Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A reminder that the New York Times is not a monolith

It is often convenient and sometimes extraordinarily helpful to anthropomorphize institutions. When we talk about what a political party "wants" or about whom some organization "likes," we are engaging in a useful fiction. Large groups are never truly of one mind. While it would be impractical to stop this practice entirely, it is important to remind ourselves from time to time that useful fictions are still fictions.

A number of commentators, myself included, have been spending a great deal of time discussing the curious treatment of Hillary Clinton by the New York Times. We generally talk as though the paper were an individual with a long-standing grudge against Bill and Hillary Clinton (not to mention Al Gore), but of course that's not the case. The NYT is put out by a large and changing roster of people who almost certainly have a wide range of beliefs and attitudes between them.

We got an interesting reminder of this a few days ago with the reporting on the presidential predebate moderated by the unfortunate Matt Lauer. Thanks to a very cool service called Newsdiffs, we know that there were at least three notably different versions of the paper's coverage of the event featuring two different authors.

First a bit of background. Two of the most controversial (and some would say offensive) comments made by Donald Trump that evening involved the "leadership" of Vladimir Putin and the causes of sexual assault in the military. With that in mind, look at these three accounts of the same event. The first relatively hard-hitting version by Alexander Burns that takes Trump to task, the second a much milder version by Patrick Healy and the third, also credited to Healy but rewritten sometime after the initial response to the second version. You can find the first to here and the third here.

Obviously, we need to be careful about speculating, but it is fairly clear that the first two stories represent radically different approaches to covering the campaign, particularly when it comes to the more questionable statements by Trump. Furthermore, it certainly appears that the paper was reacting to the immediate social media backlash to their coverage by re-introducing into the third version some of the elements that had been omitted from the second.

(At the risk of piling on, it is also worth noting that a week earlier, the NYT had been forced to rework another Healy story after an overwhelming backlash.)

As an institution, the New York Times has a great deal to answer for in its coverage of the 2016 election, particularly in comparison to its rival the Washington Post, but it is important to remember that a large number of extraordinarily gifted journalists work for the paper and there is reason to believe that many of them are more in agreement with Josh Marshall than with Liz Spayd. It would be a win for everyone if the paper would start to reflect that.

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