Times public editor: When Times reporting is weaponized

Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images.

On May 1, The New York Times carried a story on its front page, “For Biden, a Ukraine Matter That Won’t Go Away,” by Kenneth P. Vogel and Iuliia Mendel. It delved into the effort by supporters of Donald Trump to connect Joe Biden, through his son Hunter, to corruption in Ukraine. Within the Times, the story has been treated as a big win, an early look at the matter that has now led to an impeachment inquiry of Trump. Vogel has popped up on a segment of the Times podcast The Daily, telling host Michael Barbaro his reporting was “prescient.” And he’s been on a recent episode of the Times’s TV show, The Weekly, where he and an image of that front-page headline both feature prominently on-screen.

But outside the paper, the response to the story has been far less enthusiastic: the piece has been labeled “controversial,” accused of getting its facts wrong, and of pushing a “Republican conspiracy theory” into the “mainstream.” Podcast host and former Obama White House staffer Dan Pfeiffer went so far as to accuse Vogel and the Times of having a “Watergate-style scoop about Trump … and fumbled the ball.” To which Vogel responded, “I literally broke the story upon which the impeachment inquiry is based.”

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On October 9, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfeld, sent a letter to Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet: “The Times had an outsized hand in the spread of a baseless conspiracy theory advanced by Rudy Giuliani,” she wrote. “What was especially troubling about the Times active participation in this smear campaign is that prior to its reporting on the subject by Ken Vogel, this conspiracy had been relegated to the likes of Breitbart, Russian propaganda, and another conspiracy theorist regular Hannity guest John Solomon.”

(The piece also generated a separate controversy when Mendel, who worked as a freelance reporter in Ukraine for the Times, announced in June that she had been hired as the spokesperson for President Volodymyr Zelensky—who President Trump had pressured in the now infamous July 25 phone call. The Times wasn’t happy to learn of the clear conflict of interest but said that the international desk conducted a review of her work and found it “fair and accurate.”)

What has made this such an alluring media story is that the battle lines are so firmly drawn: Is the piece, as Vogel has described it, a seminal journalistic work that opened the gates to the entire Ukraine saga? Or is it, per its critics, clickbait better suited to Breitbart than the Times?

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THE TIMES is often criticized for its most politically explosive stories, to the point that they are traded like baseball cards among critics of the paper: They include renewed scrutiny of Hillary Clinton’s emails, clearing the Trump campaign of connections to Russia, or dealings between the Clintons and Russians in a uranium deal. Like every other news outlet, the Times is eager to talk up all the good consequences of its work in Pulitzer Prize submissions and slick television commercials. But when it comes to pondering the possibility that its work—sound as it may be by traditional journalism standards—might have adverse outcomes if it’s twisted and mischaracterized, the Times often retreats to an inside-a-vacuum reading that cuts it off from any responsibility for the afterlife of coverage decisions it makes.  

Richard Stevenson, the enterprise editor in the Washington bureau who edited Vogel’s piece, makes clear in a conversation that the paper is proud of Vogels work on the May 1 story—and indeed of all of the papers reporting on Trumps dealings in Ukraine and his administration overall. As Stevenson sees it, the role of the Times newsroom is to dispassionately collect facts—free from partisan bias—lay them out for readers, and then let the political system sort out what is to be done about them. 

He points out that the Times first looked into possible conflicts of interest involving Hunter Biden’s work on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma in 2015. What Vogel had newly uncovered, Stevenson says, were additional details on that business arrangement as well as the ways Trump, Giuliani and others were looking to “weaponize” the issue for political gain. 

The problem, though, is that the opening of the story follows the same framing as the conspiracy theory about Biden that Giuliani and the Trump campaign has been working so diligently to advance—in Giuliani’s trips to the Ukraine and appearances on Fox News, in Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president, and in millions of dollars of advertising on TV, social media, and the web. 

The first paragraph of the story recounts how, in March 2016, Biden had “threatened to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees if Ukraine’s leaders did not dismiss the country’s top prosecutor.” The second paragraph begins “The pressure worked…” and the third links the move to his son, stating, “Among those who had a stake in the outcome was Hunter Biden.” 

Compare that to the formulation used by a Trump campaign ad that starts out, “Joe Biden promised Ukraine a billion dollars if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son’s company,” then shows a clip of Biden saying, “If the prosecutors not fired, youre not getting the money. Well, son of a bitch, he got fired.” The ad was rejected by CNN as “demonstrably false,” and in reports at The Times, this ad has been described as “unsubstantiated allegations,” “false,” and “the debunked conspiracy theory.”

Related: How I missed the Ukraine story

It’s also the same formulation used a month earlier by John Solomon when he was promoting the same conspiracy theory in stories for The Hill, a Capitol Hill Newspaper that has in recent years grown into a large clickbait political news site with a right-wing skew. A story he published on April 1 (and that was linked to in the May 1 Times piece) carried a similar headline, “Joe Biden’s 2020 Ukrainian nightmare: A closed probe is revived,” and opened with the same anecdote as the Times: “Biden described how he threatened Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in March 2016 that the Obama administration would pull $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees, sending the former Soviet republic toward insolvency, if it didn’t immediately fire Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin.” In the whistleblower complaint that led to the impeachment inquiry, this Hill story was cited as a way Ukraine’s top prosecutor at the time signaled his willingness to cooperate with the Giuliani effort to find information that could be used against Biden. Solomon subsequently left The Hill after accusations by colleagues that he was shilling for Trump. He has since signed a contract with Fox News, where he is a frequent guest on Sean Hannity’s show. This month, ProPublica reported on how Solomon worked directly with the Giuliani effort to pressure Ukraine. 

Despite the similarities, Stevenson does not see a problem with the way the May 1 story opened. “The first three paragraphs are simply factual statements of what had happened. They are the predicate to everything that comes afterward,” he said. “The top of the story does not say that Joe Biden was protecting Hunter’s financial interest. What the top of the story was getting across was this is going to be an issue.”

Stevenson also argued that there is a distinction between this story saying Hunter was “among those who had a stake” and the Trump ad’s “investigating his son’s company” claim, but it requires a bit of hair-splitting and getting into the weeds of Ukrainian politics: at the time that Biden made the loan guarantee threat, he says, the oligarch who had hired Hunter was worried that the prosecutor would try to extort a bribe from him by threatening to open a corruption investigation. “The main point is that the guy who was paying Hunter perceived himself to be at risk,” Stevenson says. “If you’ll notice, the wording of that sentence, it says, ‘…[a Ukranian oligarch] who had been in these sights of the fired prosecutor general.’ It doesn’t say there was an active investigation.”

He also points out that the story includes the line, “No evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor general’s dismissal.” That disclaimer comes in the 19th paragraph of the piece, about halfway through the 2,500-word story. In the print edition, neither Trump nor Giuliani’s name was mentioned on the front page, and that most prescient bit, questioning whether Trump was personally involved in the efforts, only appears in the eleventh paragraph, somewhat undercutting the paper’s stance that it was the first to flag the issues that would later turn into impeachment proceedings.

At the very least, it is questionable why the new reporting did not get higher placement than the material that had largely been covered earlier, both in the Times in 2015 and in Solomon’s Hill stories the prior month. Stevenson replied, correctly, that it’s always easier to edit in hindsight than in the moment. 

He has little sympathy for the argument that the headline and opening inappropriately legitimized the Trump version of the Biden narrative at a time when Giuliani was promoting his unfounded theories in media appearances. “Look,” Stevenson says, “we knew that we discovered a very important part of this matter, which was that this stuff was being weaponized by the president’s personal lawyer. We were not acting in concert with, we were not taking direction from, or pursuing this at the instigation of anybody other than our own news judgment. There was nothing where we were hiding sources of information or working at someone else’s behest to inject this into the media mainstream.”

But it does not take too much digging to find people who do see the Times story as confirming Trump’s smear of Biden. Giuliani shared the story on Twitter himself soon after it was published, and commented, “Biden conflicts are too apparent to be ignored and should be investigated quickly and expeditiously.” More recently, the story has been shared by other Trump supporters as way to rebut the impeachment inquiry, including chairwoman of the Republican National Committee Ronna McDaniel, RNC national spokesperson Liz Harrington, TownHall.com editor Katie Pavlich, former Mitch McConnell staffer Josh Holmes, as well as the Trump 2020 campaign itself via its @TrumpWarRoom account.

I asked Stevenson if he was ever concerned about the stories he edits being distorted to advance Trump’s political agenda. He said, “No.” But one of Solomon’s pieces even cites the 2015 Times report in which Biden’s office acknowledged Hunter’s role in Burisima as evidence of the theory that Biden acted corruptly to protect his son. The author of that story, James Risen, who joined The Intercept in 2017, published a piece in September that is a thoughtful reflection on the experience of having his reporting spun into right-wing talking points: “It’s strange to see my journalism twisted, perverted, and turned into lies and poisonous propaganda by Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and their enablers. But that’s what has happened to a news story I wrote four years ago.”

“Jim is entitled to his opinion,” says Stevenson, who was not involved in the 2015 piece. “All I can say is that I’ve read Jim’s story a number of times. It seems completely fair, accurate, balanced, and nuanced to me,” he said. “If others are twisting it, that’s something that I would regret, just as I would regret that disagreements about coverage turn into political narratives that undermine the credibility of an independent news media and potentially put journalists and fair-minded journalism at risk.” He added, “We can’t do anything, though, other than to do our work as clearly and factually as we can and where we make mistakes to acknowledge them.”

This is the crux of the disconnect between the Times and critics who are concerned that it’s not thinking enough of how its journalism co-exists with a broken information economy, filled with dishonest brokers. The Times is quick to dismiss the complaints as simply partisan griping—in this case, as originating from the Biden campaign’s desire to not have Hunter Biden’s business scrutinized. “We just disagree,” Stevenson says when I tell him I thought the top of the piece seems to confirm the Trump narrative. Regarding the Biden campaign (which did not respond to my request for comment), he says, “They can put whatever partisan spin they want to on this but the fact is, the story lays out that this situation exists, that it is coming back into the news just as Biden is starting his campaign. They read it differently. That’s their right but they’re not a disinterested party here.”

But that strikes me as a very narrow reading of the criticism the May 1 piece has generated. One does not need to be a Biden partisan to be disturbed by the Times seeming aloof to the possibility of being used as an unwitting accomplice in a disinformation campaign, as others, including Times op-ed columnist Michelle Goldberg have pointed out: “I don’t want Biden to be the Democratic nominee. … But Trump’s weaponized disinformation is corrosive to democracy no matter whom it targets…. What’s at stake isn’t just Biden’s political future. It’s how much Trump can erode the political salience of reality, and how much the media helps him.”

After our conversation, Stevenson backtracked a bit. He emailed to say, “This was a complicated, nuanced topic. The way we structured the story was fair and factually accurate, and we stand behind our reporting in its entirety. But to the degree that readers took away from the top of the piece an implication that we did not intend — and that was in no way reflected in the rest of the story — then thats something that as an editor I take seriously, and is my responsibility.”

 

THE TIMES can be oblivious to operating in a news environment where it is often not enough to simply “lay out the facts.” For as much curiosity about the world and the combined journalism firepower the Times has in its newsroom, it can also be an insular and closed-minded place. Analyzing work like the May 1 story in a vacuum absolves the Times of any responsibility once a story is published — if it meets the traditional guidelines of accuracy and balance. But that’s not enough. 

No one is arguing that newsrooms ought not to invest resources chasing down leads—including some that turn into dead ends—but there should be more self-awareness at the Times and elsewhere of the similarities between an investigative reporter with a hunch that a politician is up to no good and a political operation that is looking to push that narrative even if it’s unfounded in fact. The traditional idea of an independent press holding power to account is dependent on a political system that treats facts as facts and not as meme warfare. The Ukraine matter exploded into an impeachment inquiry because of the way politics now works: Reverse engineer a scandal against a political opponent by relentlessly trying to force a conspiracy theory into existence with the full power of the US government to create the facts to support it. In this case, they started out with a lie and then did everything they could to get the media to legitimize their efforts. 

The political system is still working out the ramifications of that effort. But by short-circuiting the journalistic norms of caution before drawing conclusions, the Trump-Giuliani disinformation effort has made it harder for reporters like Vogel to report on the Bidens.

When truth is under threat, as it is today, journalists cannot preserve a cherished craft like monastic scribes for an enlightened age that may come centuries hence. Defending the role of the truth means being aware of—and trying their best to avoid abetting—those who are seeking to dislodge truth from our politics now.

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Editors note: CJR has appointed its own outside public editors for four vital news outlets — The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC — that currently lack any public ombudsman. You can reach them at publiceditors@cjr.org. (Any messages will be treated as off-the-record unless otherwise agreed.)

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Gabriel Snyder is a contributing editor to CJR.