Public Editor

New York Times public editor: The Times’ challenge is to tell readers why it still matters, no matter who is president

October 30, 2020
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The New York Times landed this era’s biggest prize in investigative journalism when it obtained Donald Trump’s tax returns. No set of documents has been more eagerly sought after by reporters since the reality TV star announced his candidacy for president in 2015. 

The Times did it against great opposition. Trump first defied the political norm of releasing personal tax returns that dates back to Nixon, then employed a cadre of lawyers and the US Justice Department to avoid court orders to produce them for prosecutors and congressional committees. 

Not only was the Times the first to secure the full records, spanning from 2000 to 2018, and to publish the first authoritative analysis, but its report was also a master class in how a modern news organization presents a dense, sensitive, and complicated story in the digital age. 

Along with the first blockbuster story about the returns, the Times has published meaty follow-up reports along with helpful resources for readers: an interactive timeline, a summary of “18 key takeaways,” and an explainer-style guide asking, “What Have We Learned From Trump’s Tax Revelations?” (The authors of that initial exposé, Susanne Craig, Russ Buettner, and Mike McIntire have also been the primary bylines on much of this coverage.)

But a little over a month after the Times’ original report hit Americans’ iPhone alerts, and less than a week before a presidential election that such a scoop might have defined, it also seems like this story has been largely forgotten beyond a few details. 

That is, no doubt, partly due to the tsunami of news in the final weeks of this 2020 campaign season. But it’s also, I believe, because the Times, like so many other journalistic institutions, is leery of stating plainly what it has found and of making an overt, passionate case for why its work truly matters—why it’s important that we know things the powerful do not want us to, and what the president stands to gain from keeping this particular secret. What are the larger stakes? What are the crucial principles? What, when you’re done sorting through all the gray areas, is the story in black and white? 

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This is not a language many news professionals have traditionally felt comfortable speaking. And now more than ever, at a truly toxic moment for public debate, clearly stating a view is an act of profound bravery. It’s crucial, though, especially today, for fact-gatherers to do this—if for no other reason than that there is a large and vocal contingent of the public who do not see the value in their work. We need to learn to be okay with making statements about hazy things like values and morality. It’s a point that goes beyond this story, and to much of the excellent reporting that has helped us define Trump and Trumpism. 

Take, for instance, the trail of payoffs from Trump to women he’s alleged to have had affairs with and the swirl of lawyers and tabloid editors who sought to keep them hidden from view. The first Times story, about a pornographic actress who performs as Stormy Daniels and who has said she received $130,000 from Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, was published on January 18, 2018. It sifted through the documents and information that had thus far come to light about her dealings with Trump, but the nearest it got to explaining why all this was more than ephemera was a single sentence: if her allegations were true, Daniels would be “one of at least two women whose claims of out-of-wedlock relations with Mr. Trump were kept from public view by way of restrictive legal agreements.” 

A month later the Times took a stab at spelling out the stakes in another story, and as its headline suggests, “Trump Lawyer’s Payment to Porn Star Raises New Questions,” it offered readers few answers. Instead of saying, the president is accused of sexual behavior and legal chicanery that is grossly unbecoming for a public official, the piece walked through hypothetical actions the Federal Election Commission or the New York State Bar Association might take against his campaign or his lawyers. 

Or take Michael S. Schmidt’s May 16, 2017, story recounting a memo that FBI director James Comey wrote about his dealings with Trump in his first weeks in office. It might have screamed—though it did not—the FBI director has accused the president of a kind of intimidation that has no place within the American political system. This reporting led the Justice Department, the very next day, to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel. Though you can directly trace the impeachment of Trump to this story, the piece itself, in explaining why Comey’s memo mattered, would go only as far as calling it “the clearest evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the Justice Department and F.B.I. investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia.” 

There are all sorts of arguments for why journalists ought to refrain from connecting too many dots: We should encourage reporters to dig without knowing what they’ll find. And we ask editors to make sure reporters are not pushing a story anywhere beyond the facts. This view is often summarized as “letting readers decide.”

This imagines journalism as an elaborate domino stunt: the Times pushes over the first domino, and the rest of the political system falls into action with predictable outcomes. But in the past few years, it’s as if the dominoes have been replaced with Silly Putty and the laws of gravity inverted—and yet the Times writes as if it expects the results to stay the same.

Executive editor Dean Baquet did write an editor’s note that was published simultaneously with the first report on Trump’s taxes. “We are publishing this report because we believe citizens should understand as much as possible about their leaders and representatives—their priorities, their experiences, and also their finances.” This, Baquet wrote, serves as deterrence against corruption. 

But these are abstract general procedural concerns that could apply to any report about any president. In this framing, the Times is a kind of rule keeper or referee—a stance to which it often defaults, since this positioning allows the paper to avoid committing to anything that might look like advocacy or political partisanship. 

All of this is very similar to the way the Times covered another presidential financial matter nearly thirty years ago. On March 8, 1992, two days before Super Tuesday in the Democratic primary, page A1 of the Sunday edition carried a report by Jeff Gerth about the leading contender, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton: “Clintons Joined S.& L. Operator In an Ozark Real-Estate Venture.” It was the first report in a saga that would wind its way through Washington for the next eight years as the “Whitewater controversy.” It, too, was framed in very dry terms: “It raises questions of whether a governor should be involved in a business deal with the owner of a business regulated by the state.”  

By resorting to a similar construct twenty-eight years later, the paper is at least guilty of not moving with times that have changed a great deal. The dynamics of power in Congress—now and for the past three decades—simply do not work the way the Times claims they do. And many, even inside the paper, seem to recognize that. The verdict cast by Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman, a robust critic of Trump, on the initial tax stories was “shocking but not surprising.” 

The Times must find new ways to speak in terms of what it believes. Its inability to explain itself to others is its biggest institutional challenge. And perhaps fittingly, it is a product of its past success: an unquestioned pillar of power in the American political system for over a century, it has not had to justify itself or the role of its journalism. The American political system has changed, and as a consequence, the Times must sell itself anew. And that will be true whoever is president come January.

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Gabriel Snyder is a contributing editor to CJR.