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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters for America.

Nearly three months after The New York Times published an influential report on the eve of Election Day insisting “law enforcement officials” had been unable to find concrete links between Russia and the Trump campaign – or find proof Russian operatives were trying to help get Trump elected — Times editors are still grappling with the controversial coverage. They also remain slow to provide answers to critics who wonder how an article essentially clearing Trump and his associates of links to Russia — which “hasn’t aged well,” as Chris Hayes put it — made it into print during such a crucial juncture of the campaign.

New questions have also been raised about the Times’ decision late in the campaign to sit on the story that Russian officials may have compromising information on Trump; information that was contained in a dossier compiled by a former British intelligence official.

Times executive editor Dean Baquet remains defiant and is lashing out at critics; even one who writes for the Times.

As for Russia allegedly trying to help elect Trump, Media Matters recently highlighted the Times’ October 31 article, which was headlined, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.”

We noted that an avalanche of revelations have since confirmed the FBI did suspect there were ties between Russia and Trump during the campaign. And when it was published, it was gleefully endorsed by the conservative media as proof that any speculation of there being Russia-Trump connection had been debunked by Times.

In real time, coming on the eve of the election, the article helped put the media brakes on the unfolding Russian hacking story; the same Russian hacking story that has since turned into a full-time Trump controversy.

Last Friday, Times public editor Liz Spayd addressed the Times’ Russia-Trump coverage from last fall. Overall, she critiqued the paper’s work as being “timid,” and too often relying on the actions of law enforcement officials, rather than by the paper’s own investigative reporting.

She was specifically critical of the paper’s handling of the explosive Trump dossier story, noting, “Only after learning from CNN that Trump and President Obama had been briefed on the document did The Times publish what it had known for months.”

What had the Times known for months? Spayd spells out that Times reporters knew about the dossier, they interviewed its author, knew he was a legitimate former intelligence officer, and could find no “significant red flags” while trying to fact-check the dossier. Despite all that, the Times sat on the dossier story.

Spayd suggests that part of the reason they didn’t run with the “explosive allegations” was that journalists didn’t think Trump was going to win the election, so the paper didn’t want to risk sparking a controversy by reporting on the dossier.

Spayd’s appraisal echoes criticism she made last November, just days before the election, when she stressed the Times newsroom hadn’t given enough time and attention to the Russia hacking story. Times readers, she wrote, had been “shortchanged.” (By contrast, she noted the Times newsroom seemed “turbocharged” while covering the Hillary Clinton email saga.)

The public editor’s most recent critique immediately sparked outcry from within the Times, leading to the odd spectacle of executive editor Baquet airing his complaints about Spayd’s column to the Washington Post. Denouncing Spayd’s critique as a “bad column” that reached a “fairly ridiculous conclusion” (“she doesn’t understand what happened”), Baquet vigorously defended the paper’s election season work on the Russia-Trump story, and stressed that he personally oversaw much of it.

If that’s the case, Baquet should be able to answer some key, lingering questions about the Times’ misguided October 31 story about there being no evidence of Russia trying to help elect Trump during the campaign:

  • Does Baquet know who the unnamed “law enforcement” sources were who mislead the newspaper about the FBI not being to uncover any evidence of any Russia-Trump link?
  • If those sources lied to the Times, and especially if they did so for partisan reasons, does Baquet agree that the paper is under no obligation to protect their identity?
  • And were those sources part of an anti-Clinton cabal within the FBI, and specifically within the FBI’s New York bureau?
  • Are Times reporters today still using those untrustworthy sources?

Banquet’s continued defensive posture is reminiscent of the strategy Times editors took in the wake of the Iraq War in 2003 when it became increasingly clear that the paper’s pre-war coverage had failed badly, especially its over-eagerness to help the Bush administration sell a story about the looming threat of Iraq WMDs. For a year, Times editors defended the paper’s performance.

It wasn’t until May 26, 2004, that the Times published a mea culpa of sorts. (Days later, the paper’s public editor offered up a scathing critique of the newsroom’s effort during the run-up to the war.)

Today, Banquet is taking the same approach regarding the Times and the Russian hacking story: The newspaper did nothing wrong and all questions ought to be dismissed.

But they’re not. From Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to President Obama:

Public editor Spayd made a good-faith effort to put the Times’ 2016 Russia-Times hacking coverage into perspective and to offer up an honest appraisal. It would be helpful if the Times leadership did the same.