A contrarian New York Times view, the Supremes’ blow to journalism and a proposed memorial

Your Tuesday news roundup

June 25, 2019
Category: Newsletters

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June 25, 2019

Good Tuesday morning. I must admit, the lead item of this newsletter was written and re-written several times, well into the wee hours this morning, as I tried to make sense of how The New York Times handled the latest sexual assault allegations against President Donald Trump. It has been an ongoing media story for several days and reached such a buzz Monday that even the Times had to weigh in on its own coverage. So here goes …

Examining the fault lines

My view: The New York Times behaved appropriately on a sexual assault allegation, despite its executive editor saying otherwise.

If you think The New York Times downplayed writer E. Jean Carroll’s sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump, you’re absolutely right. At least that’s what Times executive editor Dean Baquet said in a story published Monday by the Times.

Yet, because of the seriousness of the allegations, the Times’ decision to proceed cautiously actually seems prudent. Baquet is being much harder on the Times than he should be.

On Friday, The Cut (a part of New York Magazine) ran an excerpt of Carroll’s book in which she claimed that Trump sexually assaulted her 23 years ago. Let’s be clear: The Times did not completely ignore the story — it published an 800-word story on its website Friday. However, it did not promote the story on its website until late Saturday morning and did not put it in print until Sunday.

The Times was not alone. Many major newspapers did not run the story on their front pages or at all. The topic was not addressed on any of the main Sunday morning news shows.

Still, Baquet told the Times’ Reader Center editor Lara Takenaga, “We were overly cautious.”

He said the story should have been presented more prominently, but Takenaga wrote that when the story broke, “The Times did not find independent sources who could verify her account at the time of the article’s publication, or any other additional corroboration.”

That’s a legitimate concern, which is why the Times merely acknowledged the existence of the allegations by letting the Books section handle the news.

Now, here’s the tricky section of Monday’s Times story explaining what happened:

“But the Carroll story, Mr. Baquet said, was different because the allegations were already receiving broad attention, with New York Magazine publishing an excerpt from Ms. Carroll’s book detailing the incident. ‘We were playing by rules that didn’t quite apply,’ Mr. Baquet said. ‘They’ve allowed us to break major stories, from Bill O’Reilly to Harvey Weinstein. But in this case, it was a different kind of story.’”

So what is Baquet saying, exactly? Is he suggesting that he couldn’t trust a story that didn’t appear in the Times first? Is he saying the Times didn’t make a big deal out of the story because the Times didn’t have the scoop?

Or is he saying that he only feels completely confident when his own reporters and editors, using Times standards, investigate these kinds of allegations? If it’s the latter, then Baquet should not be second-guessing how the Times handled the story.

Baquet said in the Times story that a well-known public figure, such as Carroll, making such allegations against a sitting president “should’ve compelled us to play it bigger.”

But it still feels as if the Times played this just right. After all, it’s much easier — and does more for a paper’s credibility — to ramp up coverage of a story that you originally underplayed than walk back a story that you overplayed.

‘This is a step backward for openness’

The Supreme Court decision will impact journalists’ ability to hold government accountable, opponents say.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Supreme Court struck a blow against the media Monday by expanding the definition of what can be deemed confidential in a public records request.

The case started in 2011 when the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, asked the Department of Agriculture to release the annual amounts taxpayers paid to more than 320,000 retailers participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It was part of the paper’s ongoing project investigating food stamp fraud.

But the Supreme Court — in a 6-3 ruling Monday with dissents from Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor — expanded what is considered “confidential” in Freedom of Information Act requests. The Court ruled that the FOIA does not require disclosure of information as long as a business lists it as “confidential” and provides it to the government under the guarantee of privacy — even if the information would not cause harm to the business.

In the dissent, Breyer wrote, “The whole point of the FOIA is to give the public access to information it cannot otherwise obtain.”

Gannett, which owns the paper, as well as USA Today, warned that the ruling could result in more government secrecy.

Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of the USA Today Network and publisher of USA Today, said in a statement, “The court’s decision effectively gives businesses relying on taxpayer dollars the ability to decide for themselves what data the public will see about how that money is spent. This is a step backward for openness and a misreading of the very purpose of the Freedom of Information Act.”

Argus Leader news director Cory Myers told USA Today, “This is a massive blow to the public’s right to know how its tax dollars are being spent, and who is benefitting.”

In the Spotlight

The Boston Globe announces this year’s fellows.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Mike Stanton and Christine Haughney Dare-Bryan, the creative force behind the Netflix investigative series “Rotten,” have been selected as Spotlight Fellows by The Boston Globe. Now in its fourth year, the Spotlight Fellowship is funded by Participant Media, which co-produced the movie “Spotlight” about the Globe’s coverage of sexual abuse inside the Catholic church.

Stanton and Haughney Dare-Bryan were selected from 85 applicants and will have the chance to work on an investigation with the Globe’s Spotlight team.

Stanton is a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut who was a longtime investigative reporter at the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal. He shared the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for the Journal’s reporting on corruption at the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Haughney Dare-Bryan is an independent journalist and former reporter at The New York Times, Politico, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Her web series about our badly flawed food supply system eventually was turned into a series on Netflix.

Asking the tough — right — questions

The NBC News Democratic debate moderators. (Photo courtesy of NBC News)

The Democratic presidential primary debates kick off later this week and, already, the NBC moderators are getting advice. The New York Times op-ed columnist David Leonhardt has three wishes:

  • Ask about climate change.

  • Don’t ask about polls.

  • Don’t do “performative toughness.” That is, don’t ask questions that appear tough, but actually aren’t. The example Leonhardt uses is the cliched, “How are you going to pay for (such-and-such) plan?”

In Memorial?

This week marks the first anniversary of the deadliest assault against journalists on American soil when a gunman killed five and injured two at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. Now there is a movement to build a memorial for slain journalists by a group called the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation.

On its website, the foundation writes that the memorial is “to commemorate America’s commitment to a free press by honoring journalists who have sacrificed their lives in the service to that cause.”

The group is led by Tribune Publishing Company chairman David Dreier, a former U.S. congressman, and has a board of advisers that includes NBC’s Tom Brokaw, Fox News’ Brit Hume, PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff, The New York Times’ Dean Baquet, CBS’s Bob Schieffer, and Capital Gazette editor Rick Hutzell, among others.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C., has a journalist’s memorial, but the Newseum is closing at the end of the year after selling its building to Johns Hopkins University. A new home has not been announced.

Swing and a miss

New York Mets starting pitcher Jason Vargas smiles in the dugout. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

In yesterday’s newsletter, I wrote how New York Mets pitcher Jason Vargas had to be held back by teammates in the clubhouse while telling a New York Newsday reporter that he was going to knock him out. The Mets organization apologized to the writer, Tim Healy, but Vargas’ response to the media Monday was anything but an apology.

In a 24-second speech Monday afternoon, Vargas told reporters that “everybody was aware of the situation,” that it was “unfortunate for all parties, an unfortunate distraction” and that the team already addressed the situation. Newsday reported Monday that the Mets fined Vargas and manager Mickey Callaway, who reportedly cursed at Healy, an undisclosed amount.

Hot type

A list of great journalism and intriguing media.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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