Neil Buchanan: Why Is the Gray Lady Bending Over for Trump?

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

The election of 2016 was a frightening year for people and institutions across the world. In the U.S., it was an especially troubling year for the press, as the nation's news providers found themselves under attack by a shameless demagogue who turned hatred of the mainstream media into an active campaign tactic.

What was especially worrisome, as reporters and commentators alike noted throughout the primaries and general election, was how Trump had used the press's laziness and self-ambivalence to his own advantage.

He provided spectacle, and the press ate it up. He lied (and lied and lied), and the norms of American journalism seemed to force major papers to give him more than the benefit of the doubt.

Both before and after his non-majority win, Trump directly threatened the press with talk of "opening up the libel laws," all the while knowing that even the elite press would give him interviews on his own terms.

Confronted with a new, hostile president, what has the press done? On the plus side, the word "lie" is no longer a rare noun in press coverage. On the minus side, there is still far too much faux-balanced reporting, soft-focus features and efforts to prove that the press is not really the liberal bastion that Trump and the Republicans say it is.

We need look no further than The New York Times, which on many days seems to have decided to move in exactly the wrong direction on almost every front.

05_08_Gray_Lady_01 The New York Times offices, February 26, 2017, New York City. Neil Buchanan writes that from running kid-glove features on the Administration to hiring a climate change muddler on the op-ed page, the paper is responding to Trump not by becoming tougher but by trying to "understand" the Trump phenomenon, as if journalism were some kind of national group therapy. KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty

From running kid-glove features on the Administration to hiring a climate change muddler on the op-ed page, the paper is responding to Trump not by becoming tougher but by trying to "understand" the Trump phenomenon, as if journalism were some kind of national group therapy.

There is no doubt that The Times matters. It is obviously not "failing," as Trump tries to tell people in nearly every Tweet. In fact, its importance has never been greater.

Back when newspapers were exclusively consumed in paper form, finding a place that sold The Times while traveling was a coup. Now, even home delivery subscribers can read electronically while traveling.

There is thus no longer any need to read, say, the Louisville Times or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch just because those are the only papers on the newsstand. Because of that and other reasons, local newspapers have been dying for years.

Moreover, the fading of the other national papers (The Wall Street Journal having been bought by Rupert Murdoch, and the Washington Post -- despite its recent successes -- having stumbled badly for decades), The Times is now in a near-monopoly position. And monopolies are almost always a very bad thing.

Anyone who wants to know what the topics of importance are on the national and global agendas is wise to begin the day by reading The Times , and the publishers and editors know it. No matter how badly that paper stumbles, there is no serious danger that they will be crippled by people canceling their subscriptions, or by publicity-hungry politicians refusing to talk to Times reporters.

Related: Neil Buchanan : Is the Press Brave Enough to Battle Trump?

What has The Times done since the election to adjust to the new realities and to determine what lessons it should learn from the campaign? It briefly appeared that we would see a newly emboldened national newspaper, confident in its ability to face down a one-man threat to the Constitution, and sure that it must try.

Oh well. One tip about what would actually happen came when The Times 's Public Editor position came up for rotation last year (before the election), and they decided to replace the fantastic Margaret Sullivan with a person (Liz Spayd) who quickly made her opinion known that complaints about false equivalence are nothing more than people wanting slanted coverage for their side of a debate.

I am not saying that there are not good articles still being published in The Times . With access to the best journalists in the world, who are then given access and resources unmatched elsewhere, good work is going to emerge more often than not. The Upshot, the paper's analytical news section that relies on evidence-driven reporting on issues like health care and climate issues, is especially good.

But it is difficult to shake the feeling that somehow the people who run the paper think that nothing has changed, and that it is still not a problem simply to print the opposite of hard-hitting stories on a regular basis.

Thus, even though Trump's recently advertised "massive tax cut" was not actually a legislative proposal -- indeed, it was a one-page sheet of bullet points with almost no detail -- the business and political reporters generated piece after piece about a proposal that did not exist. How? By giving Trump the benefit of the doubt and filling in the many ( many ) blanks of his spotty ideas with reasonable guesses of what he might have meant.

At the same time, we were treated to a feature on the return of the Laffer Curve and its creator, in which we learn that Arthur Laffer thinks he has always been right, one conservative economist thinks he is mostly wrong, and one liberal economist thinks he is completely wrong.

Let me be clear. If a major newspaper cannot bring itself to say in a commentary piece that both the theory and evidence regarding the Laffer Curve is absolutely clear, that presidents of both parties have rejected it and that the vast majority of economists mock it, then that newspaper is showing that "let the reader decide" reporting has become a parody of itself.

It is true, of course, that such pieces include some unflattering analysis of their subjects, allowing the writer and editors to say, "How can you not see that we were tough but fair?" But that unfortunately becomes a cover for legitimating crank ideas by pretending that there is serious debate about them.

Somewhat similarly, The Times ran a front-page article this week about Ivanka Trump that, for all its pretenses about being unsparing (noting, for example, that she initially did not have family-leave policies in place in her own business), was a classic puff piece.

Worse, the editors put a headline on the article that seriously misrepresented the content: "Ivanka Trump Has the President’s Ear. Here’s Her Agenda."

Her agenda? That is certainly enticing, especially for those of us who watched John Oliver's extensive analysis of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner on his "Last Week Tonight" show on April 23. The starting point for Oliver's analysis was that people like him (and me) are hoping that the hype about Ivanka/Jared is true, that is, that they are the moderating forces who will keep Trump from doing his worst.

The problem is, there is precious little evidence of that. As Oliver concluded, our fondest hopes might be true, but it amounts more to wishful thinking than anything else. Thus, when The Times click-baits us with "Here's her agenda," that looks like news. In reality, however, the piece was exactly the kind of wishful thinking based on sliver-thin evidence that the power couple has been feasting on for months.

We learn nothing more about her supposed agenda than we thought we knew before. In fact, even though the piece emphasizes Ivanka Trump's supposed commitment to family leave, there is barely a hint that the policy that she actually favors is incredibly regressive and would provide virtually nothing to the bottom 90 percent or so of working parents.

These individual examples of bad journalistic choices are hardly worthy of the death penalty, of course, but that is the point. We are living in a time of existential threats to the rule of law, and the top newspaper in the world is acting as if it is acceptable to continue with business as usual, pretending that the old rules should continue to apply and that sloppy journalistic tropes are no more problematic than they used to be.

Why is this happening? Actually, we do not need to speculate, because the people in leadership positions at The Times have been quite clear. The big lesson that they seem to have learned from the election is that they (the editors and writers of The New York Times) are too liberal.

This message comes through loud and clear in two pieces (here and here) by the no-longer-new Public Editor, in which she assesses the editorial page's hiring of a conservative writer as a new permanent columnist on the op-ed page. Through her own words and those of editors whom she quotes, it is clear that the paper's new commitment is to stop being "insular" and to stop being an "echo chamber."

Related: Neil Buchanan : Trump's 'Tax Plan' Is Pure Waffle

For example, Spayd notes that many Times readers were irate about an article that equated the sexist treatment that Hillary Clinton endured to negative responses to Kellyanne Conway, Trump's now-disappeared campaign manager.

The piece absurdly claimed that because Conway was sometimes the subject of snarky commentary about her clothing, she was a victim of hypocritical liberals. (I will merely note here that not all mocking commentary about clothing is wrong or sexist, as Conway proved on inauguration day.)

But the important point is how the editors of The Times responded to criticism of the piece. Spayd quotes Dean Baquet, the executive editor, as follows: "There’s no question a lot of our readers do not want us to provide stories that show we’re open. But what they want is not journalistic." Spayd also notes "the comments of two Times editors dismissing angry readers as people who reject free speech or alternative viewpoints."

And this is what concerns me the most. Apparently, the new prime directive at The Times is to prove that it is "open," which will apparently allow it to expiate its collective guilt for not having talked to Trump voters and for showing those voters the disdain that coastal elites supposedly feel for people in the red states.

Yet that supposed condescension and disdain has now been replaced by contempt for the readers of The Times who think that the paper should not fall into too-easy comparisons and that the best newspaper in the world can be better than this.

The Times is now so concerned about understanding Trump voters that it fails to understand Trump's opponents, mischaracterizing them and questioning their motives.

It is not clear why understanding Trump's voters should be the prime directive of a journalistic enterprise, by the way. If the idea is that major news sources "missed the story" last year by not interviewing enough Trump supporters, then that is a matter of fighting the last war.

If it is about showing compassion for people who are hurting, that is a fine idea, but why does saying that not all Trump supporters are bad people require insulting the people who disagree with them -- or acting as if nonsensical arguments make sense?

The immediate controversy about which Spayd was writing, as I noted above, was the hiring of Bret Stephens as a new op-ed page columnist. Stephens began his new gig by arguing that environmentalists make excessive claims about climate solutions: "The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority weren’t."

There has already been an avalanche of commentary about Stephens and his column, so I will only add here that his fake-folksy follow-up piece was intellectual dishonesty personified. Golly gosh, why would anyone be upset with what I wrote? I'm not denying climate change. I'm just saying that people should be careful when they make policy proposals. Nothing to see here, folks.

Negative reaction to that kind of slippery advocacy is not evidence of closed minds or knee-jerk refusal to leave one's comfort zone. It is reasonable for readers to ask that the owners of the most important commentary page in the world hire and fire people on the basis of being competent and above all intellectually honest.

Instead, The Times has decided that they need to be more balanced, so they are promoting articles written by right-wing authors and making hires like Stephens. And if anyone is unhappy, The Times is there to tell them that Free and Open Inquiry requires it.

Honestly, The Times can afford to insult its readers. This is not a complaint about their business model. What is worrisome is that, among all of the choices that a major news organization could make in response to the rise of Trump, The Times chose to flagellate itself and its readers for being closed-minded and elitist.

If ever a moment in history called for courageous choices, this is it. So far, The Times is going out of its way to fail to rise to the occasion.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a professor of law at George Washington University. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.

Join the Discussion