Campaign watch: Margaret Sullivan gets it right!

TUESDAY, MARCH 8, 2016

Concerning the state of the campaign coverage at the glorious Times:
How empty, how worthless is campaign coverage at the New York Times?

This Sunday, Margaret Sullivan asked and answered that very question. Here's what makes that interesting:

Margaret Sullivan is the New York Times' public editor!

Sullivan started by listing complaints she has received from readers. One example:

“We really want to be informed,” one Times reader had told her (his emphasis). Instead, Sullivan said the reader had described the famous newspaper's campaign coverage as “easy horse-race, fight-night, ‘let’s get ready to rumble!’ coverage with terms like ‘jab,’ and graphics of who attacked whom.”

It's true! The famous former newspaper's coverage is largely strategy and speculation, mixed with insults and polls and alleged character profiles.

It's much as that reader, and others, have said. And ohourgod! As she continued, Sullivan proceeded to agree—to say those readers were right!

Is this sort of thing allowed? "Sully" proceeded like this:
SULLIVAN (3/6/16): With these [readers'] concerns in mind, I analyzed The Times’s political reporting, including First Draft and Upshot articles, in recent weeks. Are these readers’ impressions accurate? And, despite what readers may claim, what do they actually prefer to read?

With plenty of help (thanks to Joumana Khatib, Jaclyn Peiser and Evan Gershkovich), I looked at 14 days of Times political reporting, beginning Sunday, Feb. 14, and ending Saturday, Feb. 27.

And while examining only two weeks of coverage may not tell us everything we need to know, it was revealing. The findings: Of the 234 political stories in that period (an astonishing number in itself), 180 could reasonably be called “horse-race” stories. That’s more than three of every four articles.
Oof! According to Sullivan, three-fourths of the newspaper's campaign reports were, in fact, horse-race stories. And, as Sullivan continued, her portrait became even less flattering. In this passage, she threw in two actual headlines:
SULLIVAN: Of the remaining quarter, some were issues-oriented, some were a blend of horse-race and issues, and some were simply hard to categorize. In that category:

Donald Trump on Protester: "I’d Like to Punch Him in the Face"

This Week’s Trump Insults: The R.N.C., a Poll and (Sort of) Pope Francis


And even among the issue-oriented articles we found in the two-week period, many treated the issues only glancingly, and very few compared the stances of various candidates in a way that might be most helpful to readers.
Sullivan delivered a very negative assessment. According to Sullivan, three-fourths of the newspaper's campaign reports were horse-race stories. After that, we reach the reports about Candidate Trump's latest insults, and about his highly authentic desire to punch folk right in the nose.

"Very few" of the paper's issue-oriented reports would be helpful to readers, she said.

From there, Sullivan advanced to the part of her column where the Times' top-ranking editors deny every word she has said. As Sullivan's readers will know, this is a standard part of her critiques of this former newspaper.

Can the Times really be this feckless? Let's forget campaign coverage for now. Instead, consider a recent news report about the situation in Flint.

Monica Davey's report appeared on the front page of Sunday's Times.
The report ran almost 1500 words. Below, you see her complete report about the current state of the water in Flint:
DAVEY (3/6/16): Five months after state authorities announced that it was unsafe to drink unfiltered water because of high lead levels caused by government errors over the past two years, federal officials said here last week that the water still was not safe, and, as testing goes on, offered no promise for when it would be.
According to Davey, "federal officials said last week that the water still was not safe."

That's an extremely sketchy account of the current state of Flint's water. But in a full-length front-page report, it was literally all she wrote about this extremely fundamental question.

When we read that lengthy report, we were somewhat surprised by that highlighted statement. It seemed to us that we'd read and heard, again and again, that the water in Flint had been improving at a fairly rapid rate.

Davey's statement seemed to contradict that impression. But as is typical at the Times, Davey devoted virtually no space to this very basic, fundamental life-and-death question from Flint.

A few hours later, our puzzlement grew when we read a post by Kevin Drum. He stated his own puzzlement over Davey's single-sentence account:
DRUM (3/6/16): I understand the need for caution, as well as the obvious distrust that Flint residents have for official pronouncements that everything is now hunky-dory. But I wonder if this has paralyzed us in a way that's now causing more harm than good? There have been more than 13,000 residential tests of Flint's water since the beginning of the year, and it sure looks to me like the water is now pretty safe.
Drum went on to offer some data about the ongoing testing. His post appeared beneath this headline:

"The Water in Flint Looks Pretty Drinkable These Days"

How drinkable is the water in Flint? The chances are poor that you'll ever find out in the modern Times.

Unless Candidate Trump threatens to punch the mayor of Flint in the nose, you aren't likely to see that question answered in this floundering former newspaper. All in all, the New York Times rarely shows any sign of caring about such trivial matters.

The Times is empty, broken-souled, failing. But so is the bulk of our discourse, including that from our own tribe.

Concerning Trump and the pope: The New York Times' front-page report about Trump and the pope was even worse than we knew at the time.

It's a question of what a "quotation" looks like. We hope to return to this pitiful topic. Our original post is here.

For a full transcript of what the pope actually said, you can just click this. Presumably, the Times could have told you what the pope actually said. Judging from appearances, the paper decided to take a more thrilling route.

The power to paraphrase is the power to spin! We first told you that years ago, during the previous century.

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  2. Here's the full question and answer from Bob's link in case he wants to spin this into "the Pope wasn't talking about Trump."

    Phil Pullella, Reuters: Today, you spoke very eloquently about the problems of immigration. On the other side of the border, there is a very tough electoral battle. One of the candidates for the White House, Republican Donald Trump, in an interview recently said that you are a political man and he even said that you are a pawn, an instrument of the Mexican government for migration politics. Trump said that if he’s elected, he wants to build 2,500 kilometers of wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, separating families, etcetera. I would like to ask you, what do you think of these accusations against you and if a North American Catholic can vote for a person like this?

    Pope Francis: Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as 'animal politicus.' At least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don't know. I'll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people. And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.

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    1. Whoops, you beat me to it.

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  3. Bob Somerby refers to his February 19, 2016 post which took issue with the New York Times' characterization of the remarks the Pope made about Donald Trump. Somerby insisted then that the Times left the reader with a false impression (with Somerby's emphasis):

    [QUOTE] Hard copy headline included:

    >>>HEALY (2/19/16): TRUMP FIRES BACK AT SHARP REBUKE BY POPE FRANCIS

    >>>In his most audacious attack yet on a revered public figure, Donald J. Trump veered into risky political territory on Thursday as he denounced Pope Francis, seeking to galvanize Republicans who worry about border security and appeal to evangelical voters who regard Francis as too liberal.

    >>>After the pontiff’s remarkable contention that Mr. Trump “is not Christian” in proposing deportations and a wall with Mexico, the candidate said Francis’ criticisms were “disgraceful” and “unbelievable,” and he contended that the Mexican government had hoodwinked the pope into criticizing him.


    The full report runs 1433 words. Incredibly, you've already seen Healy's only attempt to quote what Pope Francis actually said!

    Good God, but the Times is a joke! Healy's report runs on and on as various people speculate about the possible political effects of the exciting new fight.

    But in the course of all that typing, the Times report makes no attempt to report with the pope actually said. You've seen Healy's only quotation from the pope—a three-word phrase, dropped into the middle of a Times paraphrase. [END QUOTE]

    Bob Somerby likes to keep his posts short but I'll go ahead and post the question asked of His Holiness and the answer the Pope gave regarding Trump (with my own emphasis added to the transcript):

    [QUOTE] Phil Pullella, Reuters: Today, you spoke very eloquently about the problems of immigration. On the other side of the border, there is a very tough electoral battle. One of the candidates for the White House, Republican Donald Trump, in an interview recently said that you are a political man and he even said that you are a pawn, an instrument of the Mexican government for migration politics. Trump said that if he’s elected, he wants to build 2,500 kilometers of wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, separating families, etcetera. I would like to ask you, what do you think of these accusations against you and if a North American Catholic can vote for a person like this?

    Pope Francis: Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as 'animal politicus.' [*] At least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don't know. I'll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people. And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt. [END QUOTE]

    Is there any question as to whether the Donald "has said things like that."? If no, then, according to any fair interpretation of standard English, I'd say the Times got it about right.

    * Which reminds me of another Somerby head scratcher [LINK]

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  4. We all know when people go to the sports page they do so to enjoy articles on the issues of their favoite sport, which is why most sports journalism fails to cover the horse races and games.

    Journalism about politics should do the same. It would really generate so much more readership.

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