December 16, 2016
In the months leading up to and following the election, The New York Times has proven incapable of handling itself like an actual newspaper (and, to be clear, doubts about its existence as such have been cast for many years). First, it appointed itself as the public relations newsletter for Hillary Clinton, with its reporters like Amy Chozick and Mark Liebovich writing pieces about the candidate that were uncritical and full of unrelenting praise. Chozick in particular was (and continues to be) such an ass-kisser that I’ve wondered if she was in fact angling for a place in a hoped-for Clinton team after the win everyone predicted. It’s worth noting that the only times Chozick’s byline appeared after anything even remotely nuanced or critical of Clinton were when she had to share it with another reporter. Overall, Hillary Clinton’s long and troubling political history of nearly thirty years was ignored in favour of obsequiousness and pandering that would cause Pride and Prejudice’s William Collins to blush in embarrassment.
Now, after a resounding and unexpected Clinton defeat, the Times has decided that its entire existence will be defined by a relentless quest to uncover the many truths about Donald Trump. During the campaign, the Times couldn’t be bothered to critically analyse or report on the many kinds of corruption in the Clinton campaign, leaving it to places like The Intercept to report on her “cosy” relationship with several media, for instance. But now, the Times banks on its tagline, “Journalism That Matters. Now More Essential Than Ever,” to bring in new subscribers.
The strategy is apparently working: the newspaper gained 41,000 new subscribers after the election, presumably from shocked and horrified liberals and others who now want the comfort of news that will continue to massage their fears and raise their hopes instead of providing any actual, factual coverage. In an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, executive editor Dean Baquet smugly intoned that “journalism is holding powerful people to account.”
Well, actually, no, not really, no. There’s a step that needs to come before you hold “powerful people to account,” and that’s first understanding and relaying the complexity of the systems of power that operate to produce those “powerful people” in the first place. If you only think the point is to hold people to account, you’ve already failed, whether you’re a commentator or a reporter; you’ve taken the easy route of either praising or demonising individuals and allowed the systems that produce them to go unchecked. In the case of the Times: It failed and continues to fail to think about its own sloppy reporting and refusal to hold Clinton accountable for her many systemic problems. In the months — and perhaps decades — to come, there will be many, many attempts to analyse and understand what happened. I suspect — I hope — that the failure of the Times (and others like it) to accurately report on the election and its succumbing to knee-jerk liberalism (reflecting its desperate desire to maintain its foothold in the corridors of power) will be noted. The Times is a symptom of the failure of the media to actually do its job, which has resulted in some of the most egregious cases of shoddy journalism we’ve seen so far.
The fact that an executive editor at a major newspaper can get by with such ridiculous grandstanding is testimony to the fact that “journalism” has become mired in a Politics of Personality. There’s more to all this, of course, and in the months to come, I’ll be writing and reporting, on this website, much more on how and why publications like the Times are corrupt in the work they produce.
I’m deliberate in my choice of words: When most people see or hear of discussions of corruption, especially in relation to news media, they expect tales of contemporary Deep Throats or of people passing money or flash drives in brown paper bags in public parks. But the corruption I’m referring to is a corruption mired in power, and power is both abstract and real. Baquet talks about people, but he’s part of a deeply corrupt system, one that willingly kowtows to a set of political figures it hopes will grant it access for many years to come.
I’ll have much more on all this in the future, and my work will not be restricted to the Times, which is a symptom of the bigger issues.
But for now, I’ll leave with this: Most of the Times is increasingly devoted to how awful Trump is and how everything can and should be blamed on The Russians. Trump is now directly or indirectly named and criticised on nearly every page.
It’s not that he should not be critically and thoroughly reported on, especially given how awful we know he will be for, well, everything from our wombs to the planet itself. But it’s amusing to note how fervently and sometimes ridiculously and feverishly the Times has decided to “report” on Trump, given its complete refusal to do anything similar about Clinton who, unlike Trump, actually had a public record, one that largely consisted of her frequently changing positions, that could be appraised.
I’m reminded, every time I glance at the stack of hard copies of the Times in a local coffeeshop or look at it online, of another paper, a fictional one: The Daily Prophet in the Harry Potter movies. There, the headlines were all determined by a fear of Voldemort — everything was, ultimately, about He Who Must Not Be Named. Every single headline was in some way, even indirectly, related to Him, Everything Was Somehow Due To Him.
Donald Trump may be named, often, by the Times, but he has taken on the shape and form of The Enemy for a corrupt newspaper that can’t distinguish reporting from grandstanding, that refused to follow basic journalistic principles before the election and whose failure to do so in part contributed to its inability to even comprehend a Trump win. Today, Trump is the Times’s Voldemort; its very existence is now defined by a relentless drive to expose a man whose many faults and problems have been in plain sight for decades. The Times will no doubt continue to fixate on Trump as a powerful person. It will, much like The Daily Prophet, repeatedly churn out headlines expressing fear and doom and for that it will be richly rewarded, at least for now, by new readers who crave the comfort of reacting in fear and who will allow themselves to forget that Trump did not happen in a vacuum but as the result of decades of failed policies many of which, like NAFTA and welfare reform, were actually initiated and overseen by Clinton in her many years as President-in-Waiting.
The Times and these readers will, in the process, fail to understand power itself.
For some alternative examples of alternative reporting, see my last update, “What’s This Movie Called?: Or, Snakes and Ladders, and the End of Stardom and Friendships.”
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