For all President Donald Trump’s hatred of the “failing New York Times” and all the invaluable work its journalists have done breaking stories of corruption and abuse in the administration, the paper has made serious editorial errors in its rush to get scoops on presidential candidates — often to Republicans’ benefit. Most notably, in 2016, the Times partnered with Trump ally and former Breitbart chief Steve Bannon to promote a false allegation of self-dealing at the Clinton Foundation — which set the tone for how the Clintons’ charity work was covered for the whole campaign cycle.
In 2019, the Times hasn’t struck deals with right-wing partisans. But, wrote Jonathan Chait for New York Magazine, their coverage of Trump’s smear of Biden’s Ukraine diplomacy was still badly conceived — and does more to help Trump promote the conspiracy theory than to debunk it or explore the abuses of power he used to put the story out.
“On May 1, The New York Times published a story that contained the most important facets of the Ukraine story,” wrote Chait. The Times reported that President Trump, through his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was pressing Ukraine’s government to investigate Joe Biden. And yet, having uncovered a massive scandal, the Times buried its own scoop. The revelation, which many people now see [as] an impeachable offense, was buried in the middle of a story that was primarily devoted to carrying Trump’s water.”
“Headlined ‘Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies,’ the story spun out a version of the narrative Giuliani has been trying to implant in the media,” continued Chait. “It suggested that, during his tenure as vice-president, Joe Biden took untoward action to help his son Hunter’s business in Ukraine by demanding the firing of a prosecutor who was investigating him. The news about Trump’s role arrived only after nine paragraphs of insinuations against Biden. And then, after a brief detour that casually reveals that the Biden story is the product of an extraordinary abuse of power by the president, it returns to a long unspooling of the Biden-Ukraine narrative.”
“The Times article had important ramifications,” Chait wrote. “It immediately cast Trump’s Biden campaign as an oh-by-the-way detail, allowing the scandal to fester unremarked in the background for months until happenstance thrust it back into the headlines. The strange saga of the Times scoop also suggests something more disturbing: that Trump has hacked into the mainstream media’s ethics and turned them to his advantage. What’s more, even now that his conduct has been exposed, Trump’s gambit that he could abuse his power to discredit an opponent may yet succeed.”
The problem is that even though Trump’s attacks on Biden have already been debunked, and even though the Times does say this, readers who just see the headline or skim the first few paragraphs won’t get that impression. Thus, the articles may actually help Trump spread the false narrative — and Trump’s associates, having seen how issues like the Clinton Foundation or the email server were covered, understand that there’s no downside to the way the Times reports on them.
“Giuliani’s barely controlled performance on CNN with Chris Cuomo might have appeared like a failure of spin, but he succeeded in his primary goal of juxtaposing ‘Biden’ with words like ‘corrupt’ and ‘scandal’ dozens of times over half an hour of airtime,” wrote Chait. “Giuliani explained on Fox News how the method can work. ‘It’s the only way you can get this out. The only way they would cover this story is by punching the president in the face, and then the president deflects the punch, which he’s done, the story came down, and then he hits with a right hand that’s more powerful.’ Anything that results in the media’s raising questions about Democrats helps Trump, however minor or unfounded the questions may be.”
“The inexhaustible fire hose of Trumpian misconduct has only made this formula more effective,” Chait concluded ominously. “Trump’s supporters hold him to the lowest imaginable standard of conduct, while Democratic voters hold their leaders to fairly high standards. Trump’s base is almost immune to news of misconduct by him, while the Democratic base is highly sensitive to it. It’s therefore plausible for Trump to assume that a story that combines unsubstantiated allegations against people in his opponent’s orbit with massive, undisguised abuse of power by Trump himself is a net win.”