In yet another example of The New York Times’ apparent quest to portray President Donald Trump as just a regular politician and not a notorious liar and con artist, the Times contradicted its own reporting for the sake of a friendly headline.
During a conference call between Trump and state governors on Monday afternoon, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana told the president that unless the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acted immediately, his state was just a day away from being completely unable to test for the novel coronavirus at the heart of the current pandemic.
Trump’s response was baffling.
“I haven’t heard about testing in weeks. We’ve tested more now than any nation in the world,” said Trump. “We’ve got these great tests, and we come out with another one tomorrow where, you know, it’s almost instantaneous testing. But I haven’t heard about testing being a problem.”
One of the biggest ongoing criticisms of the administration’s response to the pandemic has been the CDC’s failure to produce and distribute an adequate number of testing kits. The administration has repeatedly contradicted itself when asked about tests, with Trump claiming as far back as March 6 that “anybody who wants a test gets a test,” even when Vice President Mike Pence had stated just a day earlier that “we don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward.” Since then, Trump has repeatedly lied about how many testing kits exist and how extensive testing in the U.S. has been. On March 20, PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor asked Trump for an update on the tests, which drew a combative response from the president in which he downplayed the issue.
So when The New York Times published a story about the phone call with governors, with an exclusive audio clip, the headline “Despite Pushback, Trump Suggests Testing Is No Longer an Issue” on the front page of its website left some journalists gobsmacked.
“Headline writers at the New York Times should really hang their heads in shame,” tweeted Intercept columnist Mehdi Hasan.
“Both sides! Which is it? Is testing no longer a problem? Are Governors right, that testing is hard to get and get results fast?” tweeted journalist Soledad O’Brien. “These are contradictory points of view. Only one is right. Why don’t ny times journalists say—this is bad information? It is.”
Testing remains a big issue. Just ask … The New York Times.
On March 26, the Times had published an interactive article illustrating the United States’ testing failures and shortcomings.
Though the 65,000 tests being performed each day on Americans was an improvement over earlier numbers, it was still well short of the 150,000 daily tests recommended by public health experts, according to the Times:
The United States cannot even test everyone who is sick because of a shortage of testing kits and personal protective equipment for health care workers. At the Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, the line of people waiting outside for a test forms as early as 6 a.m., with some staying until 5 p.m. Many go home without being tested.
Did the testing problems get resolved within the four-day span between this article and Trump’s claim that this was “no longer an issue”? Of course not. What Trump said was factually incorrect, but the Times gave it a friendly framing that made it seem as though there may be some truth to Trump’s statement.
This is not the first time the Times has given Trump a friendly headline, but it may be one of the most consequential.
On Twitter, people criticized the irresponsible headline. Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor in epidemiology of microbial diseases at Yale University, shared his frustrations and tagged two of the article’s three authors.
Times political reporter Jonathan Martin, co-author of the piece, responded to Gonsalves’ tweet, saying that he was “picking the wrong fight” and that he should “move along.”
This didn’t sit well with Gonsalves, who responded with a 13-tweet thread, partially transcribed here for ease of reading, outlining his concerns and frustration.
The political desk has been abysmal on this. … Everything is a Punch & Judy Show, and the real story of the absolute and continuing failure of the response to #coronavirus gets obscured in your reporting as "who's winning the day" in DC.
There is tremendous reporting going on on the pandemic, but it's from places like @statenews or @propublica who take their task with a bit more seriousness than your political reporters. This is an emergency, act like it. It matters that you're failing, and it's not about a lowly reader trying to score points, but the fact that @NYTimes eliding, equivocating on the federal response has consequences for millions of people. So, get better.
Tell us, why 4 months into this we STILL have insufficient number of tests -- what happened politically that led us to this point, keeps us still incapable of rising to the task. Tell us why we have people with no relevant experience like Richard Epstein and Larry Ellison at the right hand of Jared Kushner who is at the left hand of the President? How a culture of amateurism, denigration of expertise took hold in this Administration. There are political stories abounding in this world-historical crisis and you surrender to the he-said-she-said variety of reporting, every time. We all can make you a list of political questions that millions would love to be answered beyond Governor Bullock said this, President Trump said that.
I buried dozens of my friends during the height of the AIDS epidemic and we're all preparing for burials now of friends and family in this new pandemic. Don't you dare tell me to move on. Do your job. We are facing one of the greatest challenges in American history, largely due to political failures of the current Administration. Dig. Find out what is happening, the roots of the failures. Name names. You have the resources of one of [the] biggest papers in the US. Stop the transcription of press conferences, calls as the news in and of itself. Go deeper. Explain how current American politics led to this epidemiological and economic calamity, and how our leaders are or are not rising to the challenge. You may lose your access to certain prized sources inside the White House, the invitations to the best parties in DC, but you'll gain the respect of your readers and rescue your reputations from the disdain of history.
These failures represent a larger challenge facing the Times.
When reached for comment, Martin emphasized that neither he nor his co-authors wrote the headline, adding, “We also don’t often get audio recordings of governors pleading with presidents to help save the lives of their residents.”
No one is disputing whether the conference call between governors and Trump was a newsworthy event -- it absolutely was. And the general frustration with the headline isn’t based on a belief that Martin or any of the other reporters who worked on it were directly responsible for the headline. The problem is with the Times and its repeatedly demonstrated need to pull punches when covering Trump, even if that means treating an outright lie as something that he plausibly believes to be true.
While the public has access to information about who wrote an article, the process behind headline selection is a lot more opaque. It’s those people whose names we don’t know -- the ones who write headlines and social media posts -- who need to do a better job informing the public. This is doubly true during a pandemic.
When the Times eliminated the role of public editor in 2017, a Politico article quoted an unnamed reporter familiar with the decision, who said, “Some people in the building think, with Twitter, do we even need it?” Since abolishing the position, Times readers have repeatedly tried to make their concerns heard on Twitter, often only to receive snark or scorn from the paper’s reporters. Without somewhere to channel these concerns, this will time and again result in frustrated readers. It’s impossible to just ignore criticism of headlines, as the overwhelming majority of people who encounter an article on social media or even an outlet’s home page won’t click on it. Their takeaway from a piece will hinge on what a headline or a tweet says. The Times needs to make itself more receptive to criticism; it can start by putting a stop to the endless coddling of this administration.