Inside the New York Times’ staff meeting, plus the Washington Post tells Bernie Sanders off and ‘McLaughlin Group’ returns

Your Tuesday Poynter Report

August 13, 2019
Category: Uncategorized

Good Tuesday morning. The major media news today: sifting through a big staff meeting at The New York Times. So let’s start with what happened, and what we should think about it.

Inside the New York Times’ staff meeting

Even The New York Times is having trouble navigating the choppy waters of political coverage in this divisive era. Roundly criticized by both the right and left, and having suffered what leadership called “significant missteps” of late, the Times cleared the air Monday in a staff meeting that lasted well over an hour.

The Daily Beast broke the details of the meeting, which included several hot-button topics such as:

  • A controversial headline following a President Donald Trump speech about the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.

  • When to use the word “racist” when writing about politicians, especially Trump.

  • The Times’ lack of a public editor.

  • Twitter controversies involving Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman.

The meeting was led by Executive Editor Dean Baquet and publisher A.G. Sulzberger and has been described as civil and calm.

Baquet reportedly told staff that the original headline on the Trump speech (“Trump Urges Unity Against Racism”) was a “(expletive) mess.” Baquet added that the person who wrote the headline was sick over it. “He feels terrible,” Baquet said.

 

The Times was beat up on social media for the headline, but both Baquet and Sulzberger told the staff that it shouldn’t overreact to Twitter when making editorial decisions. Sulzberger reportedly claimed that only a small portion of those critical of the Times on Twitter actually click on the stories.

Still, the headline led to the most interesting thing to come out of the meeting and that is the Times’ stance on how to cover Trump — specifically when and how to use the word “racist.” The Daily Beast wrote that Baquet “emphasized that rather than simply labeling the president or other leaders ‘racist’ or using euphemisms like ‘racially charged,’ the paper should demonstrate instances of racism through concrete examples.”

But Baquet also said he was open to more discussion on how to cover race.

Read The Daily Beast story for details on Weisman and some reaction from those in the meeting. In addition, check out Joe Pompeo’s story in Vanity Fair, where one anonymous Times editor said, “I think this is a really difficult story to cover, the story of Donald Trump and race and his character. We’re in a bit of uncharted territory. There is definitely some friction over, how does the paper position itself? I don’t think you could argue that we haven’t been tough on Donald Trump. There’s real debate, and some real disappointment, about how we position ourselves as an institution.”

Takeaways from the meeting

Here are a few quick thoughts from the Times’ staff meeting:

First, the headline. It was misleading, although not totally inaccurate. One Times reporter told Vanity Fair, “The headline was inelegant, it missed the point, it was poorly written, but it was not a federal hate crime, as you would think based on reactions from some people in the newsroom. The bigger issue is the culture of outrage.”

It’s OK for the Times to go over what happened, but now we’re in overkill territory over a week-old headline that wasn’t that bad and written on deadline that was quickly changed.

Next, Baquet is going to get criticized for his reluctance to use the word “racist” when describing Trump and others. But pointing to examples of racism rather than just calling something or someone racist is the journalistically responsible thing to do. In the media business, it’s known as “Show, Don’t Tell,” and it’s the most effective way to report a story.

That won’t be good enough for many readers (and perhaps even some Times staffers), who simply want the media to call Trump and/or his words “racist.” But the Times should be bound by journalism standards, not reader preferences. The Times and all news publications should remind themselves that they are trained in the use of words and journalism ethics. They are the ones best equipped to know when to use such a powerful word.

Finally, what about the role of a public editor? That’s someone who works for the paper, but independently critiques and examines it for its journalistic integrity and good practices. The Times hasn’t had a public editor since 2017. Perhaps years ago when there weren’t many media critics, the role of the public editor was crucial. These days, not so much. There are literally dozens of media critics who serve as watchdogs, and the Times is usually responsive to inquiries about its coverage. While the public editor is never a bad idea, it doesn’t feel like a necessary one with so much media coverage out there.

One last thing about the Times …

Joe Pompeo’s piece in Vanity Fair brought up one other New York Times concern that apparently did not come up in Monday’s meeting.

Pompeo wrote, “In recent weeks, sources have been describing to me a growing sense of disillusionment among prominent female Times journalists, who have been huddling to hash out their concerns, including a string of high-ranking women leaving the institution for other publications where they ‘could have more power,’ as one source said, describing a ‘feeling that the atmosphere at the top is too often not inclusive of women’s perspectives.’”

WashPost editor to Sanders: No, sir


Bernie Sanders speaks at the Iowa State Fair on Sunday. (AP Photo/John Locher)

There appears to be something that Trump and Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders agree on: Neither one likes The Washington Post these days.

While campaigning in New Hampshire on Monday, Sanders said, “I talk about (Amazon’s taxes) all of the time. And then I wonder why The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why.”

Post executive editor Marty Baron dismissed Sanders’ complaints in a statement to CNN: “Sen. Sanders is a member of a large club of politicians — of every ideology —  who complain about their coverage. Contrary to the conspiracy theory the senator seems to favor, Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest.”

The lede vs. lead debate, settled at last

For this item I turn it over to Poynter.org managing editor Barbara Allen:

The other day I edited an item in a Roy Peter Clark column in which he wrote the word “lead,” and I changed it to “lede,” a spelling preferred by many journalists when referring to the first part of a story.

Most writers have an opinion on this, and Roy was no exception. It’s lead, he told me, as it leads you into the story. It’s lede, I contended, having bought into the nostalgic notion that the unusual spelling kept copy editors working hot type machines from mistaking it for the lead letters they used to compose the copy. Or something like that?

Rather than argue with America’s writing coach, I suggested that Roy write a new column spelling out why he preferred lead to lede. As usual, he did one better, researching this issue all the way back to 1913 and providing journalists — finally — with a definitive answer on the correct spelling.

Here’s a road trip you’ll be happy to skip


A USA Today newspaper box. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

According to the New York Post, executives from Gannett and New Media are hitting the road this week to drum up support from investors for their planned merger. Last week, the two companies announced plans that would form the largest newspaper chain in the country. The Post made it sound as if the deal was in jeopardy if investors couldn’t get on board with the move.

The Post reported that shares of New Media fell 33% immediately after the deal was announced. One source told the Post, “There is an urgent need to keep bankers and investors from selling stock.”

Making a right turn

A volunteer holds Canadian flags given out during Canada Day celebrations. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

Postmedia is Canada’s largest newspaper chain. It owns some of the country’s biggest and most influential papers, such as the National Post, Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette, Toronto Sun, Calgary Sun and Vancouver Sun.

Writing for Canadaland, Sean Craig says Postmedia’s new CEO Andrew MacLeod wants to “muffle moderate voices” and that has “created confusion and uncertainty in newsrooms across the country.” Also in this lengthy and detailed piece, Craig writes that it’s not out of the ordinary for “editors to have their knuckles rapped for failing to meet the political expectations of the company’s conservative management.”

Craig offers examples of when various editors were summoned to Postmedia’s headquarters in Toronto for coverage that was either anti-conservative or not conservative enough.

Craig writes, “What has happened, according to interviews with over 30 current employees and more than a dozen former employees — ranging from reporters to editors to corporate staff — is that Postmedia has given a directive for all of its papers to shift to the political right, in an unprecedented, centralized fashion.”

What might that mean?

Craig writes, “Many employees fear current plans to double down on what management calls ‘reliable conservative voices’ will eradicate the local perspectives and political independence of some of Canada’s oldest and most important newspapers.”

Nothing ‘Wrong!’ with McLaughlin Group


Journalist Eleanor Clift in 2013. Clift will be one of the regular panelists on the new “McLaughlin Group.” (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

One of the all-time great political talk shows is returning to TV. “The McLaughlin Group” returns next month on Maryland Public Television and online and will return nationwide on most PBS stations starting in January.

Political writer and commentator Tom Rogan will host. (Original host John McLaughlin died in 2016.) Rogan will be joined by longtime “McLaughlin Group” panelists Pat Buchanan, Eleanor Clift and Clarence Page. Guest panelists will appear from time to time.

Just like Variety’s Brian Steinberg, I can’t help but think of this “Saturday Night Live” skit when I think of “The McLaughlin Group.”

Hot type

  • The Washington Post continues to produce amazing coverage of the opioid crisis. The latest is an interactive chart that lists how many pain pills went to the drug store in your neighborhood.
  • In light of the Jeffrey Epstein apparent suicide, Poynter’s Al Tompkins writes that journalists should examine the leading cause of jail deaths.
  • Trump recently ripped into the city of Baltimore, calling it “disgusting, rat and rodent infested.” So the Baltimore Sun asked residents to tell why they loved the city. The answers show a proud community.
  • A good explanation of the CBS-Viacom merger by Recode’s Peter Kafka.

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

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