Like many of my friends I’m annoyed with the media. They seem to focus on the wrong story, elevate the banal, or fall for obvious traps set for them by trolls. The primary focus of my ire is the New York Times, a paper that I subscribe to and have read my entire life. While I have a deep appreciation for their journalism, in many ways they also remain rooted in the past, unable to pivot or adequately transform after a massive failure in reporting the 2016 elections. Nowhere is their crusty “bothsidesism” more infuriating than on the Opinion page which intersperses expert analysis with the yammering of hacks, gossips, and contrarians who are clearly doing it for “the clicks.” Rather than bombard the paper with useless angry tweets I’ve decided to compose useless angry essays.
Writing about the missteps of the New York Times suffers the same pitfalls of all media commentary. Its like hitting a moving target. I can’t refer to “the latest” story because its likely that a new one has taken its place and potentially erased all preceding events in the memory of the readers. The sheer volume of questionable editorial decisions is a story in itself. I’d like to jump back to controversy that was papered over far too quickly and highlights how sloppy editorial oversite on the Opinion page is harming the rest of the paper: The most recent development in the Kavanaugh investigation.
“The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation” is a book by two Times reporters that was published in mid-September. The book picks up where our institutions failed us, doing the investigative leg work that the FBI failed to do during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, which degenerated into a media circus. As the news cycle churned on and the SNL skits aired, the public took its eye off the ball and a story about sexual assault was buried under partisan bickering. This made the revelations in “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” more significant and its subsequent bungled promotion by the New York Times more infuriating.
Among other things, the book corroborates the story of one of the victims of Kavanaugh’s alleged assault at Yale and it uncovered allegations of a third assault that were previously reported to, and ignored by, the FBI. Yet, once published in the Times, the substance of the book was overshadowed by sloppy sourcing and tone deaf promotion forcing its authors to talk about the mishandled reporting of the story more than the story itself.
The first error was that the story was placed in The Sunday Review, a weekend aggregate of news analysis and Opinion articles. This was clearly a hard news story, it belonged next to other investigative journalism, not beside editorials, especially in a scenario where the sources have been shown to have their credibility attacked and were already victims of harassment and smear campaigns.
Perhaps this misstep in placement wouldn’t have been as damning if the Opinion page wasn’t itself a lightning rod of controversy. As a primer on that topic, check out the 2018 Justin Charity piece on The Ringer that documents how James Bennet, the editorial page editor, has transformed the page into an island of incompetence and contrarian ramblings. The content swings wildly between expert analysis and “hot takes” based on whim and anecdote. Now, the repercussions of that approach is bleeding over into other sections of the paper. Good journalism is being cheapened by proximity to the editorial incompetence of the Opinion page.
Some would argue that the function of an Opinion section, regardless of the quality of content on the page, is to provide a range of ideas. This has been the mushy stance of the paper’s editor, Dean Baquet. He stated as much during a television interview in which he defended a climate denial piece by Stephens by asking: “Didn’t we learn from this past election that our goal should be to understand different views?” If you’re looking for a mission statement for the Opinion page, this is about as close as you can get. While trying to “understand different views” might be a worthy pursuit for publishing Opinions, it is a disastrously vague editorial principle when applied to hard journalism. In the case of reporting on “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh” the paper can’t seem to differentiate between the two.
There were additional, extreme errors in reporting on the Kavanaugh book. The excerpt within the Sunday Review buried the lede, focusing on a story about a rich kid at an ivy league school and downplaying the findings of the investigation relevant to allegations of assault. Third, the paper promoted the story with a crude tweet (later retracted) which became the singular topic of conversation on social media. Handled properly, this reporting could have reignited the call for Kavanaugh’s impeachment. In its wake, Democratic presidential candidates tried to bring the topic back to the forefront, but the conversation about the story itself was permanently diverted.
The confirmation hearings of Kavanaugh were muddied by a concerted disinformation campaign and staged political theater. The follow-up investigation was sidetracked by the incompetence of the New York Times editorial staff. In each case we can assume the motives were in diametric opposition, but it hardly matters, the result was the same.