The New York Times and The Washington Post have tripped over one another in the last week to get damning stories about the president on the front page.
But in so doing, they violated their own guidelines and made several serious journalistic errors.
“They know darn well that who these people are would make a big difference in how they are perceived.”
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The first is the use of anonymous sources.
In the past week, The New York Times used anonymous sources in four front-page stories about President Trump. In all of these cases, the stories relied on an anonymous source for the central gist of the story. In other words, if there were no anonymous source, there would have been no story.
In March of 2016, the newspaper laid down new guidelines for using anonymous sources, a few months after the front-page article by Michael Schmidt about the San Bernardino shooting, which was based on information relayed by an anonymous source, who told the Times that the wife of the shooter, Tashfeen Maklik, had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.” She hadn’t. The story was totally wrong.
“Systemic Change Needed After Faulty News Article,” the Times public editor, Liz Spayd, wrote following the incident, and executive editor Dean Baquet referred to it as a “system failure that we have to fix.”
The guidelines say that reporters should only grant anonymity as a “last resort” and should ideally be used only when someone else has corroborated the information, or when the reporter knows the source has “first-hand, direct knowledge.”
It’s clear from last week’s stories, and from what reporters have said publicly, that anonymous sources are not being used as a “last resort.” Last resort would mean you’d tried everything to get everyone on record who would possibly go on record. This would mean calling all others who were there, in the room, and giving them ample time to get back to you.
But Tuesday’s story, “Trump is Said to Expose Ally’s Secrets to Russians,” ran the day after The Washington Post broke the same story. It was rushed out. The reporter could not possibly have contacted everyone involved.
There are two anonymous sources for this story, a “current and a former American government official,” according to The Times. Only a current government official could have “first-hand” knowledge. No former government official could have been in the room. And it’s not clear the current government official was in the room or did have first-hand knowledge. The story doesn’t say. Why doesn’t it say? Because the source didn’t have first-hand knowledge?
“They know darn well that who these people are would make a big difference in how they are perceived,” Tim Graham of the Media Research Center told LifeZette last week. “I mean, Bill Clinton is a former government official … What they’re being here is a stenographer to anonymous power. It’s a shady practice. I think it borders on corruption.”
Two of last week’s stories in The Times that depended on anonymous sources for their main premise — the two about the Comey memos — were written by the same reporter who wrote the San Bernardino story that turned out to be false. And it appears that he’s making many of the same mistakes, and that his editors have also not learned a thing from San Bernardino.
The Comey memo story on the front page of the May 17 paper, “Trump Appealed to Comey to Halt Inquiry of Flynn,” could not back up its own headline. The reporter did not have the memo, had not seen the memo, and had not even heard the memo read in its entirety. Therefore, the headline can not be established as fact.
In the text of the story, Schmidt slips several times, making statements that are unsupported by the information presented, including the main claim meant to skewer President Donald Trump in the third paragraph: “The documentation of Mr. Trump’s request is the clearest evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the Justice Department and FBI investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia.”
It is not clear at all. No one has seen the memo, the reporter relied on one anonymous source to read select passages, out of context, and James Comey himself testified to a Senate committee that the administration had not interfered in the investigation.
That is the definition of a reach.
It’s strange that The Times would be so lax with such a prominent story alleging serious wrongdoing by the president, written by a reporter who has a track record of not getting in hand the information needed to nail down a story — a reporter who has been spectacularly wrong before.
The New York Times ethics handbook for journalists says journalists must remain neutral. “Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics. Staff members are entitled to vote, but they must do nothing that might raise questions about their professional neutrality or that of The Times.” But in the age of Trump, Times reporters are clearly displaying, not just their lack of neutrality, but their total allegiance to one side of politics: the left-wing progressive side.
Last December, after the election, The Times hired Politco’s top reporter, Glenn Thrush. Thrush, we found out in a WikiLeaks release of emails, had sent an entire article to Hillary’s Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, for his review and approval. This is a abominable act in the journalism world. But Thrush was not fired and now sits in The New York Times’ chair in the White House briefing room every day.
Another Times reporter, Jim Rutenberg, wrote in a column during the campaign that it was okay for reporters to not treat Donald Trump fairly, beginning his column by calling the then-Republican nominee, “a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies” and saying that it’s okay to drop even the guise of journalistic objectivity and to be “oppositional” towards him.
This would appear to be a clear violation of The Times’ neutrality rule.