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Flummoxed by Trump, The New York Times says “We’re fine, really.”

Photo: YouTube via Business Insider

Trump’s shifting positions, outlandish policies, and tweets criticizing the media that covers him have challenged organizations like The New York Times. After predicting Hillary Clinton would win the election, the Times is having an identity crisis. Now they’ve emailed their subscribers to say “Hey, we’re doing fine.” The letters communicate the exact opposite.

The Times asks subscribers to be loyal

Early on, the Times had problems because it covered Trump like a normal candidate. Later, the paper seemed to mix in a lot more skepticism, causing Trump to complain of bias. And of course, it predicted a 85% chance of Trump losing.

Now this letter to subscribers raises uncomfortable questions.

  1. Why did they send it? Apparently, because they want to reassure readers when they are insecure about themselves.)
  2. Who is the audience? Ostensibly, subscribers, but clearly this is meant for the broader media community and their own workers as well.
  3. Have they learned anything? If so, they’re not saying.

Judge for yourself. In what follows, the translations are mine.

To our readers,

When the biggest political story of the year reached a dramatic and unexpected climax late Tuesday night, our newsroom turned on a dime and did what it has done for nearly two years — cover the 2016 election with agility and creativity.

Translation: We were surprised. We were shocked. We were never prepared to write about Trump winning, so we had to scramble.

After such an erratic and unpredictable election there are inevitable questions: Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters? What forces and strains in America drove this divisive election and outcome? Most important, how will a president who remains a largely enigmatic figure actually govern when he takes office?

Translation: We’re not sure what happens next, so we’ll just ask some questions. [By the way, here are the answers to the Times’ questions: Yes. Frustration with Washington and the economy. Badly.]

As we reflect on this week’s momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you. It is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly. We believe we reported on both candidates fairly during the presidential campaign. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.

Translation: Our values are still the same, even though we completely missed the biggest story of this election. OK with you guys?

We cannot deliver the independent, original journalism for which we are known without the loyalty of our subscribers. We want to take this opportunity, on behalf of all Times journalists, to thank you for that loyalty.

Translation: Keep paying us, please.


Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.

Dean Baquet
Executive Editor

Then the publisher sent a pep-talk to its shell-shocked reporters

Here’s what Sulzberger told his staff, which could basically be summed in two sentences: “Do your job” and “Figure out what happened.” It’s a rousing defense of journalism. But why is it needed? Because the Times is doubting itself and Trump is roasting it on Twitter. Flummoxed.

Dear Colleagues,

As we close one of the most momentous weeks in our nation’s recent history, let’s pause for a moment on those famous instructions that Adolph S. Ochs left for us: to cover the news without fear or favor.

As Donald Trump begins preparing for his new administration, those words have rarely felt more important.

The Times is certainly not afraid — our investigative report has demonstrated our courage many times over. That fearless, hard-fought journalism will always stand as the backbone of The Times, no matter the President.

But we also approach the incoming Trump administration without bias. We will cover his policies and his agenda fairly. We will bring expert analysis and thoughtful commentary to the changes we see in government, and to their ramifications on the ground.

We will look within and beyond Washington to explore the roots of the anger that has roiled red and blue America. If many Americans no longer seem to understand each other, let’s make it our job to interpret and explain.

Our predecessors founded our singular newspaper for just this moment — to serve as a watchdog to the powerful; and to hold mighty institutions accountable, without fear or favor. We are more than ready to fulfill that promise.

Together, we have built the world’s best digital newsroom and it, too, was made for just this moment. We will chronicle the new administration with a lightning-fast report that features stories told in every medium and on every platform.

Here is what we have all dedicated our careers to: Going after the biggest stories in the world, and telling them as ambitiously as possible.

Get some rest this weekend. We have lots to do.


Meaning comes from more than words

These letters are well written, direct, and free of weasel words and passive voice. So they’re better than most of what I write about in this space. They ought to be: they’re from the leaders of a great journalistic institution.

But the fact that they even exist is telling. The Times is doubting itself and doesn’t want to air those fears in public. But in the end, this back-patting raises more doubts than it settles.

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  1. I got that letter and the first sentence totally turned me off. You should have tagged that it was self-congratulatory, and inappropriately so. They can’t even admit they screwed up without patting themselves on the back. Reeks of arrogance and cluelessness. I’ll probably keep subscribing to the digital edition out of inertia and a fondness for the obits and recipes. But OMG a sad day when they sent that email.

  2. Could this be the inflection point of American journalism? When does the money not seem quite as important as getting the story right and fulfilling your responsibility to monitor the government? We shall see…

  3. Josh, it seems to me that in your current role, you could point out a lot of instances where words really do matter, and words really do reveal the bias of who’s writing (or speaking) them. What I’m suggesting is that you go even further in your analyses of these things. You’re great at pointing out “weasel words” and passive voice, and the horrific writing we see every day (please be kind to me on this point – I’m rushing). In my opinion, the bias of the media – whether it’s the NYT, MSNBC, CNN or Fox News – is clearly evident in the language they chose for their headlines, their descriptions, of what’s happening, even in a single word choice. This happens so much, on both sides of the fence, that I have to ask: Is it even possible to get a balanced and objective journalistic view on the world today? I’d love to see you focus on this moving forward. The NYT failed because they couldn’t shed their own bias in reporting the news. They’re not the only one, and these biases play a huge role in shaping public opinion.

    I challenge anyone to divide your news consumption equally between sources – left and right – just for a day. I do this almost every day, and am amazed at how supposedly objective journalists use completely different – often inflammatory – language to interpret the same events just to support the natural biases of their customers. So I ask again: Is it possible to get a balanced view? In print? In prime time TV network news? Online?

  4. I got the subscriber letter and interpreted the third paragraph differently. I read that the New York Times will operate as it usually does, regardless of any attempts by the Trump administration to curtail freedom of the press. And I applauded that. Is that what they meant to say? I don’t know now.

  5. Regrettably, it’s obvious where the journalists of main stream media outlets hang their hats. Beyond NPR, the two that least offend are CBS news and the Wall Street Journal. Both asked tough questions of the candidates, offered balanced criticism and were less shocked by last Tuesday’s outcome.