Did the NYTimes do the right thing in its whistleblower coverage? Plus Clinton on Trump and why Sinclair isn’t bothered by Trump’s ‘fake news’

September 27, 2019
Category: Newsletters

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Good Friday morning. What a week. And you get the feeling that phrase — what a week — will be repeated over and over and over again in the coming months. This story (and you know what story I’m talking about) isn’t going away, obviously, but NBC’s Lester Holt has a message for all of us going forward. Before that, let’s look at the media controversy of the moment.

Blowing the whistle on the whistleblower

The New York Times didn’t name his name. But on Thursday afternoon, the Times revealed employment details that could help identify the whistleblower in the President Trump-Ukraine story.

The question is: Should the Times have done that?

The Times faced immediate backlash from those claiming its reporting put the whistleblower at risk. Mark S. Zaid, the attorney for the whistleblower, tweeted that publishing details will place this individual in a much more “dangerous situation, not only in their professional world but also their possible personal safety.”

Twitter went crazy. Many called for executive editor Dean Baquet to be fired and #CancelNYT trended on Twitter.

In a statement, Baquet justified the decision:

“The role of the whistle-blower, including his credibility and his place in the government, is essential to understanding one of the most important issues facing this country — whether the president of the United States abused power and whether the White House covered it up.”

As criticism increased, he added:

“The president and some of his supporters have attacked the credibility of the whistle-blower, who has presented information that has touched off a landmark impeachment proceeding. The president himself has called the whistle-blower’s account a ‘political hack job.’ We decided to publish limited information about the whistle-blower — including the fact that he works for a nonpolitical agency and that his complaint is based on an intimate knowledge and understanding of the White House — because we wanted to provide information to readers that allows them to make their own judgments about whether or not he is credible.”

Did the Times do the right thing? Absolutely. (By the way, The Wall Street Journal followed with a similar report.)

Detractors could argue that the identity and even the credibility of the whistleblower really isn’t the issue. It’s the credibility of the information the whistleblower provided that matters. In other words, this isn’t a story about the whistleblower vs. Trump. This a story about information vs. Trump.

But the information provided by the whistleblower cannot be considered unless we see it through a prism that includes the whistleblower’s access, background and motivation, all of which certainly goes to credibility.

The Times has no obligation to keep the whistleblower anonymous. It’s in the business of reporting and publishing as much factual information as it can on what is a blockbuster story.

Other questions have come up.

Does the Times reporting discourage future whistleblowers? The Times can’t be concerned with that, and the Times reporting helps accomplish what the whistleblower hoped for anyway: to expose potential wrongdoing by the president.

Doesn’t the Times protect anonymous sources all the time? Yes, but only when that’s the only way to obtain the information and publish it. It made no such guarantee to this whistleblower.

The whistleblower’s name likely will be revealed, so why the rush to reveal the name now? The Times is in the competitive news business. It has an obligation to readers to provide pertinent and truthful information as quickly as possible.

Ultimately, it seems preposterous that those inside the White House would need information from the Times to deduce who the whistleblower is. Baquet claims the White House already knew the whistleblower is in the CIA. And while a whistleblower is protected from being punished in their job, their identity typically becomes known when the government decides to move forward with the case. The whistleblower cannot reasonably expect to remain anonymous forever.

These are complicated questions. But this feels like a pretty simple answer. It might not always be popular, but journalism’s primary goal shouldn’t be popularity. It should be finding the truth and working in the best interest of its readers. That’s what the Times was doing by revealing certain details about the whistleblower. It was the right thing to do, even if it wasn’t the popular thing to do.

 

‘This will only get uglier’


Lester Holt, anchor of “NBC Nightly News.” (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Here are Lester Holt’s closing remarks from Thursday’s “NBC Nightly News”:

“Finally tonight … We are once again witnessing history. There has been a lot to absorb over the last 48 hours. A formal impeachment inquiry. The release of notes on that conversation between President Trump and Ukraine’s president. … Detailing that ‘ask.’ And finally today the release of the whistleblower complaint itself. If history is any guide this will only get uglier. And louder and yes — further leach at this country’s political divide. Which makes our collective challenge even more important: To listen. To ask. To examine the facts and demand nothing short of the truth. That’s what we endeavor to do here every night. And will continue to do as this story unfolds.”

 

Clinton on Trump: ‘A corrupt human tornado’


Hillary Clinton during an interview that will run on Sunday’s “CBS Sunday Morning.” (Photo courtesy of CBS News)

Donald Trump is a threat to the country and a “corrupt human tornado.” That’s what former Secretary of State and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told Jane Pauley in an interview that will run on “CBS Sunday Morning.”

It’s a wide-ranging interview including Trump possibly being impeached, his possible reelection in 2020, her loss to him in 2016 and what her life is like these days. She also talks about her new book with daughter, Chelsea, who also will be interviewed.

Pauley asked Clinton if she gets angry that none of the current presidential hopefuls mention her name, while Trump continues to say she should be “locked up.”

“No, it doesn’t kill me because he knows he’s an illegitimate president,” Clinton said. “I believe he understands that the many varying tactics they used from voter suppression and voter purging to hacking to the false stories – he knows that – there were just a bunch of different reasons why the election turned out like it did. You know, Jane, it was like applying for a job and getting 66 million letters of recommendation and losing to a corrupt human tornado. And so I know that he knows, that this wasn’t on the level. I don’t know that we’ll ever know what happened.”

 

Who’s the boss? Not Trump.

Tip of the hat for The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr on this item.

Speaking on a panel at Advertising Week in New York on Thursday, Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum had a message for anyone who thinks Trump runs Fox News — including Trump.

“It’s really kind of shocking that that’s the way he thinks about how we should cover the election,” MacCallum said. “Contrary to the opinion of some people, he’s not our boss.”

 

‘Beer money’ plot twists keep pouring in

For the past two days, I’ve written about the 24-year-old Iowa man who held up a sign on ESPN’s “College GameDay” asking for beer money. When he started getting donations, he decided to give the money to a children’s hospital and he ended up raising a million dollars. When the Des Moines Register did a feature on him, it dug through his old tweets (in the name of a background check) and discovered racist tweets when he was 16; the man held a press conference and apologized.

In a twist, the reporter who wrote the story, Aaron Calvin, was discovered to have offensive tweets of his own in his past. He deleted them and apologized. But he was fired on Thursday.

Register Executive Editor Carol Hunter wrote, “I want to be as transparent as possible about what we did and why, answer the questions you’ve raised and tell you what we’ve learned so far and what we’ll try to do better. For one, we’re revising our policies and practices, including those that did not uncover our own reporter’s past inappropriate social media postings. That reporter is no longer with the Register.”

Hunter also revisited the original profile and the decisions made to publish what it did.

 

‘Fake news’ comments aren’t ‘really an issue’

Sinclair Broadcast Group is one of the more powerful media conglomerates in the country, with 191 TV stations in 89 markets. And it just recently acquired the former Fox/Disney-owned Regional Sports Networks. It’s also known for its right-leaning views that, many believe, bleed into its news coverage.

But, CEO Christopher Ripley told NBC News’ Claire Atkinson, “We pride ourselves on offering fair and balanced reporting and making sure we present both sides.”

Atkinson asked Ripley what his thoughts were on Trump constantly using the phrase “fake news.”

“It doesn’t really play on our business,” Ripley said. “Whenever he talks about fake news, he’s largely targeting people who are on opinion-based networks on a national scale. Local news is very fact-based and really has very little in terms of commentary added to it. So it’s not something that is really an issue.”

Norah O’Donnell lands bin Salman interview


“CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Photo by Eric Kerchner for CBS News)

“CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell interviewed Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday for a segment that will air on the 52nd season premiere of “60 Minutes” on Sunday evening.

O’Donnell took over anchor duties in July and was the first American evening news anchor to tour the Bahamas in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.

‘The Al Franken Show’ is becoming a reality

Former Minnesota senator Al Franken is back.

Franken, who resigned from his Senate seat in December of 2017 after allegations of unwanted sexual advances, will host a weekly radio program on SiriusXM. “The Al Franken Show” will debut Saturday. Franken also will contribute to SiriusXM Progress — a left-wing political channel on SiriusXM.

Franken was the subject of a recent and somewhat controversial profile by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, which I wrote about in July.

 

Helping grow digital

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

The Local Media Association has launched an initiative to help five African-American newspapers grow the digital side of their businesses. It’s part of what the association calls Accelerate Local, a variety of activities in support of new business models.

A survey of the group, LMA President Nancy Lane said, found that the publications need help on the revenue side, on sales training and on technology. The five selected currently get just 9.5% of their revenue from digital.

Other of the year-old Accelerate Local projects are getting funding from Google and Facebook. But the six-figure commitment for this effort, Lane said, will come from the association’s own foundation, with added volunteer help from members and vendors.

The five publishers chosen — among the strongest in a field that has been experiencing particularly hard times — are The Atlanta Voice, The Dallas Weekly, New York Amsterdam News, Houston Defender and The Washington Informer.

 

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

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