August 13th, 2020


Attorney General Jeff Sessions is Dems' nightmare

Byron York

By Byron York

Published Nov. 22, 2016

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is Dems' nightmare
David Paul Morris for Bloomberg

The first step is admitting you have a problem, and the New York Times has a problem, the paper's public editor suggested this weekend.

Though she doesn't quite come out and say it, Liz Spayd seemingly agree with the many irate readers who say the Times could have done a better job covering the 2016 presidential election.

They "complain that The Times's attempt to tap the sentiments of Trump supporters was lacking. And they complain about the liberal tint The Times applies to its coverage, without awareness that it does," she wrote.

"Few could deny that if Trump's more moderate supporters are feeling bruised right now, the blame lies partly with their candidate and his penchant for inflammatory rhetoric. But the media is at fault too, for turning his remarks into a grim caricature that it applied to those who backed him. What struck me is how many liberal voters I spoke with felt so, too. They were Clinton backers, but, they want a news source that fairly covers people across the spectrum," Spayd added.

Though readers have called, emailed and even left notes in the comments section voicing their general dissatisfaction for the Times' election coverage, the paper still saw a notable uptick in subscriptions following Donald Trump's surprise victory over Clinton.

Nevertheless, Spayd advised, the paper cannot allow its subscription bump to distract from taking a long, hard look at what it got wrong in the election.

"I hope any chest thumping about the impressive subscriber bump won't obscure a hard-eyed look at coverage. Because from my conversations with readers, and from the emails that have come into my office, I can tell you there is a searing level of dissatisfaction out there with many aspects of the coverage," she wrote.

In the interest of improving its overall handling of election news, there are a few things the Times could do differently going forward.

First, it would do well to resist reporting on primary candidates through the lens of the possible threat he or she may pose to the likely nominees.

Early in the Democratic primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wasn't taken seriously by the press, and most media mentions of the Vermont lawmaker were only to note the size of his crowds and to ask whether he threatened Clinton's chances at the nomination.

As a result, most newsrooms missed the Sanders phenomenon, and they were caught off guard by his surprise challenge. In the future, newsrooms including the Times would be wise to cover primary candidates on the merits of their candidacy.

Second, the Times would benefit from focusing its energies on chasing bigger, consequential stories, and turning away from the gossipier nonsense.

The Times was fascinated, for example, by Hillary Clinton's supposedly spontaneous trip to Chipotle in April 2015, publishing three separate posts on the matter.

Later, during the GOP primary, the Times was really, intensely interested in Sen. Marco Rubio's, R-Fla., boots:

The Times published equally trivial stories on Mrs. Rubio's traffic tickets, as well as a story that described the senator's fishing boat as a "luxury speedboat."

Lastly, the Times simply needs to be more careful to avoid being flat-out wrong, like when it reported in July 2015, "A criminal investigation of Hillary Rodham Clinton by the Justice Department was being sought by two federal inspectors general over her email practices while secretary of state."

The Times ended up amending the story significantly, and Spayd published a lengthy mea culpa.

This isn't to say that all of the Times' 2016 coverage was bad. There were indeed some solid stories, and some impressive, in-depth reporting.

But as is usually the case in such things, big mistakes and missteps tend to overshadow steady successes and good work.

"The national desk of The Times has correspondents around the country, and they filed a steady stream of compelling stories from voters between coastal America," Spayd noted. "And yet between the horse race and the campaign drama, much of their work was simply drowned out."

At any rate, her apparent willingness to suggest the Times could have done a better job covering the 2016 election is a step in the right direction.

It's certainly better than casually dismissing criticism as the stuff of cranks, as the Times did in November 2015 when Reason discovered it had published an error-riddled expose on nail salons in New York City.