Friday, November 11, 2016

Is the New York Times a Trusted Information Intermediary?

Is the The New York Times still to be trusted as an information intermediary for our democracy? The Times started the whole Clinton email server story in lurid terms back on March 2, 2015. Since that time they have relentlessly hyped and covered this story.

It's a story worth uncovering for discussing the issues it raises. It is not a story that should weigh heavily in the electorate's decision of Clinton vs. Trump.

When FBI Director James Comey made his announcement on October 28, 2016 that the F.B.I had discovered an additional stash of emails they would look at, the Times assured maximum coverage for this story. Collectively the media pressed this lemon of a story for all the innuendo that could be squeezed from it. The Times led the charge by writing seven articles and posting one video, all on October 28. For the next seven days--the life span of this non-story--the Times continued to hammer on Clinton, providing three times more coverage to this than the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, or USA Today.  During this time, the Times wrote three times as many stories about Clinton's emails as they devoted to any issue relating to Trump.

Media Matters graphic

By the time Comey informed Congress, two days before the election, that the new emails warranted no further action, the damage had been done.  Late deciding voters strongly broke for Trump in the last week before the election and Trump will become President despite Clinton's winning the popular vote. 

It is hard to imagine that relentless hype of the Clinton email scandal for the past 18 months, and innuendo laden revivals of this story in the last week of the election, has not contributed to the electorate making a grave error in judgment this week. Just how grave an error this was we'll find out over the next four years.

The Times sought to deflect criticism by arguing that it is not appropriate for a newspaper to make judgments between stories, or to prioritize stories. Not so, says Media Matters: "one of the basic functions of a newsroom is to make judgment calls about which stories deserve attention and which don’t." Comey's announcement on October 28, 2016 did not deserve front page treatment for a week right before the election.

The New York Times has exercised poor judgment in this election, just like the electorate has. Now, apparently, the Times are concerned about subscription cancellations.  This morning Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. the publisher, and Dean Banquet, the executive editor sent an email, "to our readers:"
When the biggest political story of the year reached a dramatic and unexpected climax late Tuesday night, our newsroom turned on a dime and did what it has done for nearly two years — cover the 2016 election with agility and creativity. 
Listen guys, what you have done for the past two years has contributed to Tuesday's surprise result bigly.
After such an erratic and unpredictable election there are inevitable questions: Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters? What forces and strains in America drove this divisive election and outcome? Most important, how will a president who remains a largely enigmatic figure actually govern when he takes office? 
If you, New York Times, want to be the national paper of record, the question is can we trust you as an information intermediary, or not? Can we trust your judgment?
As we reflect on this week’s momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you. It is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly. We believe we reported on both candidates fairly during the presidential campaign. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team. 
The Times have demonstrated, the evidence is mounting, that we should not rely on their judgment. They need to do more, therefore, than "rededicate" themselves.  Perhaps they think they can't do that and make money? If so, we don't need the New York Times as a paper of record.
We cannot deliver the independent, original journalism for which we are known without the loyalty of our subscribers. We want to take this opportunity, on behalf of all Times journalists, to thank you for that loyalty.
On the eve of the election The New York Times reported Hillary Clinton was almost certain to win the election (85% chance). They gave Hillary Clinton a 67% chance of winning Florida (Trump won by 2%) and an 74% of winning North Carolina (Trump won by 3.7%).  To my eye, The New York Times has not only missed the story,  they have missed what matters, and through their reporting they have contributed to the result. They have undermined their credibility as a trusted information intermediary.

Remember the invasion of Iraq in 2003?  They blew that one too.... And let's not even go into their Israel coverage.

Does the Times still deserve our loyalty and respect?  The trust of a newspaper of record must be earned by being a trusted information intermediary. The New York Times has mortgaged its reputation as a trusted information intermediary and capitalized on Trumpism for clicks and excitement.

This is different than media bias. Many perceive the Times as having a liberal bias, or a pro-Israel bias. For example here, here, or here. You can have a bias and be a trusted information intermediary. But you need to have integrity, quality, and good judgment. It's o.k. to be the liberal paper of record, or the conservative paper of record, like the Wall Street Journal. But hyping a story for clicks and excitement is not good judgement, no matter what the bias or the cause. It is not what trusted information intermediaries do.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

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