In June, New Yorker editor David Remnick interviewed New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger. They discussed a variety of subjects, including the rise of digital media, The Times’s financial health, the storied history of the news behemoths they are steering, and journalistic philosophy, among other things.
Those are subjects worthy of their time, and ours. A particular extended exchange caught my eye, when their discussion turned to the 2016 presidential election cycle and those who were critical of how media handled it and other contested subjects. I wish I was in the room with them. I’m not sure I’ll ever get the chance to sit down with those high-profile industry shapers. If I did, I’d correct some of their misperceptions about journalists who believe 2016 was not our finest hour.
I’ll do some of that here. First, it’s worth sharing the exchange at length. (Remnick’s comments are in bold):
I think there are people who argue sometimes—I don’t want to caricature them—that, if your reporting is hypercritical of Biden, that it somehow serves the cause of his defeat, and therefore the rise or the re-rise of Donald Trump.
Exactly. And that’s the type of argument that the Ukrainian government made when we reported on their use of these internationally banned weapons.
Take the Hillary Clinton e-mail obsession [in the 2016 election]. There were a lot of people saying the Times is just writing incessantly about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, and that helped tilt the balance of the election.
I’ve heard thirty different arguments about what tilted the balance of that election. I hate going down any one of these rabbit holes because, as we know, every group in this era has one version of that argument.
About e-mails, it was the number of pieces, the proportion of coverage. It wasn’t the fact that it was being reported on at all.
I could point to a hundred other examples. We heard that from the Hasidic community with our coverage of how certain yeshivas in New York are depriving their kids of [a well-rounded education] … It was the same argument. It was, Hey, look, our group has good reason to feel vulnerable in this moment, when antisemitism is rising. And our group, which is a particularly visible part of the Jewish population, faces a disproportionate amount of antisemitism. Even if this information is true, having it out there on the front page of the New York Times makes it more likely that people will say bad things or do bad things that impact our community.
It’s important to hear what’s on the other side of that. Everything that I’ve just said is reasonable and true, right? That’s a community that faces a disproportionate amount of prejudice in this country, and it’s our job as journalists to represent that, just as it was our job as journalists, in the 2016 election, to represent all the things that Donald Trump promised and threatened, and the various ways he was defying and promising to defy long-standing American norms. I don’t think you’ll find another news organization that did more, and more aggressive, reporting on Donald Trump the candidate, and certainly not on Donald Trump the President.
They may not have meant to caricature those critical of that coverage, but they did nonetheless. If I was in the room with them that day, I would have presented the arguments from the critics more fully.
First, asking questions about whether journalists handled the Clinton email story well is important introspection. The fact that the story may have helped tilt the balance in the 2016 election is an important part of the discussion, though not the central focus.
To be sure, there is reason to believe the 11th-hour intervention, initiated by FBI Director James Comey, who announced a reopening of the email investigation to Congress before ensuring the emails were new and unexamined, then by media, had a profound effect on an already-tight race. Though Comey subsequently announced there was nothing new, by then it was too late. The damage had already happened, possibly enough to have pushed Donald Trump into the White House.
“Hillary Clinton would probably be president if FBI Director James Comey had not sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28,” wrote data guru Nate Silver in a piece titled “The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton The Election.” “So why won’t media admit as much?” the piece’s subhead asked.
Silver acknowledges the letter wasn’t the only reason Clinton lost, but given its timing and the media’s coverage, it probably shifted the race three or four percentage points towards Trump, “swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida to him, perhaps along with North Carolina and Arizona. At a minimum, its impact might have been only a percentage point or so. Still, because Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 point, the letter was probably enough to change the outcome of the Electoral College.”
That result alone would not have meant the media did something wrong. Our job is to tell the truth as fully and as accurately as possible without fear or favor, meaning had that shift in the race been the result of high-quality journalism, there would be nothing to criticize from a journalistic point-of-view. That’s where I agree with Remnick and Sulzberger. It wasn’t our job to ensure Clinton would win, just to help our audience understand the stakes by providing them timely, accurate, relevant information. That’s where I part ways with those men, who didn’t even broach that part of the criticism in their exchange.
The Times, like most major media outlets, allowed WikiLeaks and the FBI to set the terms of the coverage of the email investigation. It began when Comey broke Department of Justice policy and called a press conference to speak in detail about an ongoing investigation, something we were compelled to cover because it was the head of the FBI talking about the potential criminal activity of a top presidential candidate. Wikileaks then purposefully dribbled out the stolen emails from Clinton’s campaign to entice media to cover them on WikiLeaks’s schedule rather than our own. It did not release the 50,000 pages of documents at once. Instead, WikiLeaks released a small batch every day during the final month of the campaign — specifically to hurt Clinton — knowing that media would write more stories even if there was no one big revelation.
That led to hyper coverage and more headlines than there otherwise would have been, most of which came late during the campaign cycle and helped cement the idea in the public’s mind Clinton must have done something extremely unethical. Only later did we tell the public her actions were part of an internal struggle within the State Department and other parts of the federal government over an antiquated technology system, which previous Secretary of State Colin Powell and even Comey had trouble dealing with. The effects of those initial coverage decisions can be seen even today as Trump supporters assert that Trump has been indicted for actions like Clinton’s, even though that’s untrue.
Here’s what The Times and other major news outlets should have done instead: Demand to see the entire trove of documents before reporting on any of them. That would have been the only way to wrestle control of the timeline from outside actors determined to use mainstream media to affect the election. It’s not a radical move. Journalists often do that, for instance, when dealing with investigations. We don’t allow the source to dictate publication terms, even indirectly, especially if we know they are purposefully withholding pertinent information and context.
It’s one thing for a source or whistleblower to provide us incomplete information because they can’t get to the rest of it; it’s quite another for that source or whistleblower to brag in advance they will hold back a portion of the information, making it difficult for us to determine its seriousness and understand the full context before publication or how many resources we should expend on it. News outlets showed much more restraint recently, for instance, when Elon Musk announced the “Twitter Files,” knowing he handpicked the journalists who got to see all of the relevant documents.
The coverage of the Comey letter only days before the election was more egregious. I’ve been in this business long enough to know we try to be especially careful as an election draws near, particularly when handling last-minute news of an investigation or allegation against a contestant in a tight race. That’s true for the straight-news and opinion sides of responsible media outlets. When I worked for the opinion page for The Sun News, for instance, our policy was to stop accepting letters to the editor or opinion pieces about the election a few days out. We knew at that stage of the cycle even the mention of an announcement of a potential investigation could effectively amount to a guilty verdict in the eyes of an under-informed public. There is not enough time to fully vet such claims and give our audiences a sense of the soundness of the investigation or allegation. What is it built upon? What’s the evidence undergirding it? Why is it being announced so late in an election cycle?
The 11th-hour Comey letter was built upon sand. But in the days after he sent it to Congress, media treated it as though a bomb had gone off. The New York Times led many other publications on that front, placing multiple stories about the reopened investigation on its front page, including above the fold. The message to our audiences was clear: Clinton’s in real trouble. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. What’s more, The Times had also led the way in essentially treating Clinton like an incumbent expected to waltz into the White House when it assigned someone to her beat even before she announced her candidacy. That, too, drove editorial decisions, making it easier for us to excuse outsized scrutiny compared to her opponent despite his laundry list of problematic actions.
Sulzberger said, “I’ve heard thirty different arguments about what tilted the balance of that election. I hate going down any one of these rabbit holes because, as we know, every group in this era has one version of that argument.”
We are neither talking about “every group in this era” nor a rabbit hole of “arguments about what tilted the balance of that election.” We are speaking specifically about the quality of journalism — or lack thereof — and what lessons we should or could have learned from that period. Frankly, it’s tiring to have to keep repeating that fact to industry leaders. They seem to grasp that growing distrust in media is maybe a result of Trump supporters feeling left out or maligned but seem to find it harder to grasp that the types of decisions we made in 2016 also convinced a huge portion of our audience on the other side of the aisle to trust us less.
The Times should be open to re-examining their editorial decisions. Despite the ill-fitting “liberal media” label conservative critics use, The Times has made 11th-hour decisions that have helped the last two Republican nominees win the presidency. Its coverage of the Comey letter was only one such instance. During the 2004 election cycle, editors at The Times decided to hold a bombshell story about a secret warrantless spying program only to publish after Bush had been re-elected. That came on the heels of its much-maligned coverage of Iraq and whether the country had weapons of mass destruction.
Again, if the decisions are journalistically-sound, as journalists we should be willing to live with the results. The quality of those decisions is what’s being debated. Despite claims by critics, mainstream media largely did a solid job covering the Hunter Biden story by not overplaying claims that remain unverified. But maybe the ultimate test is coming in 2024. The GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump, is already facing criminal charges, may face even more, and might be on trial during the heart of the general election. The principles we did not apply well to Hillary Clinton’s campaign must be applied to Trump: no trumpeting of 11th-hour investigations or even unproven charges. That does not mean giving into the screams of motivated actors who will want us to not report on important Trump developments when we should. It will require an unprecedented balancing act.
Internal newsroom debates will be crucial, and it would be foolhardy to ignore the concerns of colleagues with whom we disagree. That’s also why the warrantless spying decision The Times made is more defensible than its handling of WikiLeaks, at least from afar.
Though holding that story until after the 2004 election helped a Republican presidential candidate just as a hyper focus on Clinton’s emails did, it possibly was just a good-faith disagreement between editors and reporters — the kind of dispute that is commonplace in our industry and is healthy even.
The reporter believes a piece is ready for publication. The editor disagrees. The editor gets to make the call, right or wrong. I’ve been on both ends of such decisions. Though always uncomfortable, they are easier to swallow when there’s trust within the newsroom. I worked on a months-long investigation of the child protection arm of the South Carolina Department of Social Services. It was published as a multi-day series. I was able to convince a well-placed source to give me access to a trove of verified documents that confirmed much of my findings. After earnestly considering my opinion, my editor decided against using any of the documents because the source wouldn’t agree to going on the record. I strongly disagreed with her and still do. But I also strongly respected her decision, and still do, because I knew she was simply adhering to a long-held principle about the use of unnamed sources she had made clear a thousand times over before that investigation. Because I trusted her.
It’s easier to trust editors and industry executives who are willing to earnestly listen to the arguments we are making about journalistic decisions instead of those who, intentionally or not, caricature us.