E. Jean Carroll. AP Photo/Craig Ruttle
Public Editor

Times Public Editor: Ignoring a scoop that’s not your own

June 24, 2019
E. Jean Carroll. AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

How did The New York Times’s first story about E. Jean Carroll’s sexual-assault allegations against Donald Trump end up in the Books section and not on the front page? 

Shortly after I asked the Times for insight into the decision, the paper posted a hasty account of a conversation with executive editor Dean Baquet, who admitted to underplaying the story. The account, which appeared in the paper’s Reader Center, referred to an “informal set of guidelines” for when the Times publishes such allegations, as it had in loud and dramatic and Pulitzer-winning fashion for its own investigations into figures such as movie executive Harvey Weinstein, ex-Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly, and former CBS President Les Moonves (whom Carroll also alleges assaulted her).

Baquet didn’t enumerate those guidelines but they ultimately come down to whether the Times is willing to put its institutional imprimatur behind the credibility of women making allegations against powerful men. And while Baquet says he regrets not giving Carroll’s claims more prominent placement in the paper and on the Times website, he also mentions another informal rule that privileges newsroom ego over the interest of the reader: a reluctance to follow up on another outlet’s scoop: “In retrospect, Mr. Baquet said, a key consideration was that this was not a case where we were surfacing our own investigation—the allegations were already being discussed by the public.”

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It’s not unusual for Times Books reporters (who work separately from the Book Review, though both are led by editor Pamela Paul) to be the first to report on newsmaking elements of newly published books. Alexandra Alter, the Times reporter who wrote the first story on Carroll’s claims, filed similar stories when she got an early look at Stormy Daniel’s book and Michelle Obama’s memoir. Her piece on Carroll, whose claims appear in her new book and were first published as an excerpt last Friday by New York magazine, was about as thoroughly reported as one could expect on deadline: she interviewed Carroll as well as two unnamed sources who said Carroll told them about the alleged attack at the time. 

The issue that has sparked outrage among readers is the lack of follow-through by the Times— whose only other story was a news brief noting Trump’s denials of Carroll’s claims, written by the breaking news desk—and the rest of the media. While Carroll appeared on CNN on Monday to tell her story on television, her book has not set off a media frenzy like those ignited by others who have come forward with explosive claims about Trump. That may owe, in part, to a media ecosystem where news judgment can be swayed by who gets to a story first. The Times can be reluctant to tout other outlets’ big scoops; an apex predator in that ecosystem, its coverage decisions can, by extension, influence a story’s reach. 

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Carroll, a longtime Elle advice columnist and a plugged-in member of New York’s media circles, differs from many of Trump’s alleged victims in her ability to control how her story has been told. Carroll was not a source for investigative reporters such as the Times’ Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey or The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer, who delivered booming investigative pieces with the full support of powerful journalistic institutions. She told her story in an essay full of nuance and ambivalence, written in her own literary voice. New York magazine then paid for what’s known as “first serial” rights (that is, the right for a magazine to print an excerpt), and, according to a source at the magazine, requested that St. Martin’s, Carroll’s publisher, prevent any other outlet from scooping them. “I believe that they had gone out to a few other outlets under NDAs,” says the source.

As perverse as it sounds, St. Martin’s may have done too good a job at defending their exclusivity. The Carroll excerpt landed on Friday afternoon—an unusual time, dangerously close to “Friday news dump” territory, for a magazine to publish a big piece like this—and New York’s scoop appears to have dampened enthusiasm for other outlets, The Times included, to assign their own reporters to the story.

Perhaps New York published on Friday for fear of being scooped itself. In early 2018, New York had first serial rights to Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury but lost out to The Guardian, which got hold of an early copy and ran a report about some not-nice things then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon had said about Trump in the book. (Among other things he called Trump’s campaign dealings with Russians “treasonous.”) A political media firestorm ensued, Trump quickly fired Bannon in a statement (which the Times covered in blaring news fashion), and New York quickly published their Wolff excerpt, about a week earlier than it had planned. New York typically holds major stories for publication on Sunday night or Monday morning to avoid big pieces getting lost over the weekend, when news readers often tune out. “We chose to publish then because we were concerned about another outlet getting a galley,” the source says. 

This is not uncommon news thinking, but the Carroll episode shows how twisted such logic can be: Whether something amounts to news should be about the credibility and significance of the facts—not whether an outlet is first, second, or eighth to the story. How the Times covers Carroll’s claims shouldn’t depend on whether it first learned about them in New York magazine. The public loses out when institutional ego displaces readers as top priority.

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Gabriel Snyder serves as CJR’s public editor for The New York Times. See this primer for more information on our public editor project.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified New Yorker contributor Jane Mayer. CJR regrets the error.

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.)

Gabriel Snyder is a contributing editor to CJR.