Peter Baker

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  • The NY Times missed an opportunity to press Trump on health care specifics

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The New York Times is drawing well-earned plaudits for yesterday’s news-making interview with President Donald Trump. In their wide-ranging conversation, reporters Peter Baker, Michael Schmidt, and Maggie Haberman repeatedly used to great effect a strategy of asking open-ended questions and gently prodding the president along, breaking lots of new ground with regard to the ongoing Russia investigation.

    But in contrast to its other successes, the Times missed out on an opportunity to get Trump to answer questions about health care policy.

    There was certainly a need for such an interrogation. The interview came just days after the Senate health care bill collapsed because conservative and more moderate Republicans were unable to reach agreement on the legislation’s contours. Trump has been generally vague about which side’s policy views he favors, but he supported the Senate legislation even though it violates many of the promises he has made to the American people. In tweets and other public statements since it became clear the bill lacked the votes to pass, Trump has taken a variety of positions on what to do next.

    Based on the voluminous excerpts from the interview the paper has published, which “omit several off-the-record comments and asides,” the Times reporters appeared to make no real effort to get at any of the contradictions surrounding Trump’s health care position, or to elucidate for their audience the type of policies he favors. Millions of people will be impacted by the results of this debate; the Times reporters, though, seem primarily concerned with the senators who will vote on it.

    Here are all the questions The New York Times reporters asked Trump about health care, as well as one comment that inspired a response:

    • PETER BAKER: Good. Good. How was your lunch [with Republican senators]?

    • MAGGIE HABERMAN: That’s been the thing for four years. When you win an entitlement, you can’t take it back.

    • HABERMAN: Am I wrong in thinking — I’ve talked to you a bunch of times about this over the last couple years, but you are generally of the view that people should have health care, right? I mean, I think that you come at it from the view of …

    • BAKER: Did the senators want to try again?

    • HABERMAN: How about the last [meeting with Republican senators about health care] in June? Do you guys remember how many came?

    • BAKER: Who is the key guy?

    • HABERMAN: Where does it go from here, do you think?

    • MICHAEL SCHMIDT: How’s [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell to work with?

    As you can see, their questions about health care were almost entirely driven by the process and politics of the bill. The closest they came to asking about policy was Haberman’s vague question about whether Trump is “generally of the view that people should have health care”; Trump responded, “Yes, yes,” and the conversation moved on.

    There were some tantalizing openings for the reporters to quiz Trump on his health care policy views that were not taken. At one point, Trump said of Obamacare, “Once you get something for pre-existing conditions, etc., etc. Once you get something, it’s awfully tough to take it away.” A reporter could have followed up and asked why, in spite of the political challenge, Trump believes there is a policy imperative to remove that guarantee and limit the ability of people with pre-existing conditions to gain coverage.

    Trump also said:

    Because you are basically saying from the moment the insurance, you’re 21 years old, you start working and you’re paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you’re 70, you get a nice plan. Here’s something where you walk up and say, “I want my insurance.” It’s a very tough deal, but it is something that we’re doing a good job of.

    I don't really understand what the president is saying here. He appears to be claiming that the model for health insurance is people pay a very low amount of money beginning when they are young and hope to garner benefits when they are old. If true, that’s a staggering display of ignorance; that’s how term life insurance works, not health insurance. Unfortunately, it’s hard to really nail this down because there were no follow-up questions.

    Trump also said of passing health care legislation, “If we don’t get it done, we are going to watch Obamacare go down the tubes, and we’ll blame the Democrats.” This would have been a good opportunity to point out that experts say Obamacare is not failing, ask the president why his administration is taking steps to ensure the system’s decline, or discuss the impact that Obamacare failing might have on Americans who depend on the legislation. Instead, Baker asked, “Did the senators want to try again?”

    The failure of the Times to ask the president tough questions about his health care position is all the more important because there have been vanishingly few opportunities for reporters to do so. The president has largely retreated from press scrutiny in recent months. Trump has not held a full press conference since February; he broke with tradition and did not hold one following the G20 meeting earlier this month. His only on-camera interviews in the last two months have been with the pro-Trump propagandists at Fox and, most recently, with The 700 Club’s Pat Robertson, who has said the president’s critics serve Satan.

    When mainstream journalists have had the opportunity to ask Trump to discuss the legislation, they’ve largely dropped the ball. Health care is not mentioned in the excerpts Reuters released of reporter Steve Holland’s July 12 interview with the president. The only reference to the issue in the excerpts the White House released of a conversation Trump had with the press corps during their trip to Paris that night involves the president saying that passing a bill is “tough” but the result will be “really good.” (It’s possible that health care had been discussed in more detail and the White House refused to release those portions, but Haberman would have been aware of this since she participated in that conversation, and that should have provided all the more reason for the Times reporters to ask him about the issue.)

    This is unfortunately typical of a media that has largely focused on politics and process, not policy or the personal stories of those who will be impacted by the passage of the Republican legislation.

    The Times lost out on its opportunity to put the president on the record on his top priority. Given how rare these chances have become, that’s a big miss.

  • Four ways the NY Times has undermined its own climate coverage

    The paper gave ammunition to the Trump administration to deny climate science and defend dropping out of the Paris agreement

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS

    The New York Times has done some stellar reporting on climate change, and it’s poised to do more thanks to its recent creation of a dedicated climate team. See, for instance, its impressive ongoing series on how climate change is affecting major cities, and another recent multimedia series on the melting of Antarctica.

    But the paper has made serious missteps in recent days and weeks, some of which have bolstered the White House’s case for climate denial and for dropping out of the Paris climate agreement. Here are four problems that deserve to be called out:

    1. Letting Bret Stephens spread climate denial, which was seized on by Scott Pruitt

    The New York Times hired conservative climate denier Bret Stephens as an op-ed columnist in April, and his first column was a factually compromised and misleading attack on climate science. Its publication provoked widespread condemnation of the Times and Stephens in late April.

    Then the column got a new round of attention late last week, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement. On June 2, the day after Trump’s announcement, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt defended the move from the podium in the White House briefing room, and cited Stephens' column to make the case that climate science is unsettled:

    I don’t know if you saw this article or not, but the “Climate of Complete Certainty” by Bret Stephens that was in The New York Times talked about -- and I’ll just read a quote, because I thought it was a very important quote from this article. “Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the IPCC knows that, while the modest 0.85 degrees Celsius warming of the earth that has occurred since 1880, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. Isn’t (sic) to acknowledge it honestly.”

    Pruitt actually misquoted the column, omitting Stephens’ acknowledgement that there has been “indisputable ... human influence” on the warming of the earth since 1880. But nonetheless, Pruitt left the impression that The New York Times supported his fringe views.

    As Media Matters senior fellow Matt Gertz put it, “It’s a disaster for a paper that sold itself to readers as a bulwark against the new president, then turned around and hired a prominent climate change skeptic.”

    2. Ignoring the fact that Pruitt seized on Stephens’ climate denial

    In an article about Trump’s views on climate change, New York Times reporter Peter Baker noted that Pruitt had questioned climate science during his remarks at the White House, but Baker neglected to mention that the EPA chief had used a New York Times column as a main piece of supporting evidence for his claims.

    3. Publishing a misleading story on small-business owners’ views on Paris, which was seized on by Pruitt

    On June 2, The New York Times published an article by Landon Thomas Jr. titled “Small Businesses Cheer ‘New Sheriff in Town’ After Climate Pact Exit.” Thomas claimed, “While multinational corporations such as Disney, Goldman Sachs and IBM have opposed the president’s decision to walk away from the international climate agreement, many small companies around the country were cheering him on, embracing the choice as a tough-minded business move that made good on Mr. Trump’s commitment to put America’s commercial interests first.”

    The article ignored the fact that hundreds of small businesses had publicly called for remaining in the Paris agreement, and it quoted no small-business owners who supported the deal. Small-business supporters weren’t that hard to find, even in red states. NPR's Morning Edition featured one, Fhebe Lane, who runs a store in a conservative Texas coal town. A Trump voter, Lane said she was concerned about the climate getting hotter and thought limiting emissions was a good idea.

    Thomas’ article also drew criticism for quoting some of the same pro-Trump voices he had cited in a previous piece, as Media Matters has noted. Boston Globe writer Michael Cohen pointed out that the article was “remarkably similar” to a piece Thomas wrote three months earlier; Cohen and others noted that the same two people “are quoted in both articles extolling Mr. Trump’s virtues” and “their positive words about Trump are used as evidence that small business owners are behind the president.”

    But Pruitt, for one, liked the article. He quoted it during an appearance on ABC’s This Week on June 4:

    Even The New York Times had an article, I think, within the last couple of days that talked about small business celebrating, euphoria, with respect to the president’s decision.

    4. Blaming the Democrats alongside the Koch brothers for GOP climate denial

    New York Times reporters Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton published a mostly well-reported article on widespread Republican refusal to accept climate science. But the story contained a ridiculous claim that “Democratic hubris” was partly to blame:

    The Republican Party’s fast journey from debating how to combat human-caused climate change to arguing that it does not exist is a story of big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favoring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over cooperation and conciliation.

    While the article laid out plenty of evidence that the Koch brothers had affected elected Republicans’ views, it did not make any kind of convincing case that Democrats had.

    Talking Points Memo Editor Josh Marshall characterized the “Democratic hubris” line as “half of what is imbecilic in contemporary political journalism”:

    As New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, who wrote a book on the Koch brothers, noted in a post on June 5, Republican climate denial and the rejection of the Paris agreement are clear and direct consequences of the Kochs and other rich fossil fuel barons pouring money into the political scene. “It is, perhaps, the most astounding example of influence-buying in modern American political history,” she wrote.

    Democrats, hubristic or not, can’t claim credit for that.

    Whither the Times?

    “The paper has lost its way,” Think Progress’ Joe Romm wrote in a post criticizing the Davenport/Lipton article and other pieces published by the Times. “A shocking number of recent articles reveal a paper that’s begun to embrace false balance, giving equal time to both climate misinformers and actual climate experts, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus.”

    Still, many journalists at The New York Times are pulling in the right direction. Columnist David Leonhardt gently disputed the “Democratic hubris” argument in a piece on June 5. A number of Times journalists expressed their displeasure with Stephens’ first column. And the climate team keeps doing great work. Let’s hope their side wins the tug-of-war.

  • No, wind energy won't fill a gas tank, but it will power a battery

    Blog ››› ››› FAE JENCKS

    In today's edition of the New York Times, Peter Baker discounted President Obama's assertion in last night's speech that "the time to embrace a clean energy future is now" and his suggestion that we set "standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power." Baker suggested that clean energy's "connection to the spill... goes only so far," and stated that the expansion of the wind and solar industries "would not particularly reduce the need for... deepwater drilling" because "neither fills gasoline tanks in cars and trucks."

    In making this argument, Baker misses the point completely.

    The fact of the matter is that President Obama's policies have long emphasized an investment in hybrid vehicle technologies that will reduce our dependence on oil. In August, he announced an award of $2.4 billion in stimulus funds to "develop the next generation of fuel-efficient cars and trucks powered by the next generation of battery technologies." And companies are working to produce electric and hybrid cars that will be plugged in, instead of or in addition to being gassed up.

    While wind and solar energy may not fill cars' tanks, it will power their batteries. What Baker fails to acknowledge is that by ensuring that "more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power," Obama would ensure that those vehicles are powered with clean energy rather than with electricity produced by fossil fuel plants.

    Additionally, wind and solar power can be used to produce hydrogen which, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, can be stored for use in vehicles' fuel cells. Contrary to Baker's assertion, investments in and implementation of projects such as these would both reduce the need for offshore drilling and fuel cars and trucks.