The New York Times just isn’t up to the Trump-era challenge

Two years ago when The New York Times eliminated its public editor position after the ombudsman wrote two tough critiques of the paper’s “timid” Russia hacking coverage in 2016, executives at the publication suggested the Times didn’t need an internal watchdog to hold the staff accountable, because that’s what Twitter does today. The reasoning was a dopey dodge, since short tweets raising concerns about the paper’s performance obviously don’t carry the same weight as 900-word columns published in the Times and written by a full-time public editor. But on the off chance that retreating Times executives actually meant what they said about Twitter holding the paper accountable, then Memorial Day weekend proved to be a strong example as the daily was absolutely pummeled by tweets for days, roundly and loudly criticized for some atrocious Trump-era reporting. “It truly is a weekend of wtf for the @nytimes,” tweeted journalist Soledad O’Brien. “Bad reporting. Poor framing. Terrible editing. Bad decision making. Just a mess.”

Indeed, the rhetorical Twitter beatdown helped shine a spotlight on the fact that the Times, and specifically its Washington bureau, simply isn’t up to the task of covering Donald Trump’s presidency. These are extraordinary times, as the radical Republican shreds norms on a near-daily basis. But the Times cannot, or will not, rise to the occasion. Instead of brave, groundbreaking reporting we get timidity, and we get Times reporters still coddling dishonest Trump-era sources, such as former White House communications director Hope Hicks. It’s all part of the Times’s current-day identity crisis: The newsroom knows it should be unabashedly critical and confrontational, and that’s how the paper markets itself under Trump. But in reality, the paper’s reporters and editors are too timid to regularly deliver the goods.

Note that I’m not writing an entire column detailing all the Trump-era missteps at CNN, or the Washington Post, or CBS News, or the Los Angeles Times. I’m not suggesting those news operations are without fault, because they definitely are not. But I am saying there is no major news outlet in America today that so consistently advertises its shortcomings the way the Times does, and there’s no other news organization that so staunchly refuses to concede missteps. A cult-like defense now permeates the newsroom, where staffers remain convinced every Times critic is naïve and misguided, and can’t possibly understand how the sophisticated players at the paper are keyed into the Trump-era truth.

But wait! The Times has won Pulitzer Prize awards for its Trump reporting, so that proves the paper is doing a great job, right? Nope. What that proves is that Times journalists who operate outside the paper’s Washington bureau often score with important and deeply reported investigations into Trump’s disturbing past, while the Times’s Beltway crew works to normalize his presidency. Two egregious Times articles in particular stunned media observers in recent days.

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