The New York Times used to set the agenda for the rest of America’s news. Its in-depth coverage of people and events was considered by the rest of the business to be the gold standard for good reportage and writing.
Sure, there’d been a few missteps. Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty’s skewed, inaccurate, pro-Soviet coverage won the paper a Pulitzer Prize for correspondence back in the 1930s. Herbert Matthews’ coverage of Fidel Castro in the period leading up to his taking power in Cuba is still held up as an example of how easy it can be for a newsman to misread the subject of his reportage. Overall, the paper’s sterling reputation lasted well into the 21st century.
Maybe it shouldn’t have. Lately, it’s become captive to “woken journalism” that seeks to confirm a liberal assertion rather than report the news fairly and objectively. It’s far different than the crusading journalism of an earlier era, when The Times and the other New York dailies could be counted on to unearth urban corruption and stand up the interests of the little guy against those in power. The “great gray lady” of American news is now the house organ for the social justice movement. That serves neither its readers’ interests or its own well.
The latest kerfuffle involved a revolt by news writers against the opinion section, ostensibly because of the publication of an op-ed by Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton in support of President Donald J. Trump’s call to use federal force to remove rioters and other violent protestors from the streets of our cities. “That just won’t do,” the diversity-conscious scribes said of the piece.
The incident led to resignation and reassignments and was a dark point for the American media. Journalists called for the suppression of opinion, no matter how they dressed it up in the story.
Perhaps they believed the conflict between the opinions expressed on the editorial side of the paper and those expressed in the news pages might be confusing to readers. In any event, the whole business cheapened the paper’s brand, but it’s not the first time the paper gave itself a black eye in 2020.
On March 20, The Times named Ben Smith to the position of media columnist. It’s an influential job that reaches beyond the paper’s own pages into all of American journalism. A person occupying that position can make or break careers and outlets and hold the entire U.S. media complex up to scrutiny.
It was an unusual hire for a lot of reasons but principally because Mr. Smith, while editor in chief of Buzzfeed gave the green light to publish an unverified, uncorroborated private intelligence report that included allegations of misconduct, collusion and bizarre behavior by a major American political figure.
That document, which everyone now knows as The Steele Dossier, was used by the FBI to justify secret requests to engage in electronic surveillance of at least one member of the Donald J. Trump’s campaign staff. And, as we now know from recently declassified documents, the FBI and other federal agencies knew at the time it was a wholly unreliable tissue of lies and suppositions that should never have been given the weight it was.
A leaked, unfinished draft of the report had been circulated to many American journalists and outlets, but everyone except Buzzfeed initially refused to publish it, citing the lack of independent verification of what it charged.
That’s standard practice in American journalism. Independent verification by two sources, on the record if you can get. It’s an essential part of preserving the trust the American people must have in the media if it is to be an effective watchdog guarding our rights and liberties. By publishing the Steele Dossier, Buzzfeed and Ben Smith blew it. It led to the Mueller inquiry, which found no proof of collusion by the Trump campaign with the Russians and sent American politics spinning off its axis.
The now-discredited dossier is still making headlines. In July, a British judge found two Russian bankers named in it were damaged by false allegations made against them and that the entity that helped disseminate it, Fusion GPS, needed to compensate them for that harm. They’re now pressing their case here and have asked a New York judge to order an investigation and discovery into Mr. Smith’s decision to publish back in 2017.
Mr. Smith’s reckless reportage — he aided in the spread of false information, lied about an FBI investigation, and wasted government resources — got him a promotion instead of a sanction. Now The New York Times trusts him to hold the rest of the media accountable for what it does. But who is going to hold Mr. Smith accountable since his record suggests he can’t be trusted.
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