New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan agreed with concerns that the paper subjects Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to tougher scrutiny than other 2016 contenders, promising to evaluate the Times' future coverage of Clinton for its fairness.
Sullivan already strongly criticized the paper on July 27 for its now twice-corrected report that relied on anonymous sourcing to claim that two inspectors general had requested a criminal investigation into Clinton's email use. In reality, the probe was not criminal and was not focused on Clinton personally. The faulty report, for which Sullivan condemned the Times' for running a “sensational” story with “major journalistic problems” before it was ready and for not being transparent with readers about revisions, is still facing heavy criticism from veteran journalists.
On August 1, Sullivan highlighted critiques from readers and media observers who expressed concern that the error-riddled Clinton email story reveals the Times' pattern of taking “an unfairly critical edge” against Clinton, and Sullivan agreed (emphasis added):
Arlene Williams, a longtime subscriber, wrote and objected to “what I see as jaded coverage concerning Hillary Clinton.” News articles and opinion columns are “just consistently negative,” she said. And Ben Lieberman of Acton, Mass., said The Times seemed to be “on a mission to cut her down to size.”
These readers aren't alone. The press critic and New York University professor Jay Rosen wrote on Twitter: “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.” Rachel Maddow said last week on MSNBC that the attitude of the national press corps, including The Times, is, “Everything Hillary Clinton does is a scandal.” And James Fallows of The Atlantic called what he sees as a Times “Clinton vendetta” a “serious lapse,” linking to a letter the Clinton campaign wrote in response to the Times story.
Mr. Purdy and the executive editor, Dean Baquet, insist that this scrutiny is necessary and that it is being done fairly. Because Mrs. Clinton stirs such strong emotions, they say, there are bound to be unending complaints from both her supporters and detractors.
But I agree with this sentiment from a reader, Evan Hannay, who is troubled by some of the Clinton coverage: “Hillary deserves tough questions when they are warranted. But it is undeniable that she is already facing significantly tougher coverage than any other potential candidate.” He thinks The Times should make “a promise to readers going forward that Hillary is not going to be treated unfairly as she so often is by the media.”
Last Thursday, I handed Mr. Baquet a printed copy of Mr. Hannay's email and asked him to address it.
To that end, he told me that he has urged reporters and editors to focus anew on issues stories. And he pledged fairness. “I'm happy to make a promise that she'll be treated fairly,” he said, though he added, “If you look at our body of work, I don't believe we have been unfair.” One testament to that, he said, was an investigative piece written by David Kirkpatrick shortly after the 2012 Benghazi attacks, with conclusions seen as favorable for Mrs. Clinton, who was then secretary of state. It came under heavy attack from the right.
But the Times's “screw-up,” as Mr. Baquet called it, reinforces the need for reporters and their editors to be “doubly vigilant and doubly cautious.”
Times readers (and on their behalf, I, too) will be watching and evaluating that over the next months. No one should expect a free ride for Mrs. Clinton. But she certainly deserves a fair shake.