About 100 years ago, when I graduated journalism school, there was no more respected standard bearer for everything the journalistic profession stood for than the New York Times. Not only were Times’ reporters more accurate and informative than their competitors, they also demonstrated, more than any other journalists, that reportorial objectivity, impartiality and neutrality were, indeed, attainable.
No wonder the New York Times was the world’s undisputed “paper of record.” Every day, it demonstrated the construct of “fairness” that we learned about in J school wasn’t just theoretical. It was, in fact, the way that really good journalists operated in their real world jobs. It was this quality—of reporting dispassionately, telling both sides and letting readers decide on the truth—that distinguished the Times as the beacon of journalistic integrity. But alas, all good things must come to an end. And so, too, has the New York Times surrendered its role as journalism’s standard bearer for objectivity.
Today’s New York Times, in fact, makes no secret of its downright loathing of most things Republican and all things Donald Trump. This isn’t only apparent in its editorial pages—where op-ed writers run the gamut all the way from Trump haters like Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd to Trump hysterics like Michelle Goldberg and Charles Blow—but also in its news sections. (Full disclosure: I think Donald Trump is an insecure, ill-informed, downright dangerous President. But Joe Biden ain’t no bargain either.)
The fact is, today’s New York Times in both news and editorial is 100 percent devoted to defeating Trump in November. Its clear bias no longer debatable, its dedication to objectivity no longer consequential.
The most blatant proof of this sad new reality is that the Times is the first news outlet to assign a fulltime reporter, Maggie Haberman, to the “Beat Trump” beat, her sole responsibility to help ensure the defeat of Trump in the 2020 election.
Ms. Haberman, a former tabloid reporter and daughter of longtime Times columnist Clyde Haberman, is tasked with reporting on every Trumpian negative utterance, malicious action, falsehood or personal defect to help convince voters to elect Biden President of the United States.
She dutifully fulfills that mission with every column she files, keeping the Trump personal and professional deficiencies constant and avoiding any reference whatsoever to any policy act that might be construed as a Trumpian success.
The Times, of course, would never admit that Ms. Haberman’s job is to sink the Donald, but here’s a sample of her recent handiwork—and the strategy behind it—from which you might draw your own conclusions.
Trump is racist
In the wake of George Floyd’s death and subsequent protests, there’s no more damning accusation today that one is a racist. Ms. Haberman not-so-subtly accuses the President of such bigotry with a withering fusillade of cherry-picked Trump quotes.
Typical was her June 11 news column highlighting Mr. Trump’s “long history of making insensitive and tone-deaf comments on race, including remarks widely seen as racist.” She noted that Mr. Trump “has harbored offensive attitudes on race for years, including his searing attacks on the Central Park Five and his idea, on ‘The Apprentice,’ for an all-white team competing against an all-black team.” She added that in the wake of the Floyd protests, the President was “hunkered down at the White House,” tweeting about injured protestors and describing demonstrators as “THUGS.”
Ms. Haberman failed to mention that Trump’s comments also referred to his support of “the rights of peaceful protesters,” his denunciation of the way George Floyd was killed, his understanding of the “hurt and pain of people who have been through a lot,” and that the “thugs” he castigated were those who lit fires, looted stores and wantonly destroyed private property. Nor did she refer to the President’s call to the Floyd family to express the nation’s sympathies.
There’s no question that Donald Trump often says and tweets stupid and hurtful things that his advisors—to whom he never listens—never want him to utter. But branding him a “racist,” without at least citing ample evidence to the contrary, is patently unfair.
Trump is secretly sick
Another recurring theme in the Haberman “Beat Trump” playbook is that the President is hiding health problems, which, if revealed, would jeopardize his reelection.
Most recently, after a mid-June speech to the graduating class at West Point, she wrote that Trump “faced new questions about his health on Sunday, after videos emerged of him gingerly walking down a ramp … and having trouble bringing a glass of water to his mouth during a speech.” She dismissed Trump’s subsequent tweets about having to descend a long, steep, slippery ramp with no handrails as “defensive,” noting that the videos upon which she based her reporting showed “clear skies and no evidence that the ramp was slippery.”
Ms. Haberman went on to note that Trump, the oldest first-term President in U.S. history, “never fully explained his abrupt visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in November, saying at the time only that it was intended to get a jump on his annual physical.” And for good measure, she added that while a White House doctor had released a June memo that the President’s checkup indicated he was in good shape, it “provided little information beyond blood pressure.”
The inference, of course, was clear that Trump may be hiding a potentially serious physical impairment. After that Haberman column, numerous print and broadcast media followed the Times’ lead and dutifully reported on the President’s suspect physical condition.
Trump is wounded and alone
As the Trump circus has rolled on and more associates have abandoned ship, a pervasive theme of Haberman’s news columns has been the President’s Nixonian isolation in the White House.
Most recently, after John Bolton’s “kiss and tell” best seller was released, Ms. Haberman described the President as “acting trapped and defensive … with destructive behavior so out of step for an incumbent in an election year.”
She went on to reveal a man “wallowing in self-pity about news coverage of him since the coronavirus pandemic” … “bristling at criticism that he hasn’t sufficiently addressed the death of George Floyd”… and “consumed, once again with leaks from the White House.”
As to those “leaks,” one wonders who in the Trump White House would be willing to take the monumental risk of “leaking” anything to an arch Trump hater like Ms. Haberman. Wouldn’t they worry that if found out, it could cost them their job? In fact, after all the bad things Haberman has written to bury Trump, one wonders how in the world she still maintains “sources” within the Trump White House. The real answer, on closer inspection, may well be that Haberman doesn’t have any “sources” close to the President or even inside the White House, but rather, that her exposés about damning internal Trump interactions are fed to her by individuals far removed from the President, whose identity is never revealed and who, therefore, may or may not know what they’re talking about.
Typical was her nuanced disclaimer in the recent post-Bolton column: “The New York Times interviewed more than a dozen people who speak or interact with the president frequently, including current and former White House aides, campaign advisers, friends and associates. Most spoke on condition of anonymity.”
Indeed, among the only critical individuals quoted by name in the defamatory column was Anthony Scaramucci, the publicity-seeking missile who Trump threw out as press secretary after 11 excruciating days, and Sam Nunberg, the slightly, um, “off center” media hound who last worked for Trump in the 2015 campaign. Scaramucci and Nunberg aren’t exactly A-list Trump insiders. And if the two of them are typical of where Maggie Haberman gets her “inside dirt,” you have to wonder how authoritative Haberman’s reporting really is.
And that’s really the point in considering today’s New York Times’ Trump coverage. The fact is that any semblance of accuracy, fairness or objectivity has been sacrificed in favor of one simple rallying cry: Beat Trump! Somewhere, Walter Lippmann is crying his eyes out.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He’s the author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 13th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.