 2016 election cycle, when reporters -- particularly at the Times -- went looking for corruption, didn’t find it, but nonetheless produced articles framed to play up insinuations while providing the facts undermining that frame deep in the story. It’s another ominous sign that the Times is poised to make the same mistakes in 2020.
The Times’ presentation of its article about Sanders makes clear that the paper’s editors believe they have landed a major story. The story, first published March 5, ran on the paper’s front page the next day. The paper also published a behind-the-scenes story, detailing how the reporter accessed documents in a Yaroslavl archive detailing the sister-city negotiations, and published excerpts from the documents themselves.
The article is also clearly written to suggest that the Times’ findings reflect poorly on the Democratic presidential candidate. “As Bernie Sanders Pushed for Closer Ties, Soviet Union Spotted Opportunity” is the headline of the piece’s online version, matched with the subheadline “Previously unseen documents from a Soviet archive show how hard Mr. Sanders worked to find a sister city in Russia when he was a mayor in the 1980s. Moscow saw a chance for propaganda.” Early in the article, readers learn that Sanders’ effort came with “a country many Americans then still considered an enemy,” and that “the Kremlin viewed these sister city relationships as vehicles to sway American public opinion about the Soviet Union.”
But the implication of wrongdoing on Sanders’ part does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. The then-mayor worked to establish a sister-city relationship in December 1987. At that time, Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies of glasnost and perestroika had been underway for years. The year before, President Ronald Reagan had encouraged such cultural exchanges, with the White House calling sister-city initiatives “an important part of our effort to expand and broaden contacts and communications between the people of the United States and the Soviet Union.”
Sanders’ first communication with the secretary of the Soviet sister-city organization came at around the same time Reagan was saying of Gorbachev, “We are becoming old friends.” His subsequent visit to Yaroslavl was contemporaneous with a Reagan visit to the Kremlin in which the president recanted his famous description of the USSR as an “evil empire.”
Of course Soviet officials believed they were getting something out of these cultural exchanges -- both countries did, which is why both governments supported them. But faulting Sanders for pursuing this relationship only makes sense if you think Reagan had been duped.
Indeed, after creating an implication in the opening paragraphs that the Times had uncovered never-before-seen documents establishing that Sanders was a tool of an enemy regime, the paper begins providing information that demolishes that insinuation.
In the eighth paragraph, we learn that “nothing in the documents suggests that Mr. Sanders was the only local American official targeted for propaganda, or even that he was particularly receptive to it, though they do describe him as a socialist.”
In the ninth, the Times reports, “At the time of Mr. Sanders’s announcement in 1987 that Burlington would seek a Soviet sister city, several dozen other American cities already had such a relationship or had applied for one.”
In the 13th paragraph, readers learn that President Ronald Reagan supported the Sister Cities program -- though this is presented as part of the response from the Sanders campaign, rather than a simple fact undermining the story’s premise.
And in the 15th paragraph, the paper provides Sanders’ explanation for why he pursued the relationship -- it was “an effort to end the threat of nuclear annihilation.” That seems like a pretty good reason.
This reporting follows a familiar template from the 2016 campaign, as reporters scrutinized the record of the Clinton Foundation in search of evidence showing corruption on the part of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. News outlets often adopted a similarly ominous tone to suggest malfeasance, while outsourcing facts that debunked those premises to comments from campaign spokespeople.
This was a particular problem for the Times. The paper devoted significant resources to reporting on the Clinton Foundation, only to repeatedly embarrass itself with journalistic missteps under the auspices of “raising new questions” that its own reporting had definitively answered in the negative.
The result was an implication of wrongdoing -- absent evidence that any had happened -- that dogged Clinton’s campaign through the election. This disproportionate scrutiny to relatively minor Clinton “scandals” in light of far more blatant evidence of malfeasance on the part of Donald Trump produced a skewed picture of the elections. And there’s little sign that the Times has learned anything from its past failures, suggesting that we will see more of this type of coverage, whoever the Democratic nominee may be.