When President Trump addressed the nation in the aftermath of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the New York Times headline read, “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM.”
The New York Times pic.twitter.com/8nBR9bAX4l
— Comfortably Smug (@ComfortablySmug) August 6, 2019
A firestorm from the left ensued. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote the front page was “a reminder of how white supremacy is aided by – and often relies upon – the cowardice of mainstream institutions.”
Brian Fallon, a former deputy press secretary for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, raged: “Dean Baquet, editor of the New York Times, cares more about being seen as impartial by diehard supporters of Donald Trump than he does about faithfully representing what is happening in American politics.”
Presidential candidates Corey Booker, Beto O’Rourke, and Kirsten Gillibrand joined in, with O’Rourke calling the headline “unbelievable.” Social media was thick with threats from progressives about cancelling their subscriptions to the Bible of coastal elites.
Shortly thereafter, the Times published a second edition with a new headline: “ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS.” Similarly, the Times’ website led with “Trump Condemns Bigotry but Doesn’t Call for Major New Gun Laws.”
They changed it. For what it’s worth. pic.twitter.com/eQo3tSHi5P
— Jordan Weissmann (@JHWeissmann) August 6, 2019
They've already changed it again. pic.twitter.com/Jycua7Gv3w
— Karol Markowicz (@karol) August 6, 2019
Nevertheless, leftists persisted. The hashtag #CancelNYT became a trending topic on Twitter. Adam Jentleson, who was deputy chief of staff to former Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid, announced he canceled his subscription on Monday.
On Twitter, the pseudononymous “Neontaster“ joked: “Every New York Times subscription now comes with 5 free Rage Cancellations, which is where they cancel your subscription and then quietly go back to delivering the papers a couple of weeks later when you’ve cooled off.”
Baquet denied politics influenced the headline change, telling Politico: “The fact that Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker didn’t like it didn’t influence me. I don’t need the entire political field to tell me we wrote a bad headline. It was evident.” He added that the banner headline wrapped together a news story and a separate “analysis” piece. “We gave him too little room, and he wrote what was essentially a news headline.”
It may not occur to Baquet that his defense of the Times is closer to an indictment. After all, he has announced to the world the Times finds it unacceptable to publish a news headline without signaling the paper’s institutional disapproval of President Trump. Yet this admission, embarrassing as it may be, is less damning than the alternative explanation: the paper caved in to complaints from not only Democratic politicians, but also its progressive readership.
As Dan Pfeiffer, former senior Obama adviser and co-host of “Pod Save America,” told Politico: “For the first time in my career, making the press a foil is good politics in a Democratic primary, and that is going to have long-standing consequences for the business of journalism.” Politico noted other recent examples, primarily from Sen. Bernie Sanders, including his claim that a question about Medicare-for-all during the CNN presidential primary debates represented “Republican talking points.” The press secretaries for Sanders and his primary rival Sen. Kamala Harris have also actively attacked negative coverage of their bosses.
There may be no better example of this trend than Ocasio-Cortez. Prior to blasting the Times headline, she called a Politico story about her backing a primary challenge to House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries “[b]irdcage lining.” She has heaped scorn on reporters from CNN, and the fact-checkers at the Washington Post and PolitiFact. She has criticized CBS News for a lack of nonwhite females among its 2020 campaign reporters. And she has declared that “[m]ost platforms currently have 0 incentive to disseminate high-quality, true information.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s critiques are not always pointless, even though she is frequently wrong on the facts. She has complained that “there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” She also claims that she corrects herself, itself a claim warranting several Pinocchios.
A responsible press would have concluded some time ago that Ocasio-Cortez is an ill-informed crank in the tradition of Rep. Maxine Waters. Instead, when Ocasio-Cortez refers to the detention centers on our southern border as “concentration camps,” she is implicitly condemned by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, but defended by establishment journalists on social media (including one previously targeted by the congresswoman).
Why does this happen? Occam’s razor suggests the same two bad signs of the Times. Journalists may have over-indulged in the left-wing Kool-Aid themselves, or they may fear the wrath of their audiences.
In the internet economy, media outlets are largely dependent on revenue from subscribers or advertising, which incentivizes appealing to particular segments of the public. The core readership of the Times is as tribal as any, but their tribe is the Democratic Party or progressivism, not the Times. The same is true of the Washington Post and any number of other outlets (including on the right, but the establishment already considers outlets like Fox News to be biased).
When President Trump criticizes the media, both parties benefit. Negative polarization rallies the right toward Trump, and the left toward the media. When Democrats start attacking the media from the left, the media loses, as their audience will usually side with the Democrats.
This is the danger Dan Pfeiffer identifies. So far, the Times and its ilk seem more invested in prioritizing “speaking truth to power” over reporting facts to their readers, viewers, and listeners.