The page-one headline screamed scandal: “Russians Sent ‘Backdoor’ Bid to Meet Trump.”
Here, on the November 18 front page of the New York Times, was the smoking gun we'd been waiting for. Bylined by three different reporters and assisted by three researchers in Washington and New York, this was finally the blockbuster story that would blow the lid off the Trump-Russian election tampering.
Or was it?
According to the front page Times’ story, a senior Russian official tried to arrange a meeting between Vladimir Putin and candidate Donald Trump, but Jared Kushner rejected it. Even worse … well, there was no “even worse.” In fact, there was nothing more to the story. Yet it merited the first page of the most important newspaper in the world.
And therein lies the sad reality of journalism circa 2017: The New York Times, the Great Gray Lady of America’s Fifth Estate, has allowed its news judgment and its news columns to become, like its editorial page, not only anti-Trump but in the process, hopelessly biased.
To be sure, The New York Times is still, far-and-away, the world’s greatest newspaper, and each day its responsible for helping set the global news agenda. And while it’s still true that placing a news story in the Times can turbo-charge a public relations professional’s career, the clout and credibility of the newspaper of record has diminished as its liberal news bias has become more obvious.
Obviously, journalism — or what passes for it in 2017 — has undergone a gut-wrenching transformation since the Times was founded two centuries ago. For much of that period, newspapers of record, like the Times, valued their objectivity, attempting to portray issues and events in a neutral and unbiased manner, regardless of the opinion or personal beliefs of the reporter or the editor or the publisher.
For public relations people and their employers, the Times and its reporters were often unkind, frequently unapproachable and occasionally unfathomable, but their — and their paper’s — integrity was rarely called into question. While pure objectivity is clearly impossible — all of us carry biases — Times’ reporters, by and large, practiced fair-minded journalism, asking probing questions and calling things the way they saw them.
Not any more.
Objective journalism has become a shadow of its former self. In a day when “fake” is an accurate descriptor of social media “news,” one-sided networks like MSNBC and Fox News make no pretense of their prejudice. As moronic tweets from moronic celebrities become “breaking stories,” journalistic standards have become an endangered species. The fact is, most news organizations today have given up even pretending to be “objective.”
Sadly, to students of journalism, even the vaunted New York Times has joined this race to the biased bottom. The daily proof is ineluctable.
• Last year, Times’ media critic Jim Rutenberg wrote a column urging his fellow reporters to “throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half century” and become oppositional to Trump.
• Heeding its columnist’s words, the Times assigned the Trump White House beat to its two most virulently anti-Trump reporters, Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush, both tabloid veterans, who turned out daily page-one screeds on Trumpian insolence, incompetence and inadequacy. Predictably, the Times’ diabolical duo was soon signed by Random House to write a West Wing tell-all book. No doubt the collaborators would have cheerfully continued their Trump thumping had the Times not suspended Mr. Thrush for allegedly going all Harvey Weinstein on several unsuspecting female colleagues.
• On November 18, the same day the Times chose to blast its Trump-Putin non-meeting story on page one, it also chose to “bury” a smaller story inside the paper regarding Trump’s decision to reverse his Administration’s controversial policy allowing hunters to import trophies of elephants killed in Africa. Although this policy had infuriated liberals and dominated cable news and talk radio, the Times seemed circumspect to publicize that Trump, for once, might in fact have done the right thing.
Obviously, these are but a few examples of news bias in The New York Times. But there are many others, and their frequency has increased as the Trump Administration has trudged on.
To be sure, the Times is still the best newspaper we have, and public relations people who wish to keep informed should still read it every day. Only now with a far more jaundiced eye.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He is the author of the Prentice- Hall text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its eleventh edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.