A liberal backlash against the news media’s coverage of Donald Trump and the 2020 race was already brewing when the New York Times published a five-word headline Monday night summarizing the president’s reaction to the mass shootings over the weekend: “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.”
“Unbelievable,” steamed Beto O’Rourke. “That’s not what happened,” wrote Kirsten Gillibrand. “Lives literally depend on you doing better,” Cory Booker tweeted.
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New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet said senior editors quickly recognized problems with the original headline Monday night and rewrote it. “The fact that Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker didn’t like it didn’t influence me,” Baquet said in an interview Tuesday. “I don’t need the entire political field to tell me we wrote a bad headline. It was evident.”
Still, the furious response capped an outpouring of frustration lately from 2020 candidates, Democratic strategists and left-leaning columnists over everything from CNN’s handling of last week’s primary debate to coverage of race and white supremacists to the years-old gripe that news organizations are too willing to amplify Trump’s words.
O’Rourke channeled that discontent best Sunday with an exasperated reaction to a reporter’s question about what Trump could do in response to the deaths of 22 people in El Paso at the hands of a suspected white nationalist.
“He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals,” O’Rourke responded. “Members of the press, what the fuck?”
Neera Tanden, the president of the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, told POLITICO that O’Rourke “spoke for millions of liberals” with those three words.
“If you’re thinking, ‘Can Trump make this better?’ you’re absolving him of his role in this, and it makes people think you don’t get it,” Tanden said.
Democrats and progressives expressed some frustration with the media in 2016, claiming that journalists neglected Sen. Bernie Sanders early on and that they were obsessed with Hillary Clinton’s emails. And Democrats are quick to distinguish their critique of the news media from that of the right, especially Trump’s attacks on journalists as “the enemy of the people.” O’Rourke, for one, has told crowds that the media is not the “enemy,” and nearly every Democratic campaign has vowed to bring back White House press briefings if elected.
Still, the critique of the news media is cropping up more as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, including during the primary debates hosted by CNN. And it has the potential to hurt the news business’ reputation with a large chunk of the electorate, just as Republican voters became less inclined to trust the mainstream media after years of candidates decrying what they viewed as liberal bias.
“A vast swath of Democratic voters are pretty angry at the media,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior Obama adviser who is now a “Pod Save America” co-host. “They see a racist liar in the White House and a media too afraid to call him a racist or a liar. They see a media obsessed with Trump voters who like his rhetoric and little interest in those targeted by his rhetoric. I think Beto’s comments spoke to a feeling that media as currently constructed is not up to the moment we are living in.”
Pfeiffer said he sees the progressive critique as one “made in good faith and with the desire that the press does its job better.” Still, he acknowledges a shift in how his party is pushing back and said candidates on the left can use that media criticism to rally support.
“For the first time in my career, making the press a foil is good politics in a Democratic primary, and that is going to have long-standing consequences for the business of journalism,” he said.
In recent election cycles, Republican candidates, including Newt Gingrich in 2012 and Trump in 2016, battled debate moderators over their questions — whipping up their supporters in the process.
In last week’s Democratic debate, Sanders bristled at being asked to respond to what he called “Republican talking points” on Medicare for All, at one point suggesting to moderator Jake Tapper that TV networks such as CNN are beholden to health-care industry advertisers. “Is this a Fox News debate?” Sanders’ national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray asked on Twitter. “These right wing questions my god.”
CNN also faced criticism for setting up confrontations between the candidates onstage over their past statements or differences on policy. Journalists said the network was trying to highlight distinctions between the candidates, but many Democrats thought the moderators went too far. “The media is adapting to the Trumpification of politics by making debates wrestling matches between candidates instead of a discussion of ideas,” Tanden said.
Sanders has long railed against the “corporate media” for its coverage of both the country and his presidential campaigns. While none of the other 2020 campaigns have gone so far as to question mainstream organizations’ ownership or motives— with the exception of Fox News, which some candidates have boycotted — several campaigns aren’t shy about publicly criticizing the media and urging supporters to do the same.
Ian Sams, national press secretary for Sen. Kamala Harris, has frequently used Twitter to push back on coverage he thinks is unfair, and he told POLITICO campaigns have no choice but to do that.
“We live in a media ecosystem where things move so fast that you often don’t have the luxury of the tools you once did,” Sams said. “When stories go live and within minutes are amplified to millions of people online, the system doesn’t always allow dialing up the reporter, getting in touch with their editor, and hoping for a correction. By the time that happens, the original content could have thousands of retweets.”
Brian Fallon, who served as deputy press secretary for Clinton’s 2016 campaign and is now executive director of progressive organization Demand Justice, told POLITICO on Monday afternoon that “a lot of Democrats are understandably exasperated about the broken state of the media in the age of Trump.”
“Instead of the media standing up against his lies, we get thought pieces about whether the truth really matters anymore,” he continued. “Instead of calling out Trump’s racism, we see headline writers engaged in acrobatics designed to achieve some false measure of objectivity.”
On Monday night, Fallon was one of the prominent progressive critics to pounce on the Times’s initial headline choice about Trump’s press conference on the shootings. Editor Baquet “cares more about being seen as impartial by diehard supporters of Donald Trump than he does about faithfully representing what is happening in American politics,” Fallon tweeted.
In an interview with POLITICO, Baquet said what he called the “bad headline” occurred because the copy editor who wrote it had “too few words to capture the breath of the report.” The headline was a banner that had to wrap together a news story and a separate analysis piece. “We gave him too little room, and he wrote what was essentially a news headline,” Baquet said.
“I know people want to read something larger in that, and I get it,” said Baquet, who acknowledged being “in the business of reading larger things into events.” But Baquet pushed back on suggestions that the headline reflects broader issues with the Times’s coverage of Trump.
“I’m going to argue that we have done deep investigative reporting about Donald Trump,” he said. “I’m going to argue that we have done a lot of stories about Donald Trump and race. I am going to argue that we have done the most detailed reporting about Donald Trump’s finances. I’m going to argue that our coverage has been pretty rigorous and tough about Donald Trump and the administration.”
Baquet said he believes news organizations like the Times, The Washington Post and others “have risen to the occasion.”
Some liberal Times subscribers, however, disagree. The hashtag #CancelNYT was trending Tuesday morning. Adam Jentleson, who served as deputy chief of staff to former Sen. Harry Reid, said on Twitter that he was going to do just that.
“I resisted for a long time but I’m cancelling my NYT subscription today,” he tweeted. “Great reporters but terrible editorial judgment on headlines and social media, which is all most people read. It can’t be the paper of record anymore if it doesn’t accurately report the news.”