Last Saturday, The New York Times published an extraordinary story. What made the story extraordinary wasn’t the event the Times covered. What made it extraordinary was the way the Times covered it.
On its front page, top right—the most precious space in American print journalism—the Times wrote about Friday’s press conference in which Donald Trump declared that a) he now believed Barack Obama was a U.S. citizen, b) he deserved credit for having established that fact despite rumors to the contrary, and c) Hillary Clinton was to blame for the rumors. Traditionally, when a political candidate assembles facts so as to aggrandize himself and belittle his opponent, “objective” journalists like those at the Times respond with a “he said, she said” story.
Such stories, according to the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, follow this formula: “There’s a public dispute. The dispute makes news. No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story … The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.”
For an example of such a story, consider the way the Times covered George W. Bush’s claim, during his campaign against John Kerry, that Saddam Hussein had worked closely with al-Qaeda. “Bush and Cheney Talk Strongly of Qaeda Links With Hussein,” noted a Times headline on June 18, 2004. Why were Bush and Cheney raising the subject? Because the day before, the 9/11 Commission had reported that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda did not have a “collaborative relationship.” Nonetheless, the Times reported Bush’s claims and Kerry’s response as equally valid. Bush himself had helped create the Commission to provide an authoritative, nonpartisan account of the events leading up to 9/11. Yet the Times refused to grant its view any more weight than Bush’s own. It refused to render any judgment about what was true.