Media Criticism

Will the Military Be Collateral Damage in the New York Times-Trump Conflict?

By Charlie Dunlap
Sunday, June 17, 2018, 7:00 AM

In “'Okay, Let’s Go': Watching the New York Times on Trump” Benjamin Wittes largely extols Liz Garbus’s new documentary series, "The Fourth Estate" which chronicles the New York Times in the Trump era. In its own mostly favorable review of the series (“‘The Fourth Estate’ Is a Competent but Incomplete Peek Inside The Times”) the Times makes this remarkably introspective comment: “The things that really aggravate the paper’s critics often have to do with emphasis, omissions and the sheer tonnage of certain kinds of coverage. There’s almost no substantive examination of those topics…”

I would put myself among the critics referenced by the Times review. I’ve found in recent years that just in the narrow area I work on—the law of armed conflict—the Times’s coverage has been unsettling. As just one example, last September in a story critiquing the administration’s revision of use-of-force policies, the Times portrayed international law as allowing countries to “knowingly kill some civilians” in the course of an attack. But the law-of-war rule the Times seemed to be referencing actually prohibits attacks only where the “incidental loss of civilian life … would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”  (Emphasis added.) 

“Some” is obviously not a synonym for “excessive,” and in this context it suggests a small number. Readers could understandably assume that if a large number of civilians are killed in a strike, something illegal must have occurred, even though that isn’t necessarily the case if the military advantage was important enough. It’s puzzling to me why the Times didn’t simply quote the law on this important point.

Another even more egregious example was the publication in the New York Times Magazine of The Uncounted,” an article that essentially claimed that the military was perniciously deceiving the world about civilian casualties in the war against the Islamic State. As I explain here, the article is riddled with reasons to be distrustful of its claims.  What is especially troubling is that it is being repeatedly cited as a “New York Times report,” in an effort to give weight to its allegations. The truth is that it was not written by Times reporters but, rather, by two writers from the New America Foundation.

A Times editor assured me that the Times’s news organization and its reporters are separate from the magazine, but few readers understand that distinction. The lack of scrutiny one would hope that Times journalists would give such a piece fritters away the reputation for objectivity I would expect the paper wants, and it feeds perceptions that the media in general is biased against the military. That the Times’s news editors and reporters have not affirmatively distanced themselves from the article is, in my view, a serious mistake.

The erosion of my confidence in the Times’s performance in my field has led me to question its objectivity more generally. I don’t think I’m alone in this regard. What might explain what seems to be the Times’s current direction? I’ll leave the critique of the Garbus documentary to Wittes, but examining his deeper point—“what it means to produce a newspaper in a time like the one we are living through”—could provide some answers. Allow me to put my query somewhat differently: what it’s like for a follower of national security issues to read a newspaper like the Times in a time like the one we are living through.

Let’s agree that notwithstanding the frequently inane blasts from the White House about the news media, a free and robust press is utterly indispensable to a democracy. In my view it’s the most important guarantor of liberty in our society. Like any other institution, however, the press cannot be above criticism. Accordingly, let’s ask some clear-eyed questions.

In the context of newspapers, the “time ... we are living through” is an era of real skepticism about the news media, but that skepticism much predates the Trump presidency. According to Gallup polling, you have to go back to 1979 to find a year in which more than half of the public expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers. 

The situation is not all bad, however. Ironically, while public confidence in newspapers remains low, Gallup reported last June that the share of Americans with a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence jumped from just 20 percent in the last year of the Obama administration to 27 percent in the first part of the Trump administration in 2017. In fact, except for 2011, the public’s confidence in newspapers is higher under Trump than at any time during the Obama administration.

Similarly, a 2017 poll reported by Forbes found that:

Americans are increasingly willing to believe the news media is unbiased. Only once in the last fourteen years have more Americans believed in the media’s overall integrity—in 2013, 46% said the media tries to be unbiased.

This poll is also the latest evidence that despite Donald Trump’s repeated criticisms of the media, his presidency has reminded Americans of the value of journalism and a free press. Newspaper subscriptions have surged, and cable news ratings are at record highs. (Emphasis added.)

Notably, while Wittes writes darkly about the danger of Trump’s attacks on the press, these have not included actual restrictions on the free press. Last October, Joseph Kahn, the Timess managing editor, expressed wariness about Trump and warned against complacency but nevertheless said that he didn’t “currently think Donald Trump has done anything to fundamentally to restrain our ability to do the kinds of journalism that we want to do.”   

Recently the FBI seized email and phone metadata from a Times reporter who allegedly had a three-year relationship with the target of a leak investigation. Such probes, however, may simply be a continuation of what the Times called “ramped up investigations into journalists and their sources [begun] under President Barack Obama”—investigations that did not seem to deter Times reporters.

Reporters just don’t appear to be intimidated by Trump. Last year a Politico poll of the White House press corps found that “[w]hile 68 percent of them think Trump is the most openly anti-press president in U.S. history, 75 percent said they see Trump’s attacks against the media as more of a distraction than a threat. Forty-two percent said they think Trump offers about as much access to the press as previous presidents.”

In short, there is a case to be made that the media, including newspapers, have not fared badly under Trump.

So what are the pressures impinging upon the Times’s objectivity? A few months ago Andrew Pearson argued in an opinion column published in the Times—which described him as a “journalist and TV producer”—that the Vietnam War fundamentally changed the profession of journalism. He insists that “reporters today are doing a better job because they know about the evolution of that deception and what its effects have been on American society.” Pearson also said, however, that the war’s effects have put “too much stress ... on reporting the latest incremental turn in a story, especially regarding America’s current and brewing conflicts abroad.” According to Pearson, the “news media’s business model depends on it.” Although Pearson obviously intends his essay to be a paean to reporters in the national security space, it isn’t necessarily good news for the military. Specifically, is reporting about current and brewing conflicts abroad being driven by the “news media’s business model”? 

In some ways, the Trump victory has seemed to challenge the viability of the Times’s business model—while he in other ways has bolstered it. Consider advertising revenue in this context: In trying to explain why “Why Readers See the Times as Liberal,” Liz Spayd, then the Times’s public editor (a position the Times, strangely, eliminated in 2017), noted the “drumbeat of Hillary Clinton campaign ads on the website.” She said, “Even for me, who fully knows an ad from a news story, seeing Clinton’s smiling face when I’ve come to read the news can be rather jarring.”

What might have been jarring for the Times’s accountants is the fact that Trump won the election despite being outspent by Clinton two to one. There was no “drumbeat” of revenue-enhancing Trump ads on NYTimes.com. Instead, Trump’s victory was yet another highly visible piece of evidence that newspaper ads both in print and digitally often lack the utility they may have once enjoyed. Unsurprisingly, only a few weeks ago, the Times admitted it “saw a 6 percent decline in digital advertising revenue from the same period a year ago,” and print advertising fell 2 percent—and that came on top of the first quarter of 2017, when print advertising “slid by 18 percent from a year earlier.”

The Times acknowledges that “subscription revenue now accounts for 60 percent of the company’s total revenue.” Fortunately for the Times, subscriptions have been rising thanks, it appears at least in part, to Trump. Indeed, according to the Times’s Kahn, the “Trump presidency for the news business—literally the business—has been very good.” He added: “We call it the Trump bump. It's been good for the business that we're in which is basically a digital subscription business. He continues to pay dividends in that respect.”

The shift from advertising revenue to subscription revenue creates its own incentive structure. Because who are the subscribers the Times now depends upon? Spayd said this 2016: “A Pew Research Center survey two years ago found that liberals are flocking to The Times, with 65 percent of its readers possessing political values that were left of center.”

Does this dependence on left-of-center subscribers affect the Timess journalism?  Judge for yourself: Washington Times columnist Joseph Curl wrote about a video by the controversial right-wing Project Veritas that purports to show New York Times senior staff editor Des Shoe saying that “the conundrum is that a business model, in this time, is built on what the readers want.” After conceding that “a lot” of readers are “liberal,” Shoe says that the “main objective is to grab subscribers. You do that any way that you can.”

There are plenty of reasons to raise red flags given the video’s source (see here), but it does not appear that the New York Times challenged its validity. In its response to another Project Veritas video claiming to show a junior Times editor “mocking the idea of acting as an objective journalist,” the Times conceded that “it appears that a recent hire in a junior position violated our ethical standards and misrepresented his role.” The issue then is not so much about wanting to “grab subscribers”—any news organization does that—but, rather, the extent to which that effort might cloud objectivity.

If the Times “business model” does aim to “grab subscribers” as alleged, could that explain this analysis of the Times’s performance during the first 100 days of the Trump administration by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School? It showed that 87 percent of the Times’s news coverage of Trump was negative in tone. Reporting negative facts is the job of journalists, but isn’t employing a negative tone in news coverage drifting into editorializing? Even more disquieting, the Times’s “tone” rating was significantly higher than the negativity expressed by much of the rest of the news industry. Even at that early stage of the Trump presidency, the Shorenstein Center concluded, regarding the media in general, that “the sheer level of negative coverage gives weight to Trump’s contention, one shared by his core constituency, that the media are hell bent on destroying his presidency.”  

On the specific issue of the military and its efforts, at least one Times columnist seems to believe there is a bias problem. Last December, Ross Douthat observed that the U.S. had won a great victory over the Islamic State but that “nobody seemed to notice.” Douthat cited several reasons for the lack of attention but most interesting is this: “this is also a press failure, a case where the media is not adequately reporting an important success because it does not fit into the narrative of Trumpian disaster in which our journalistic entities are all invested.”

Like everyone else, reporters have their own biases, and reporters’ preconceptions appear to be significantly skewed in one direction. A 2014 Politico poll found that only 7 percent of journalists generally (not specific to the Times) identified themselves as Republicans. In April 2017 David Rutz of the Free Beacon reported a later Politico poll found there were three Republicans in White House press corps, but also said that “forty-five percent said their coverage was biased against Trump, while two percent said they were biased in his favor, and 53 percent said they were not biased either way.”

There may also be class issues that specifically affect coverage of the military. Robert Kaplan wrote an intriguing essay in 2004 about how class prejudice influences the media’s coverage of the military. He concluded that despite reporters embedding with the military, the “media still manifest a far more intimate—one might say incestuous—relationship with politicians, international diplomats, businesspeople, academics, and humanitarian-relief workers than with the U.S. military.” According to Kaplan, the reason is that these non-military groups occupy the same “elevated social and economic strata” as do members of the media.

In contrast, Kaplan suggests, the military occupies a “distinct cultural and economic” layer different from that of the media. He says that troops are “working class and slightly above: that vast, forgotten multitude of Americans, especially between the two cosmopolitan coasts.” The military is composed, he says, of “people who hunt, drive pickups, use profanity as an element of ordinary speech and yet have a simple, sure, demonstrative belief in the Almighty.’”

If Kaplan’s 2004 description—which comports with my observations from more than from three decades in the military—sound suspiciously like a lot of contemporary descriptions of Trump supporters, there is a reason for that. Not only did the military vote for Trump, Trump still “enjoys far stronger support among members of the military than the American public at large,” according to an October 2017 Military Times poll.  As another indication of the military’s continuing high regard for Trump, a very recent Rasmussen poll also shows that “as far as most active duty military personnel and veterans are concerned, President Trump is stronger than most recent presidents.”

Now ask yourself whether an organization whose business strategy seems to demand satiating readers hostile to all things Trump—and whose reporters might harbor similar views—can really be objective about the military that largely supports Trump and whose efforts to defeat the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria are delivering one of his administration’s most important achievements. Does it even want to?

I don’t know the party-affiliation breakdown for Times reporters, but the public will now have a much tougher time discerning their possible political bias. In October the newspaper issued strict social media guidelines that essentially prohibit journalists from expressing their personal political views even on their private social media accounts. Mathew Ingram’s scathing review of the restrictions (and similar ones issued by the Wall Street Journal) in the Columbia Journalism Review is well worth reading. Under the rules, readers are being denied the transparency they would need to judge for themselves whether a given reporter can cover the news in a credible manner. In evaluating the credibility of a news story—especially one with a negative “tone”—isn’t it a helpful data point to be informed by knowledge of the reporter’s political views?

What does all this mean for those interested in objective, informed and complete reportage of national security issues? Although the Times often reports news seriously and fairly, it is no longer the paper of record I once considered it to be, and not just regarding national security issues. It is unwise to depend upon only one news source, but there is something melancholy about how an iconic newspaper like the New York Times must be read with real skepticism, especially in, to use Wittes’s words, “a time like the one we are living through.” 

More importantly, however, I fear that our military may become collateral damage in a journalistic environment invested in a “narrative of Trumpian disaster.” Such a development would serve no one but America’s enemies, including those most bent on crushing the kind of free press that the U.S. military exists to help preserve.

Topics: