When all the news that fits is Trump

Great reporting is how the “failing” New York Times has answered (and benefited mightily) from the president’s attacks. But the paper’s former executive editor warns of the pitfalls of the Trump bump.

Illustration by Melinda Beck

Since the election, The New York Times has toughened everything about its coverage of Donald Trump, from the choice of words it uses to describe what he says to the number of reporters assigned to cover and investigate him. Like everyone else, the Times underestimated his chances of being elected. Although it published impressive investigations of his taxes, treatment of women, and real-estate deals, it was only after his surprise victory that the dimensions of Russia’s interference in the election and ties to Trump were examined and revealed.

In recent months, the Times has been in a running one-upmanship battle with The Washington Post, a thrilling journalistic display that has reinforced the importance of the few national news organizations left that still have the muscle to do this kind of reporting. “The role of the press is clearer now than it’s ever been,” said Executive Editor Dean Baquet on CBS’s Face the Nation in February. The quixotic nature of the new administration, the president’s serial lies (the word Baquet was right to use on the front page), and the false narratives that tumble out of the White House daily cry out for this kind of accountability journalism.

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President Trump and the Times have a particularly fraught, symbiotic relationship. Every time I hear him tweet about the “failing @nytimes” or use the shopworn sobriquet “fake news,” I also hear the ka-ching of the so-called “Trump bump,” which has helped kick the Times’s digital subscriptions above 2 million since the election, a revenue stream that is crucial to support its reporting staff at current levels. In fact, in a time of belt-tightening and buyouts, Baquet received an additional $5 million to cover Trump: a small portion of the newsroom’s $200 million-plus budget but a significant sum given recent staff reductions. The paper now has six White House reporters, a wise investment, considering the Post has seven. Most of their competitors’ Trump squads are smaller.

 

That immensely long, definitive list of President Trump’s lies was so brilliant and powerful precisely because the Times was doing what it does with singular force: It reported the truth.

 

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Without the instrumental, muscular reporting of the Times’s team, we would not know what was going on inside this bizarre and byzantine White House. For his part, Trump, a New Yorker, can’t quit the Times, as David Gregory noted on CNN. “It’s striking that the president, who spends so much time trying to discredit the news media to convince his supporters simply not to believe outlets like The New York Times, in the end cannot quit Maggie Haberman [a Times White House reporter and a CNN contributor],” Gregory said. “Because he wants legitimacy, and he knows you have to go to Maggie and her colleagues, who are really the journalists of record on this Trump presidency.”

Even in this fractured digital news environment, the Times still sets the agenda. The president craves its attention. I could see that when, long before he ran for president, he seemed sincerely honored, even awestruck, to be invited by the publisher to a lunch with editors and reporters; he even brought along his son Don, Jr. Right after the election, in one of four interviews he’s had with the Times, he called it “a great, great American jewel . . . a world jewel.”

His obsessive tweets and overheated blasts calling the news media  “the enemy of the American people” serve the president’s political purposes. They feed distrust of the press and could blunt the effects of its scrutiny.

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But that has done nothing to dampen the Times’s determination to fulfill its First Amendment mission to hold power accountable. An investigation of trolls and bots linked to Russia on Facebook and Twitter was just one recent example. Precisely because of its influence, the Times’s tone and sense of proportion in covering the president must be pitch perfect. The White House pounces on any mistakes, like the recent bungled “scoop” about a previously published climate change report. Errors risk playing into Trump’s hands.

Perhaps most important, the paper can’t create the appearance of a pile-on through the sheer volume of its coverage, the echo chamber of its journalists on Twitter and cable TV, or in snide headlines or opinionated analysis that needlessly inflame Trump loyalists. Its editors and senior correspondents clearly recognize the danger: At SXSW Interactive, Baquet said, “Our role is not to be the opposition to Donald Trump,” and David Sanger, a seasoned Washington correspondent for the Times, told Fortune that it would be “the biggest single mistake . . . to let ourselves become the resistance to the government.”

I’ve always belonged to the “show, don’t tell” school of reporting (honed in part during a decade at The Wall Street Journal), and most of the Times stories on Trump rely on skilled narratives with plenty of proof and nuanced analysis. But on Twitter, cable, and other platforms, reporters on the news side can come off as opinionated.

Illustration by Melinda Beck

Although it faulted itself on “audience development” in the famous innovation report of 2014, the Times’s digital megaphone is louder than ever. Its Trump scoops are picked up by competitors and multiplied at internet speed.

Yet the Times’s determination to be on all platforms with its Trump scoops can be construed by critics as gloating or overkill. On Twitter, Glenn Thrush, an otherwise great reporter, has tweeted that Trump had “breathtaking chutzpah,” that he “will never get over the shock of waking up and seeing the leader of the free world spouting demonstrably false information,” and that “No one has degraded discourse more, while embracing the fringe,” observations that, while true, are opinions. (In mid-September, Thrush said he was leaving Twitter, which had become “a distraction.”) Haberman, often his partner on stories, is a model of careful, smart, measured expression. When Ivanka Trump’s company used one of her TV interviews to promote an expensive bangle bracelet, another reporter in the Washington bureau tweeted, “White House as QVC. It has started.” Amusing (QVC is a cheesy home-shopping channel on cable TV), but also snarky.

The paper’s most recent Trump interview over the summer was terrific and produced lots of news, including the president’s surprising rebuke of his attorney general. Besides the main article on the interview, the Times published a fact check and excerpts, both useful. The Editorial Page decried “President Trump’s Contempt for the Rule of Law.” Two of the three reporters who conducted the interview, Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt, spoke to Michael Barbaro for The Daily podcast, giving additional juicy details about the interview. The third, Peter Baker, was interviewed on Slate. He also went on Facebook Live and wrote a first-person piece, “The New Presidential Interview,” for Times Insider, a standing feature in which its reporters tell how they got their stories. Naturally, all three reporters tweeted. Haberman appeared on CNN the next morning.

Flooding the zone seemed unnecessary when everyone else in the media, including the Post, was already covering the hell out of the Times’s blockbuster interview. Having been managing editor and then executive editor for 11 years, one of the hardest parts of the job, in such a fast-paced news cycle, is keeping a broad overview of the news report. There often isn’t time to ask yourself, “Are we doing too much?” as competitors breathe down your neck and unfurl their own scoops.

On some days, there are so many stories and related features on Trump on the Times app that my thumb aches from scrolling to find news on something else. (I recently counted seven Trump stories and related features.) This is true of the Post, too. It can feel like my brain’s storage is so overloaded that stories from a month ago auto-erase. Remember when the Post’s revelation that the president leaked classified information to Russian diplomats in a White House meeting was seen as his most outrageous and unpresidential act? Maybe not. Of course, too little scrutiny of the Trump administration would be a far more serious problem.

With so much Trump coverage, there is a danger that other issues more central to readers’ daily concerns get short shrift. Luckily, the Times has so much depth on the bench of the Washington bureau that very little of importance gets overlooked. Robert Pear, the seasoned healthcare reporter, and the political team working with him, provide spectacular coverage, as do the reporters covering most other policy areas. Sometimes, the effects of a running mega-story like the Russia investigation can leave the reporters not involved in the hunt feeling sidelined or ignored, a danger as the chase continues.

During my years in senior editing jobs in Washington and New York, the relationship between the Times and the president has always had its tensions. The Clintons protested aspects of the coverage from Whitewater in 1992 to Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016. Both the Bush and Obama administrations criticized national security stories the paper published based on classified intelligence, and President Obama initiated nine criminal leak investigations, several of which involved Times journalists.

But none of President Trump’s predecessors saw the Times as “the enemy of the people,” or attacked it so stridently.

For its part, the Times seems to savor the attacks and hews to its mission of reporting without fear or favor, a vital public service.

What worries me is that in adopting all the conventions of the internet, some of the traditional rules that have served the paper well will be overlooked. The recent sequel to the innovation report urged a “less institutional, more conversational writing style. Our journalists comfortably use this style on social media, television, and radio, and it is consistent with the lingua franca of the internet.” If this means cutting out unnecessarily stentorian writing or dutiful stories, great. But in these polarized times, in which distrust of the media is running higher than ever, it seems to me that every word the Times publishes and what its journalists say about Donald Trump on other platforms should be measured. This doesn’t mean holding back stories, mincing words, or publishing bland journalism that equates both sides or makes false equivalencies. It means not taking cheap shots, not publishing biased headlines (I’ve been keeping a collection of them), and not overreaching, which undermines the Times’s authority and makes people dismiss its coverage.

That immensely long, definitive list of President Trump’s lies published on June 23 was so brilliant and powerful precisely because the Times was doing what it does with singular force: It reported the truth.

Baquet has often said that investigative reporting is the heart of the Times. His team, from the White House crew to Eric Lipton’s deep dives on corporate influence, show that heart is stronger than ever.

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Jill Abramson is a former executive editor of The New York Times. She also writes a political column for The Guardian and is finishing a book on the transformation of the news industry. She is a senior lecturer in the English department of Harvard University.