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Sept. 10, 2018, 10:12 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Newsonomics: What the anonymous New York Times op-ed shows us about the press now

The press is, at its best, the strong and steady hand at keeping the public informed. No surprise, it is the twin Watergate-tested news institutions of The New York Times and The Washington Post that continue to lead that informing.

In 1954, at the moment history tells us that Sen. Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt had already lost some of its power, he still held a 35 percent approval rating among Americans, down only 10 points from four years earlier.

Twenty years later, after the Senate Watergate Committee opened its hearings and news accounts had pilloried Richard Nixon, he still held a 44 percent approval rating. Even about a year later, as he awaited his getaway helicopter, a quarter of Americans thought highly of him.

Now, 45 years later, the 45th president finds himself seemingly cornered by criminal convictions of his associates, the most unflattering of tell-all portraits, and one of his own anonymously belittling him in the pages of The New York Times, Trump tests the bottom of 40th percentile in recent polls.

This history matters, as we try to put into perspective the week’s escalation in the unprecedented war between a presidency and the press. As the Financial Times put it in a headline Friday, “Media challenges Trump for control of the news cycle.”

Is that what’s going on? Is that our takeaway in this collision of this president, the press and polls?

That’s where the historical evidence offers a lesson. We won’t likely be able to pinpoint turning points for quite awhile. Historians tell us that large parts of the American populace long maintained their support of those we now see as historically disgraced. Polling often seems to show a false sense of stability — steady, steady and steady…until it’s not, as Nate Silver has pointed out.

Historian and former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham provided that perspective in an All Things Considered interview a couple of weeks ago.

“Thirty percent of the country is going to be with the incumbent I think no matter what. If they carry him out in handcuffs, 30 percent of the country is going to say it was a witch hunt; it was a frame-up,” Meacham said. “The thing to watch is, where is the 60, 65 percent of the country that is not part of a die-hard base for this particular person?”

Do we see movement in that group, as the rat-a-tat of criminal conviction, indictment, and an ever-aggressive press continues to make a difference?

The most recent polls show some, albeit uncertain, approval/disapproval movement. To Meacham’s point, though, the majorities lining up in opposition to a Manafort pardon, to a Sessions ousting, and to a termination of the Mueller investigation seem to be slightly growing.

What is the press’s role in this epic drama?

It is, at its best, the strong and steady hand at keeping the public informed. No surprise, it is the twin Watergate-tested news institutions of The New York Times and The Washington Post that continue to lead that informing.

The “senior official in the Trump administration” didn’t choose The Wall Street Journal or Fox News. The Journal certainly would have been authoritative enough, but, even after a decade of Rupert Murdoch ownership, it’s still not remotely close to competing with The New York Times in national authority.

In choosing The New York Times to distribute the anonymous op-ed, “I am part of the resistance inside the Trump administration,” the Republican writer reaffirmed what we’ve only seen reinforced in the last two years: The Times still stands for credible, accountable, agenda-setting news reporting and analysis. The right-wing pseudo press may decry it, but, day after day, they follow it. They remain reactive.

The dozens of interviewees who provided The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward their insider’s view of this White House could have said no to 11 p.m. requests for interviews. But enough of them didn’t. Why? As Alicia Shepard put it: “Because he doesn’t make things up.” Decades of Woodward books and of Washington Post journalism — for most, the two are indistinguishable — still demand attention and command belief in stubborn facts.

Take this Gary Tuchman CNN piece, interviewing diners at the Dew Drop Inn in Mobile, as they observe the public disparagement of their hometown boy Jeff Sessions by the president. The 2:37 video is immediately classic, but tune in at 1:00 and see Tuchman as local Mark Dodson is asked about Trump’s disparaging of Sessions and of southerners.

“It’s upsetting and very discouraging that in fact he would do that, if in fact, he did that, if you believe it,” says Dodson, after Tuchman notes Trump’s “stupid Southerner” comment, as reported in Woodward’s book.

Tuchman asks, “So, do you believe the book?”

“I’m not sure. In Washington, what can you believe?”

Tuchman wouldn’t let him off the hook.

“Who would you believe more, a guy like Bob Woodward or the president of the United States?”

Hesitantly, Dodson answers, “If I were honest about it, I’d probably believe Mr. Woodward.”

If you listen to Times op-ed editor James Dao’s explanation on The Daily, it’s so straightforward as to make the question of publication a non-question. The Times depends on confidential, anonymous-but-known-to-be authoritative sources, to bring us the news, facts and analysis. In this case, the Times editors applied the same kind of thinking editors do every day. Newsworthy? Verified? Contributes to public understanding? Check, check, check. (The Times answered reader questions about the op-ed here.)

Those who say the op-ed offers “nothing new” miss a point. It is the very corroboration here (as On the Media’s Bob Garfield pointed out) that increases its import.

Is the op-ed writer a hero or a coward, or both? What message was trying to be sent; what was received? Shouldn’t the writer go public? All great questions, but not for the Times to decide. This is the reality of “We report, you decide” journalism.

The polls will go up, and the polls will come down. It’s the steadiness and steeliness of the American press that can lead us out of this morass. That requires, of course, a robust business under the press.

So how good is this op-ed for the Times’ business? The op-ed is approaching 20 million pageviews, but that astounding number still represents spit in an ocean.

Almost a decade ago, the Times began to forswear page-spinning goals in favor of reader revenue. The Times has consistently, amid many challenges of digital disruption, maintained that reader-first strategy. Now that service is recompensed in the most direct and enduring way: By having readers pay for the journalism itself.

Today, Times readers — 3.8 million subscribers, digital and print — contribute about 63 percent of all Times revenues. Will the op-ed help the Times’ business? Yes, but in the medium and longer term — this isn’t the old days of selling single copies off a blockbuster story or series.

It’s not just high-ranking Republicans who still recognize the primacy of The New York Times in the nation’s life, it’s the readers.

How does the Times measure that effect?

Number one, it bolsters the most important goal of the Times: retention of all those subscribers, pre- and post-Trump Bump. Number two, it will help, sale by sale, in acquisition.

We can call it brand-building. When The New York Times authentically fills its mandates as a national leading news source, it burnishes its brand. And brand equals long-term value, both to readers and for advertisers.

The Times isn’t alone here. Both the Post and CNN can claim similar service and benefit. Then, there’s been a host of reader-first (some increasingly digital subscription-focused) news companies playing significant roles. Those include The Atlantic, NBC, BuzzFeed, The Daily Beast, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Vox, NPR, Mother Jones, and New York Magazine. It is in the diversity of digital age-enhanced national press that we see the value of wider news reporting and analysis of it.

They’ve led the way, even as we see the results of the decade-long diminishment of newspaper chains’ DC bureaus. Once, those operations often broke national stories; in recent months, only the McClatchy DC bureau’s Trump coverage seems immediately memorable. Still, the Boston Globe-led effort to defend the press against the President’s “enemy of the people” statements — one signed onto by more than 400 dailies — managed some reassurance of local newspapers’ backbone at this unprecedented time.

We don’t do journalism to win popularity contests. We do the work before history has done its adjudication. That’s why we call it the first draft of history.

POSTED     Sept. 10, 2018, 10:12 a.m.
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