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Top New York Times Editor Offers Stunning Defense of Coverage of Trump

Why asking our media to get it right on Trump’s threat to democracy is not remotely the same as being in the tank for Biden

David Dee Delgado/Pool/Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump in New York City on May 7

Let’s state this right at the outset: The New York Times has produced a remarkable run of indispensable journalism about Donald Trump’s authoritarian designs for a second term. The paper has exposed Trump’s schemes to unleash the Justice Department on political enemies, to gut the bureaucracy and stock it with loyalists, to functionally wreck our intelligence agencies by turning them into armies of back-alley political warfare, to unleash a draconian and deeply sadistic crackdown on immigrants, to hobble international institutions and empower the world’s autocrats and dictators, and much more.

These pieces are executed with great professionalism and revelatory power. Anyone who finds the considerable amount of time it takes to consume this journalism will come away deeply informed about—and profoundly rattled by—the specter of authoritarian rule that haunts our country, should Trump win.

Can all this be true even as it’s also true that the Times often makes editorial decisions that risk obscuring all of this for ordinary readers? Yes, both can be true. And it is mystifying that the executive editor of the Times appears unwilling to take this notion seriously.

Joe Kahn recently sat for an interview with Semafor’s Ben Smith about criticism of the paper. Smith cited a (somewhat misrepresented) claim from Democratic strategist Dan Pfeiffer that the Times doesn’t see its job as “saving democracy,” and asked:

Why don’t you see your jobs as: “We’ve got to stop Trump?” What about your job doesn’t let you think that way?

The problem here is obvious: This question reduces criticism of the Times to a blanket demand for consciously hostile treatment of Trump—and consciously favorable treatment of President Biden.

Unsurprisingly, Kahn easily batted this away, because he correctly understood the question in exactly those terms:

One of the absolute necessities of democracy is having a free and fair and open election where people can compete for votes, and the role of the news media in that environment is not to skew your coverage towards one candidate or the other, but just to provide very good, hard-hitting, well-rounded coverage of both candidates, and informing voters.

Democracy, said Kahn, requires the media to inform people about their electoral choices, not to “prevent” people from voting for Trump or to become like “Xinhua News Agency or Pravda”:

To say that the threats of democracy are so great that the media is going to abandon its role as a source of impartial information to help people vote—that’s essentially saying that the news media should become a propaganda arm for a single candidate.… It is true that Biden’s agenda is more in sync with traditional establishment parties and candidates. And we’re reporting on that and making it very clear.

Kahn’s answer is stunning in its simplistic rendering of the dilemma raised by Trump’s hostility to democracy and its resolute lack of awareness of what many liberal critics have actually argued about the Times, the media, and the democracy question.

True, some loud social media voices just want skewed coverage. But the more sophisticated liberal critique, as I understand it, is something else entirely. It’s that the unique danger Trump poses to democracy requires a serious reevaluation of the conventions of political reporting at big news organizations—the daily editorial choices that subtly shape how readers receive information and ideas—and the ways they unmistakably obscure the true nature of that threat.

In Kahn’s formulation, the media is under no obligation to defend democracy frontally and explicitly. Brian Beutler exposes the deep problems with this notion, pointing out that democracy is foundational to a free press and that journalists should actively inform voters that democracy itself is on the ballot, because if they unwittingly choose to break it, that won’t be easily undone.

I’d like to try another approach. Kahn believes the press’s proper role in a liberal democracy is to enlighten voting citizens on the true electoral choices they face. He just thinks the Times is doing a fine job at it already, and he reacts defensively to suggestions otherwise.

So how might we get someone like Kahn to reconsider that proposition? One way might be to ask whether the Times is truly meeting the standard Kahn himself sets for it.

The threshold question should be framed not in Smith’s terms but as follows: Does Kahn believe that at the most basic level, the choice voters face in this election is that Trump poses a fundamental threat to the system itself, and Biden just does not?

My suspicion is that many Times editors more or less accept something like that formulation. Elite journalists who have been around D.C. a long time, such as Susan Glasser, are getting more vocal with such declarations. Kahn seems to recognize the broad outlines of this possibility.

So the next question becomes: Does the casual reader regularly come away from most Times coverage grasping that core difference between Trump and Biden, that one fundamentally threatens the system and the other doesn’t?

Admittedly, it’s not easy to definitively answer that. What we can do is isolate media conventions and editorial choices that plainly do obscure that contrast, not just at the Times but everywhere in the media, and ask for hard thinking about them. Here’s a partial rundown:

The two-different-realities fallacy. A recent Times news piece reported that both Democratic and GOP voters perceive the other side as an existential threat, concluding that “just what is threatening democracy depends on who you talk to.”

The piece largely treated GOP voters’ concerns about threats to democracy that are unfounded (phantom voter fraud) as equivalent to Democratic anger over Trump’s insurrection and election-denying Republicans who are helping him get away with it. The overall effect was a who’s-to-say-who’s-right shrug.

This is emphatically not a demand for ignoring Trump voters’ concerns. Cover them, of course, but if journalists know those concerns to be largely baseless and know Democratic concerns are mostly grounded in things that happened—as in this case—the question is: Will the casual reader also come away grasping this? The two-different-realities device, which is ubiquitous, structurally works against that goal.

The systemic-threat problem. A lot of media coverage obscures the purely systemic threat Trump poses. To take just one example, Trump is trying to delay his trials so he can cancel ongoing prosecutions of himself if he wins. Times pieces sometimes describe this fact in oddly neutral tones, without asking whether it poses a unique threat to the system’s validity by attempting to place Trump above the law entirely.

The casual reader could easily infer that Trump’s gambit is tantamount to just another conventional legal strategy, and not see anything amiss with it. The Times could include more quotes explaining how abnormal this is, isolate Trump’s real aim in headlines far more often, and do more stand-alone pieces explaining why this would dramatically undermine the rule of law itself.

The proportionality pitfall. When critics argued that coverage of Biden’s age, as referenced in special counsel Robert Hur’s report, was over the top, Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger dismissed this as a demand that the media engage in “downplaying” the age issue to help Biden, in refrains similar to Kahn’s. This is absurdly evasive. The question is not whether Biden’s age should be covered—of course it should—but whether attention to it is disproportional. And it plainly is disproportional, all across the media.

But here’s the thing: Even if Sulzberger and Kahn disagree with me on that, it’s time for figures like them to stop employing rhetorical dodges that reductively treat such criticism as nothing more than special pleading. Surely there is some point at which they’d concede coverage crosses into disproportionality. The dispute is over where that line lies. Editors make decisions about how much importance to ascribe to things all the time. These are editorial choices. Defend them frontally, and own them.

It’s no accident that many in the profession have never seriously accepted that “But Her Emails” coverage was over the top, which it plainly was, given what we know now. This reflects a broader evasion about the proportionality issue. Enough games around this. Volume and placement matter.

The fodder-for-attacks news hook. The Hur report unleashed a deluge of media analysis pieces declaring that it would provide Trump and Republicans fodder to attack Biden, and looked at whether that will be effective. There is obviously a place for probing the efficacy of political strategies. But this easily veers into overkill.

The danger is that one side’s use of something to wage an attack—the seizing on it as “fodder”—itself becomes the hook for covering those attacks and the broader issue around them, often in the form of stand-alone pieces about the attacks themselves. If the attacks carry more weight in determining the scope of coverage than editors’ judgment of the genuine newsworthiness of the underlying fact itself—like what Hur said about Biden’s age—that seems self-evidently problematic.

This and the proportionality pitfall raise a broader point: News organizations like the Times have great power to send a message that people should be generally alarmed by something, simply by covering it relentlessly. Do casual readers come away thinking that Biden’s age is as alarming a problem as Trump’s authoritarian intentions are? I don’t know the precise answer to that question. But would Kahn really deny that it’s a reasonable one for journalists to ask themselves?

The euphemism temptation. There are too many of these to count: The description of right-wing propagandists and ratfuckers as “provocateurs”; the claim that “Congress” did something, when the culprit is Republicans; the echoing of GOP “election integrity” talking points in headlines, and so forth.

One cannot answer these objections by citing the great coverage mentioned above that does detail Trump’s authoritarian designs. That’s because the crucial point here is that other day-to-day editorial choices work at cross-purposes against that revelatory work.

It cannot be right that raising these concerns is tantamount to demanding “propaganda” for one side, as Kahn puts it. Rather, they are demands that coverage reflect what reporters and editors know to be true, and reflect the importance that they themselves ascribe to it, something they already do about all kinds of matters. If Kahn means what he says about the media’s proper role in informing citizens, reevaluating these conventions regularly would be more faithful—not less—to his own declared mission.

It’s hard to know how to improve on these problems. But the truth is, none of us has the answer to them. At bottom, the dilemma is this: When one of the candidates is running on an express vow to wreck the political and legal systems themselves, do typical conventions of political reporting—ones geared around presenting both sides as equivalently conventional political actors fighting on an even civic playing field—really get the job done in communicating what that means?

Would Kahn really assert that the Times—or anyone else—has that all figured out? Would he really declare that they’ve got that problem aced?