Sit up and take notice, monitors of plain speech in our elite journalistic discourse: the New York Times has at long last elected to call a lie a lie, at least as far as Donald Trump is concerned. What prompted this long-overdue linguistic breakthrough was the barking, bigoted GOP standard bearer’s shamelessly transactional and manipulative news-conference-that-wasn’t, touting both the opening of the luxe Trump hotel in Washington, D.C., and an alleged major statement on Trump’s long dalliance with the racist fantasy known as birtherism.
The Times being the Times, this policy shift—which resulted in no fewer than five articles with “false,” “lie,” “untrue” and the like in the Paper of Record’s Trump coverage on a single day (September 17) last week—was presented as the most sober and judicious outcome in this, the most sober and judicious of possible worlds. “We have decided to be more direct in calling things out when a candidate actually lies,” Times executive editor Dean Baquet told Quartz writer Steve LeVine, and pointedly noted that “the birther issue represents, well, outright lying. And he lied over a long period. It is a real word, and we’ll use it when warranted.”
All true enough, as far as it goes—but there’s something more than a little odd about the spectacle of the Gray Lady only now giving voice to her genteel dudgeon over Trump’s most outlandish falsehoods. After all, as Baquet himself notes, Trump himself has been engaging in this particular untruth for “a long period”—so why hadn’t the Times been appending the L-word to all of its prior coverage of Trump’s role in propagating the birther lie? It’s not as if the case for Barack Obama’s Kenyan birth was any stronger in 2011, or as though the substance of the phony birther agitprop campaign was somehow less racist and toxic to our public discourse before it gained a name-brand association with a major-party presidential nominee. If truth is indeed truth, and vicious lies demand the full weight of empirical denunciation from no less an authority than the New York Times, why is it only now that we are witnessing this stirring object lesson in journalistic truth-telling? Why have the past five years’ worth of Timesian Trump coverage conspicuously lacked some version of the appositive descriptor “opportunistic purveyor of racist falsehoods, and tawdry reality TV exhibitionist” directly after the name “Donald J. Trump”?
Why hadn’t the Times been appending the L-word to all of its prior coverage of Trump’s role in propagating the birther lie?
The most cynical, Occam’s razor explanation here, as with any cultish outbreak of media outrage, is that the righteous alarm increases in direct proportion to the press’s sense of imperiled self-interest. Since the basic terms and conditions of Lyin’ Donald’s birther crusade haven’t changed materially over the past half decade, we must look to the abusive tenor of the Trump hotel press availability to isolate the key alteration of the Trump-media dynamic. And it’s true that, even by the usual debased Trump standard, this was a nasty piece of work, with network producers manhandled, cameras denied access, and a wildcat boycott of network TV coverage organized on the spot. But as with other flare-ups of press solidarity, we also have to ask just how reliable our Fourth Estate truly is in watchdogging the public interest if it only bothers to dispel such a Big Lie as birtherism after it feels provoked by some especially pronounced individual affront. Would you enthusiastically sign on with a family doctor who only treated diseases he or she had personally suffered?
No, to truly credit Baquet’s account of a newly awakened spirit of Timesian truth-telling, nothing less than a complete institutional overhaul will do, I’m afraid. For starters, the brazenly truth-indifferent Alessandra Stanley full-employment plan would have to cease forthwith. For the paper humiliated by the successive Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals to continue employing a walking corrections-generator like Stanley is utterly beyond reason—especially now that she’s been detailed from the fluff of TV criticism to chronicling the folkways of the wealthy. Indeed, with Stanley assiduously gathering up one howler after another on the figurative doorstep of Trump’s social class, how can Baquet and company contend with a straight face that they’re seeking to shame the GOP nominee out of his mendacious, mediagenic M.O.? All Trump has to do is grant one interview to Stanley, and rear back snickering to behold the glorious reign of error sure to follow.
Would you enthusiastically sign on with a family doctor who only treated diseases he or she had personally suffered?
And where to start with the fucking op-ed columnists? Should every Tom Friedman column run with a pre-emptive correction, saying something like “Since Thomas Friedman has inexplicably taken over the international economic beat, the Times has printed one infantile fable after another about the supposed natural and predestined course of globalized economic development confected out of thin air. The Times regrets these, and the countless other errors to come under Mr. Friedman’s byline”? Or in the case of David Brooks, maybe a more clinically minded disclaimer is in order, such as “David Brooks labors under an advanced delusion, founded on the wholly counter-empirical notion that an American civic renaissance will come about by micromanaging wholly justified civic grievances out of existence. The Times does not advise reading any Brooks column in conjunction with consensual reality.”
The cleanup work would be truly forbidding in the Times’s growing stable of sponsored-content platforms. It would presumably spare everyone concerned a great deal of time and grief to simply supply a perforated cut-out where Andrew Ross Sorkin’s DealBook mug normally goes with a simple disclaiming come-on that reads “Your Ad Here.” And my Lord, what about the “aspirational” lies about inequality and social class plastered over all kinds of Times-branded product, from Sunday Styles to the education supplements to the bottomless abomination that is T Magazine? No, the more we think about it, the sheer volume of truth-squadding duty awaiting any Times executive seeking to restore the impression of institutional honesty across from the Port Authority’s Eighth Avenue entrance is simply too forbidding. The more elegant solution was proposed long ago in a mock Times correction published in the Village Voice. It appears, alas, to be lost forever to the grand agora of the World Wide Web, so I have to paraphrase: In 1896, it more or less began, the New York Times was purchased by Adolph Ochs, publisher of the Chattanooga Times. Since then (I remember it continuing) the Times has been an obliging mouthpiece to the ideological interests of the American ruling class, and has distorted every dispatch within its pages to perpetuate a New World plutocracy. And the part I can quote directly, of course, is the note-perfect patrician envoi: “The Times regrets the error.”