If any of my colleagues in the news industry wants to know why many people hold us in such contempt, here is a textbook example.
The first edition of the New York Times on Aug. 6 carried this headline: “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM”; it accompanied two stories about the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, two days earlier as well as President Donald Trump’s address to the nation on Aug. 5.
One of the articles, written by Michael Crowley and Maggie Haberman, began with this: “President Trump on Monday denounced white supremacy in the wake of two mass shootings over the weekend, and citing the threat of ‘racist hate,’ he summoned the nation to address what he called a link between the recent carnage and violent video games, mental illness and internet bigotry.”
Given how this story focused on Trump’s call for Americans to reject racist ideology, the Times’s headline seemed to be a reasonable summary of what he said. That became one of Trump’s primary themes in his speech.
But many readers of the Times grew furious that the newspaper “gave” Trump a “pass.” His bigoted rhetoric leads to acts of violence, they said. So the president should be held accountable for his reckless behavior.
Nate Silver, founder and editor in chief of the website FiveThirtyEight, tweeted this at 9:13 p.m. Aug. 5: “Tomorrow’s NYT print edition. Not sure ‘TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM’ is how I would have framed the story.”
The cascade of criticism began soon thereafter. Many of the Times’s readers — and some of its own writers — berated the newspaper for not challenging Trump’s sincerity.
The Times responded by changing the headline for its second edition to “ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS,” although even this didn’t make up for the Gray Lady’s original sin in the eyes of many. Journalists were particularly harsh in evaluating the Times’s work.
“Trump’s words were clearly lacking, but some members of the press gave him the benefit of the doubt. Today’s lead headline in the first edition of The New York Times — ‘Trump urges unity vs. racism’ — was particularly egregious and quickly attracted fierce backlash online. (The Times changed the headline for its second edition, but ‘Assailing hate but not guns’ isn’t much of an improvement),” wrote Jon Allsop in an article titled “Letting Trump off the hook,” posted on the website of the Columbia Journalism Review. “Early this morning, the top headline at the Times online was still crediting Trump with ‘condemning bigotry’; the subhead parroted Trump’s argument that ‘video games and mental health’ are to blame for shootings, without pointing out that that isn’t true.”
In assessing how news outlets treated Trump’s speech, Allsop urged those of us in this industry to hold his feet to the fire.
“[T]he premise of Trump’s healing address was a lie, and coverage of it — assuming that it merited attention at all — should have made fact its focus,” he wrote. “Trump is culpable for hate in America; journalists should not give the impression that he is invested in working to fix it. Saying so isn’t the same as blaming Trump for individual atrocities without evidence; it holds him accountable for creating a climate that nurtures bigotry and violence. When Trump rails against an individual or group, commentators stress that his words have real-world consequences. When something that looks like a real-world consequence comes to pass, adopting Trump’s narrative defies logic.”
Allsop’s emphasis on the need for context is important. On occasion, I’ve been known to tell individual co-workers: “You’re a reporter, not a stenographer.”
By this I mean it isn’t enough for journalists to merely jot down what sources say. We must ask pertinent questions to clarify what they mean.
If the information provided by sources doesn’t jibe with the facts at hand, then it’s our obligation to pursue the issue until we arrive at the truth. And this often requires us to challenge their statements and show when and how they don’t hold up to scrutiny.
In their Times article, Crowley and Haberman provided the necessary context that the newspaper’s critics desired. If editors decided to use a headline that conveyed more doubt about Trump’s sincerity with his speech, this wouldn’t have been a problem in light of how the story explored this.
The original headline, however, accurately reflected what Trump said. But Executive Editor Dean Baquet called it a mistake in his mea culpa, which shows that the Times newsroom allows its collective antipathy toward Trump to dictate its editorial judgment.
This is bad journalism. Having a healthy sense of skepticism about all public officials is appropriate in the news industry. But this doesn’t require us to display a permanent sneer toward any individual.
The Times’s naysayers weren’t happy over the fact that its headline didn’t mirror the animus they feel whenever they think about Trump. And the truly sad part is that the newspaper’s top management believed it necessary to apologize for this.
I join Trump’s numerous detractors in the conviction that he in no way took the message he delivered to heart. He manipulates many of his supporters through their bigotries like no public figure I’ve ever seen and uses this for his benefit.
But the original headline appearing in the Times correctly reported what he said. Baquet should never have sought forgiveness for telling the truth.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.