Times under fire for agreeing to White House terms on Miller interview

Given the president’s repeated attacks on the media, it’s not surprising to see the Trump administration pushing back on almost all aspects of the traditional relationship with the press. But what was surprising to many journalists on Tuesday was how quickly The New York Times seemed to accede to the demands of the White House around a recent interview with policy adviser Stephen Miller, the man responsible for the administration’s aggressive stance on separating immigrant families and running what amount to child internment camps.

Michael Barbaro, the host of the newspaper’s podcast, The Daily, said at the beginning of the broadcast Tuesday that he would be talking with a reporter about the recent story on Trump’s border policies, but wouldn’t be using audio of the interview with Miller, because the White House objected. Immediately, the questions started flying: Wasn’t this an on-the-record interview? (Yes, it was.) So why would it matter whether the Times quoted Miller’s words in a text article or used the audio of those words on a podcast, or both?

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That question hung in the air until the paper’s PR department released a statement saying: “We conducted an extended White House interview with Stephen Miller for a weekend story about the Trump administration’s border policy. After the original story was published, producers of The Daily planned to talk with the reporter and use audio excerpts from the Miller interview. White House officials objected, saying that they had not agreed to a podcast interview. While Miller’s comments were on the record, we realized that the ground rules for the original interview were not clear, and so we made a decision not to run the audio.”

This explanation was not received warmly. “New York Times Caves To White House On Stephen Miller Interview,” blared a headline from HuffPost. Others bombarded the paper on Twitter. “Come on, @nytimes,” said one such criticism. “Release the on-the-record audio of the Stephen Miller interview. It is news, it is fit to print, and we deserve to hear it. Are you journalists or jellyfish? If you need backbone, maybe borrow some from The Washington Post.” Sarah Kenzior said the decision implied that “it’s more important to NYT to placate white supremacists than to speak the truth about the abuse of children.” The Times declined to elaborate to CJR on the statement it made.

Others pointed out that Trump has not exactly been friendly towards the Times—in fact, he has repeatedly singled the newspaper out as “the failing New York Times” and accused it of being “fake news.” Given that, why would the Times be so eager to agree to the White House’s demands, especially when the interview was clearly on the record? Perhaps because the paper is worried about losing access to the Trump administration, and so is willing to eat a little crow. Is that a deal worth making? At this point, it’s speculation. If the Times still had a public editor, that might make an interesting column, but the paper killed the job last year.

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ICYMI: Former NYT editor Jill Abramson has some criticism for the way the paper’s reporters use Twitter

Here’s more on the Times and its controversial decision:

  • Appropriate: Contrary to much of the criticism of the Times, media writer Erik Wemple of The Washington Post said in a column that he understood why they made the decision, writing that “granting some deference to a White House headed by a serial liar doesn’t feel, or look, too good. But it embodies a level of caution appropriate for a news organization such as the Times.”
  • Trade-offs: Nate Silver, who runs FiveThirtyEight, said on Twitter that the choice to agree to the administration’s demand was “a rather explicit acknowledgement by the NYT that it’s willing to make sacrifices to preserve its access to senior people within the White House. Is that access worth it? Maybe—they get a lot of scoops! But let’s not pretend there aren’t trade-offs.”
  • Not about access: Julie Davis, the reporter who did the Miller interview, said, “I get the objections to what appears to be an after-the-fact revocation of an on-the-record agreement w Miller, but understand that @shearm & I never requested a podcast interview or permission to use audio.” She said the Times is “not in the business of misrepresenting ourselves to sources in the WH or anywhere else. It’s not about access or anything other than that.”
  • Discomfort: Michael Calderone, senior media reporter at Politico, said in a tweet that he has had conversations where he recorded the audio for accuracy rather than broadcast, and he could see holding back the Miller audio if it specifically violated a source agreement. “But the decision to hold back a clearly newsworthy recording is because it makes the White House uncomfortable?”
  • Mistake: Murdoch Davis, a veteran Canadian newspaper editor and publisher, said the Times decision to withhold the audio of the interview was a mistake. “It’s 2018. NYT isn’t just print media,” he said on Twitter. “Use of anything gathered in reporting – facts, quotes, photos, audio, video – can’t be subject to a newsmaker’s (or his bosses) subsequent misgivings. This is weak @nytimes deference to authority.”

 

Other notable stories:

  • Steve Levitan, the co-creator of the ABC hit TV show Modern Family, said that he plans to leave Fox Studio at the end of his contract because of the right-wing sentiments expressed daily on the Fox News network (both are owned by Murdoch-controlled 21st Century Fox). “Fox Studio has been a wonderful home for most of my career,” he said. “I have no problem with fact-based conservatism, but @FoxNews’ 23-hour-a-day support of the NRA, conspiracy theories and Trump’s lies gets harder to swallow every day.”
  • A survey of college students done by the Knight Foundation and Gallup found a majority of students say that diversity and inclusion are more important than protecting free speech. About 56 percent of those surveyed said free speech was important, and 52 percent said diversity and inclusion were important, but when forced to choose just one, 53 percent chose diversity and inclusion over free speech.
  • Sarah O’Hagan and Rikha Sharma Rani, from the Fuller Project for International Reporting  write for CJR about mainstream media coverage of immigration for three weeks in 2018 and found that articles talked about conflict and crisis but almost never quoted women. This is striking in part, they said, because women and girls make up at least half of the immigrant population in the US.
  • Senior editors and journalists have published an open letter to the global newspaper organization WAN-IFRA, after a series of incidents at the group’s conference in Portugal earlier this month raised the issue of sexism and sexual harassment in the industry. “We are done pandering to the egos of change-resistant influential men in the hope that our gentle lead will eventually encourage them to join us on a meander toward gender equality in the news business,” the letter says.
  • Seth MacFarlane, creator of the animated series Family Guy, has donated $2 million to NPR and $500,000 to Los Angeles NPR affiliate KPCC. The donations came just a few days after the comedian and producer expressed outrage on Twitter at a suggestion from Fox News host Tucker Carlson that viewers should discount anything they see or hear from any media outlet other than Fox.
  • New York Times CEO Mark Thompson said in a speech at the annual advertising shindig in Cannes that the publisher’s relationship with Google is “genuinely quite creative [and] positive,” and that Twitter is “becoming an exciting and interesting platform again.” Facebook, however, “we have found to be very difficult,” he said. In particular, Thompson mentioned the company’s recent decision to put promoted news stories into a searchable public archive of political advertising.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.