The Washington Post's profile of Maggie Haberman misses the mark in one important way
Rather than brushing of criticism of Haberman as being the result of ill-informed readers, the Post could have more directly engaged on the issue.
On July 27, Washington Post feature writer Sarah Ellison e-mailed me. She was working on a profile of New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, and was reaching out to ask if I’d be available to chat about Haberman’s Trump-era reporting, its limitations, and what its legacy may be.
I offered to chat via phone or by e-mail. She replied with a few questions:
Why does Haberman “seem to drive people crazy on Twitter?” After all, as Ellison would go on to note in her article, Haberman was the most-cited journalist in the Mueller Report and yet is seen as someone who isn’t tough enough on Trump.
What do I find objectionable about Haberman’s reporting? Additionally, is there a specific story of hers that stands out as being particularly problematic?
Here’s the article, which came out today, August 26:
Unfortunately, none of the points I made in my replies found their way into Ellison’s piece. I was slightly disappointed by this because I thought I provided relatively fair criticisms of the Times and of Haberman’s reporting. This isn’t to say that Ellison’s article is bad. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s very well-written, it provides some important insights, and certainly covered some of the unfair criticism that gets lobbed Haberman’s way.
But since my points weren’t represented in the article, I thought I’d share my replies to Ellison’s emails below. I’m only quoting my side of the conversation for the sake of privacy.
So here’s what I wrote:
To start, I want to just make it clear that I’m in no way trying to discount the absolutely crucial reporting that Maggie Haberman and others at the Times have done in recent years. That said, it’s been extremely difficult to get any criticism of the paper to land. Back in 2017 when the Times got rid of its public editor position, Times executive editor Dean Baquet wrote in a letter to staff that “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 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.” Yet whenever people criticize the paper or its journalists on Twitter, they tend to be ignored, brushed off, or blocked.
When it comes to criticism of Haberman, I think that it’s important to separate the valid from the ridiculous. There are times when she’ll tweet something that is genuinely newsworthy (for instance, when she tweeted that Trump had been telling people he believed he’d be reinstated — that’s very important for the public to know, in my opinion), and she’ll get what is, in my view, unfair criticism.
But then there are times when people have legitimate gripes with something she wrote, only to be lumped in with people launching ridiculous attacks at her. On a personal level, one particular story that has always frustrated me was an April 2016 piece she wrote about Trump supposedly being a more LGBTQ-friendly Republican. By that point in time, Trump had already come out in favor of the First Amendment Defense Act, a Republican bill written as a response to the Supreme Court’s marriage equality rulings. He had also said that he would try to nominate Supreme Court justices who would overturn those rulings by that point. Those didn’t get mentioned in that article, and Trump’s strategy of surrounding himself with hardcore evangelicals was only briefly mentioned as almost a curiosity.
The article helped set in motion a “Tump is pro-LGBTQ” narrative that simply wasn’t accurate. I wrote about that at Media Matters back in 2019.
Once in office, Trump spent four years attacking LGBTQ rights. It was a sloppy story on her part that had real repercussions for LGBTQ people.
Another baffling article came in January 2017 when Haberman buried a note 12 paragraphs in about Trump using “his old, unsecured Android phone, to the protests of some of his aides.” After years of coverage devoted to Hillary Clinton’s email habits, Trump’s unsecured Android was mostly just shrugged off, treated as a curiosity, and was totally inconsistent with the way the Times had covered Clinton.
The biggest issue that I have with her work (and that of so many others in the press) is her attempts to “both sides” everything. In August 2016, she tweeted, “The problem for Clinton team - after Democrats repeatedly pointed to Bannon personal past, going to be hard to argue Weiner is off-limits.”
It was an absurd comparison. Bannon was effectively running Trump’s campaign at that point, while Weiner wasn’t part of Clinton’s campaign at all. And then there’s the example she had on January 6 in the middle of the assault on the Capitol that “Similar protests, from anti-Trump protesters in late May 2020, sent Trump to the WH bunker.”
Both were just terrible examples of “both sides” journalism.
If the Times actually wants Twitter to act as a check on the publication in ways that are comparable to having a good public editor (Margaret Sullivan was phenomenal in that role, and the Washington Post was lucky to have landed her as a media columnist after that), the Times and its journalists need to be open to criticism and not completely closed off from the world.
Let me know if you’ve got any follow-up questions. I’m happy to offer my perspectives/insights/opinions. I really do want to stress that I’m not anti-Haberman. I could go on and on with criticism of just about anyone covering politics in mainstream media these days.
Ellison replied to my email, noting that Haberman had walked back her January 6 tweet, and asking if there were any other examples I could point to.
And so I responded:
Thanks for pointing that out. I think the general point still stands because even at the time that she tweeted the first message (1:47pm ET), things were already pretty rough at the Capitol. By the time she deleted it and posted her update (2:43pm ET), lawmakers were being evacuated, a pipe bomb had been found, Capitol windows had been broken, etc.
The comparison was weak from the beginning. She was referring to the May 29, 2020 protests outside the White House where protesters were outnumbered and more importantly, never made it *to* the White House itself. In any case, her tweet read more like something I would have expected a Republican member of Congress or a partisan news outlet to tweet. It was unnecessary “whataboutism” that functioned more as commentary than reporting. In my opinion, at least.
Another frustrating tweet to read came during the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, when she wrote “That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive.”
That tweet of hers is what really kicked the “Oh my god, Michelle Wolf went over the line!” narrative into high gear. Wolf didn’t level “intense criticism of [Sanders’] physical appearance.” Wolf later confirmed this:
But she also has a tendency to hold Democrats to completely different standards than Republicans. When Democrats lie, she’s very open to using the word “lie.”
But when Trump would lie, she would say things like “demonstrable falsehoods”
Those are two very different approaches.
And then there are her articles, which, and this is really frustrating for me… for every damning piece she’d put out catching Trump in some sort of massive lie, there’d be one or two that seemed to function as beat sweeteners. I’m not going to speculate about friendly stories in exchange for access (that would produce unfriendly stories), but it’s hard to see how she can write these thoroughly reported pieces with source after source after source one day… and then churn out a laughably fawning piece about Hope Hicks’ “existential” decision about whether or not to testify.
See also: the piece that downplayed the threat that Trump posed to LGBTQ people that I mentioned in my earlier e-mail.
You can criticize Maggie Haberman, Peter Baker, Patrick Healy (who wrote the infamous “Clinton’s Cackle” piece back in ‘07 as well as a bunch of other pieces worth criticizing over the years), Ken Vogel, and most of the political writers over there. Their work, like all work, is flawed.
What irritates me as someone working in and around media criticism is that there’s no way to actually push back against flaws without either being ignored or dumped on by NYT journalists. The few times it does seem like they’re willing to publicly amplify criticism is when it’s someone being ridiculous. This is done in such a way that it makes it seem as if all criticism is out of bounds. Meanwhile, I’m over here like, “Hey, I’d just like to know what happened with that 2016 Trump LGBTQ piece. There were factual errors throughout it.”
NYT can’t have it both ways. It either needs its reporters to thoughtfully engage with criticism on social media or it needs to bring back the position of public editor so that person can field and reply to criticism of the paper. Don’t get me wrong. I was not a fan of the last public editor the paper had, as Liz Spayd seemed out of her depth in that role and unfamiliar with the internet/social media. Still, the Times as a whole needs to find a way to better address criticism.
Today, after the article came out, I shared some thoughts on Twitter, which I will repeat here:
There's a line in the Washington Post profile of Maggie Haberman that sticks out to me.
This quote from Jonathan Swan is intended to be praise of her work (there’s plenty of praise she absolutely deserves), but is, in my view, concerning. I’ll explain.
“She was the best reporter on the Trump beat from 2016 to 2021 and it wasn’t especially close,” said Jonathan Swan, Axios’s White House correspondent. “I can’t tell you how many times I thought I had a scoop only to Google her stories for the past few weeks and finding she’d deposited this interesting, original detail in paragraph 24. Ugh.”
If a detail is interesting enough for a reporter like Swan to be excited about having as a scoop, why is it buried in paragraph 24 in the first place?
I bring this up because it’s absolutely true that important/interesting details were often buried in Haberman’s stories.
Five days into Trump’s presidency, she published a piece titled, “A Homebody Finds the Ultimate Home Office.”
Buried 12 paragraphs in was this:
Mr. Trump’s wife, Melania, went back to New York on Sunday night with their 10-year-old son, Barron, and so Mr. Trump has the television — and his old, unsecured Android phone, to the protests of some of his aides — to keep him company. That was the case after 9 p.m. on Tuesday, when Mr. Trump appeared to be reacting to Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News, which was airing a feature on crime in Chicago.
Keep in mind that this immediately followed a campaign where one of the biggest arguments against one of the candidates amounted to, "Can you really trust her to take information security seriously?"
NYT broke the news of Trump using his old phone, but buried it. For seemingly no reason.
This was just six days after Haberman (and Thrush) reported that they'd been told the exact opposite. (Buried 9 paragraphs in.) It should have been a HUGE story that he was using an unsecured phone and that transition staff was saying the opposite.
Mr. Trump campaigned on a platform of shaking up Washington, but his pomp-and-circumstance arrival began with two jarring concessions to a city he may not inhabit full time: This week, he was forced to abandon his cherished “Trump” 757 for an Air Force jet, and, according to people close to the transition, he has traded in his Android phone for a secure, encrypted device approved by the Secret Service with a new number that few people possess.
I wrote about the inconsistency in the way Trump's infosec disasters were covered compared to Clinton.
It's easy to brush off all criticism of Haberman as being the result of someone "not understanding journalism" or being irrational or whatever... but stuff like that, the way details were buried deep in stories, are legitimate concerns that never, ever get addressed.
Finally, I want to reiterate this point: Maggie Haberman and the New York Times have done some truly excellent work that has been crucial to understanding the past several years in U.S. politics.
That said, I do wish there was more transparency inside the Times. Maybe if we could understand why a detail was buried 12 paragraphs into a piece, fewer people would be so openly frustrated about it.
The one question I didn’t end up responding to was about what Haberman’s legacy will ultimately be. I imagine that she will be looked back on as one of the greatest mainstream journalists of our time and that she’ll be rightly showered in awards. That doesn’t make genuine criticism about her work any less legitimate.