The New York Times Needs To Chill
Time and again, Times reporters respond to criticism with disdain, even though this is exactly how the paper told readers they should offer their criticism
On Monday, The New York Times dropped a bombshell report about Rep.-Elect George Santos (R-NY), who seems to have lied about… well… pretty much everything in his life ranging from his education to his employment history to his claim that four of his employees died in 2016’s Pulse nightclub massacre.
The story is a great piece of journalism, and you won’t hear me argue otherwise. Grace Ashford, Michael Gold, and the three others credited in the article for contributing reporting and research should feel proud of the work they put forward.
One has to wonder why this didn’t come out before the election. As this is a newsletter focused on media criticism, I’m going to set aside the entirely-valid-but-in-a-different-kind-of-way question of why Santos’ opponent and New York Democrats didn’t have this sort of basic opposition research on their radar.1
But I was curious about how this story came to be. For instance, if it was just last week that Times reporters first came across the lead that sent them down this path, that would answer one of the biggest questions about the story. Sure, it would leave open other questions about whether, say, the paper’s disproportionate coverage of crime (based on the number of stories relative to the actual increase in crime) prevented the Times from landing on this story sooner. Still, it would provide needed clarity.
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And if the answer was that the Times had the beginnings of a story in the works, that would have made for a really interesting ethics conversation about the balance between what (if any) responsibility reporters have to inform the public ahead of an election and how that balances with a goal of putting out the best possible piece of journalism by taking more time.
I emailed Ashford and Gold in the hopes that one of them could shed some light on the story’s general timeline, and I’d research, report, and write my piece here at The Present Age accordingly. For instance, if the seeds of this story did predate the election, I probably would have framed my piece around these sorts of “duty” questions by tying it back to Bob Woodward’s early 2020 interviews with then-President Donald Trump about the novel coronavirus that had just begun its journey around the world. Had Woodward gone public with that reporting at the time, it might have changed the way the public understood the kind of threat posed by COVID, but it would have also likely cost him the future interviews he did with Trump for his book, which did result in quite a few newsworthy moments.
It’d have been less “here’s why you were wrong” and more “here’s why this is a really interesting dynamic to consider.”
But I never got a response from Ashford or Gold, so I can’t really address anything related to the timeline of the story. (I’ll be sure to update if they do eventually write back, though.)
Back when the Times had a public editor, this is the exact type of story you’d expect to wind up in a column. Unfortunately, the Times got rid of the public editor position in 2017 (with Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. explaining in a memo to staff at the time: “Today, our followers on social media and our readers across the Internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than any one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”), and the paper’s reporters and editors don’t seem particularly interested in or receptive to receiving criticism on social media.
But there’s one more place at the Times that might provide a bit of clarity: the paper’s podcast, The Daily, which highlights some of the paper’s top stories.
Monday’s episode came and went without mention of the Santos story. So did Tuesday’s episode. And while it’s entirely possible that this will be the subject of Wednesday’s podcast, Daily host Michael Barbaro hopped on Twitter Monday evening to sneer at people who had questions about the story.
“To everyone asking why reporters didn’t dig up the George Santos story before the election … a fair question … ask yourself when you last paid for your local newspaper, like Newsday on Long Island, which covers it day in and out,” he wrote.
This really should go without saying, but the words “New York” do, in fact, stand for New York in the title, “The New York Times.” And a congressman-elect from New York is the subject of this story. Why is Barbaro acting as if the Times isn’t a local paper?
And I really don’t understand the comment urging people to “ask yourself when you last paid for your local newspaper.” Is the argument here that if not for a lack of funding, the Times would have gotten to the Santos story sooner? Because according to the Times, “the company now expected to end the year with a total adjusted operating profit of $320 million to $330 million.”
Take a look at all of these New York Times stories about crime in San Francisco. If the paper has the resources to obsess over that, it’s hard to argue that there just weren’t the necessary resources to cover a local congressional race when you’re raking in a $320+ million annual profit and spending a substantial amount of time and energy parachuting reporters into cities on the opposite side of the country to write a dozen stories about petty retail theft.
As I wrote earlier, it’s absolutely legitimate to wonder why Santos’ political opponent didn’t do a better job of getting this sort of dirt, and sure, to ask why other local (in the case of Newsday, more local than the Times) news outlets with fewer resources than the Times didn’t have this story — to be entirely fair, one local news site did seem to have a lead on Santos’ deception ahead of the election. It also shouldn’t be too much to ask that the Times provide readers with a bit more clarity on the reporting process and less defensiveness.
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