It must be frustrating for The New York Times to do such exceptional journalism (for instance, here and here) and then to get beaten up mercilessly on social media because of its handling of a routine story. It’s a reminder that, of course, there’s really no such thing as a routine story, especially if you live in the middle of a political maelstrom, as the Times does every day.
The Times is catching some heat for its headlining and framing of a Wednesday story about contact between the Ukraine whistleblower and Congressman Adam Schiff. Some supporters of President Trump, who likely would have done this no matter how the story was presented, are distorting the article as evidence of collusion between the whistleblower and Schiff.
This unfairness aside, there’s no question the Times is having a real bad run lately. It has gotten justified public criticism for, among other things:
- A Sunday Review story about a book written by two Times reporters on Brett Kavanaugh. The story omitted facts reported in the book that lessened the credibility of a new sexual assault accusation against Kavanaugh. The Times compounded matters with a promotional tweet that described an act of sexual assault as “harmless fun.”
- The childish public reaction by a Times opinion writer to a reader’s social media insult, including a complaint made to the reader’s boss.
- An unquestioning, stenographic headline on a story about President Trump’s nationally televised remarks on racism following mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso. The headline had to be changed between editions.
- An anti-Semitic cartoon that appeared in the Times’ international edition
But the scorn, and the Twitter hashtag #CancelNYT, skyrocketed when the Times published some details regarding the identity of the Ukraine whistleblower. (Birmingham connection: The lead byline on the first version of the story belonged to former Birmingham News reporter Adam Goldman.) The Times reported that the whistleblower is a CIA officer who had been assigned to the White House but was no longer there. It also used the male pronoun. Critics claimed the Times acted recklessly, jeopardizing the anonymity and therefore the safety of the individual, as well as spooking possible future whistleblowers. Philadelphia Inquirer national opinion columnist Will Bunch (another former Birmingham News reporter) repeated his call for Times executive editor Dean Baquet to resign.
The Times countered that the revelations were limited and that the White House already knew the person worked for the CIA. Indeed, as I write this more than a week later, the public still does not know the identity of the whistleblower, though Trump loyalists are dearly trying to find out. Further, the Times argued, the information was relevant because it helps the public assess the person’s basis of knowledge and therefore his credibility. The Times said his employment by a nonpolitical agency was made relevant by Trump’s claim that the person’s actions were “a political hack job.” And the inspector general’s office for the intelligence community concluded the whistleblower had “arguable political bias.”
The Times’ logic would be slam-dunk persuasive had there been more of an information vacuum about the whistleblower’s complaint. But a lot of key points needed to decide how much legitimacy to accord to his account were already known: The whistleblower got his information about Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president second hand. But more notably, his account had already earned credibility because the inspector general deemed it so, and it also impressively matched the approximate recounting of the phone call released by the White House. So how much more did we really need to know about the whistleblower?
It’s a good argument against the Times’ disclosures. But I believe, as the Times did, that on matters of such importance, with credibility so essential to public evaluation, that more facts make better civics. To suggest that the public already knew enough about the whistleblower to invalidate the Times’ decision to publish more runs counter to journalistic principles. I would, though, as the Times believes it did, stop short of revelations that could put the whistleblower’s peace and safety at risk.
While I argue for the relevance of measures of credibility, I argue the contrary regarding evidence of the whistleblower’s political bias. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the truth of his account. It’s a parallel to reporters and sources. A reporter should always be mindful of a source’s possible political agenda, but in the end truth renders it irrelevant.
Which brings up an odd twist in this episode: If the whistleblower had become a New York Times anonymous source instead of going through internal government channels, the Times would be aghast at cracks in confidentiality.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog. About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.