September 17, 2019

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Good Tuesday morning. The New York Times-Brett Kavanaugh story continued to dominate the media news Monday, so we’ll start there.

It was the worst of Times

In case you are just now catching up: over the weekend, New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly wrote an essay adapted from their book, “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation.” In it, Pogrebin and Kelly made a never-before-heard claim, based on a witness’ account: that when the Supreme Court Justice was a college freshman, he pulled down his pants at a party and exposed his privates to a female student. The allegation goes on to say that the witness told the FBI, and the FBI did not investigate the matter.

In Monday’s Poynter Report, I wrote that the Times seemingly buried what appeared to be a blockbuster story. The new allegation appeared in the 11th paragraph of a story published on Page 2 of the Sunday Review section. But late Sunday night, more problems arose as the Times added a line (and an editor’s note) in the essay, saying that the alleged victim in this case declined to be interviewed and her friends reported she did not recall the incident.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote that the Times’ essay was “poorly handled.”

The Times is getting criticized from all sides. Some think the Times buried a blockbuster story, while others believe the Times should not have run the item at all. Either way, it feels like the Times dropped the ball and, in the process, took a credibility hit, especially among those already predisposed to dislike the Times.

James Dao, the Times deputy editorial page editor, wrote a Q&A Monday trying to explain how the Times handled the story. Among his points is that the Times did run a separate story that included the allegations — although it should be noted that story appeared on Page 19 of the A section in Monday’s print editions (as well as online). Dao also defended the Times’ decision to run the original allegations based on other corroboration.

The Times declined further comment.

There’s a lot to chew over here. For starters, the reporters of the story should have alerted Times editors that they uncovered these new allegations while working on their book. Then, whoever edited the essay also should have alerted higher-ups about what looked to be a big story. It would appear that neither of those things happened, which is why it feels as if the Times itself was caught by surprise about what appeared in its own paper.

How does something like that happen? Dao wrote, “The Times’s News and Opinion departments are separate operations that make decisions independently.”

Not only do they make decisions independently — and apparently don’t communicate those decisions to one another  — but you have to ask if they are edited differently? In other words, would the Kavanaugh allegations that appeared in the Sunday Review have withstood the rigorous editing of the A-section?

And that brings up another major problem that the Times — and many papers — just don’t get. While the Times knows there’s a difference between the news department and the opinion/editorial sections, most readers don’t make that distinction. All that readers know is this item appeared in The New York Times. Period. Also, most of the country doesn’t get the physical paper. They read it online, where they don’t even notice the distinction between news and opinion.

While we might split hairs about what is news and what is analysis and the differences between news and opinion sections, the bottom line here is that this story was bungled enough that now there is doubt about its accuracy.

And that’s about the worst thing that can happen to a story.

Caught between right and left

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Of course, conservatives, led by President Donald Trump, are taking shots at the Times, claiming this is all a smear campaign against Kavanaugh. Trump told reporters on Monday that the Times doesn’t “do fact-checking anymore.”

The Times adding the line that friends of the alleged victim say she did not recall the incident doesn’t necessarily mean the Times’ reporting is wrong or that the incident didn’t happen. But the Times going back into the story after it was already published online and adding that information makes for bad optics.

As Sullivan wrote in her column: “In these contentious days of bad-faith politics and maneuvering for advantage, the presentation and framing of stories — as well as their dead-on accuracy — are more important than ever. There’s little room for error and not a shred of forgiveness for it.”

The best of Times

This Kavanaugh story was not the Times’ finest moment. Even the Times is admitting that. (CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote in his newsletter that there could be some disciplinary action over what he called this “embarrassing episode.”) There also have been other recent controversies involving the Times, as CNN’s Oliver Darcy points out.

But let’s not allow that to wipe out the incredible work the Times churns out on a daily basis. It’s easy to pick on the Times these days. The right thinks the Times has it in for Trump and the left thinks the Times doesn’t go far enough taking on Trump. I would argue that the Times is being journalistically responsible covering Trump, yet it seems to be caught in the middle of this country’s divisiveness. The New York Times remains an outstanding newspaper that is as strong as ever.

Just to remind you, here are just a few examples from the last few days of the outstanding work done by the Times.

‘I didn’t want to … burn my life to the ground’

Edward Snowden, appearing on Monday’s “CBS This Morning.” (Photo courtesy CBS News)

Edward Snowden is back in the news. The former NSA contractor has a new memoir out called “Permanent Record,” in which he details his 2013 disclosure of government document programs that collected Americans’ emails, phone calls and internet activity in the name of national security. The government charged Snowden under the Espionage Act, saying his disclosures caused tremendous damage to national security.

In an interview on Monday’s “CBS This Morning,” Snowden said, “Did I break the law? Again, what’s the question that’s more important here? Was the law broken or was that the right thing to do?”

Snowden continues to live his life in exile in Russia, but said he still wants to return to the United States.

“That is the ultimate goal,” Snowden said. “But if I’m gonna spend the rest of my life in prison, the one bottom line demand that we have to agree to is that at least I get a fair trial. And that is the one thing the government has refused to guarantee because they won’t provide access to what’s called a public interest defense.”

Snowden then appeared Monday night on MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams,” where he was asked if he would do it all over again.

“Things have changed and I would do it again,” he said. “If I changed anything, I would hope that I could have come forward sooner.  But it took me so long just to understand what was happening and it took me so long to realize that nobody else was going to fix this. Believe me when I say I did not want to light a match and burn my life to the ground. No one does. Nobody really wants to be a whistleblower, but the results of that have been staggering.”

McClatchy’s financial woes continue

For this item, I turn it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.

McClatchy announced late Friday that it has been put on notice to improve its finances or be dropped from the NYSE American exchange. The company has run net deficits for four consecutive years and its liabilities far exceed the value of its assets, its flagship Sacramento Bee reported.

It has until October 2021 to correct the problems or qualify to continue by hitting other benchmarks. Meanwhile McClatchy shares will carry a label indicating that the company is below compliance. Earlier this year, McClatchy applied to the Internal Revenue Service for a delay in meeting a $120 million required pension fund payment due in 2020. McClatchy shares have fallen in value by 67% since the beginning of the year to $2.59 yesterday.

The company said that operations of its 30 newspapers will be unaffected.  It also has launched an ambitious partnership with Google to create three new digital newsrooms starting with Youngstown, Ohio, which lost its daily newspaper at the end of August.

Hot type

Sean Spicer at the 2019 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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