If you think President-elect Trump has been a master of the non-apology apology during the 2016 campaign, you should get a load of the letter just sent to subscribers by New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. In the aftermath of an election cycle in which The Times and other Mainstream Media outlets rightly saw their credibility with Americans sink to all time lows due to their indisputable and nearly unremitting bias against both Mr. Trump and the insurgency he led, Sulzberger walked right up to the line of acknowledging his newspaper’s failings – but declined to cross it.
Just to remind: In August, Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg reported that journalists throughout the country – including presumably at his own newspaper – had decided that Trump’s unconventional nature justified abandoning the notions of balance that in post-Yellow Journalism times have lain at the heart of reliable and honest hard news coverage.
Indeed, his piece quoted a colleague – The Times‘ senior editor for politics – as stating that “copious and aggressive coverage” was justified not only by the cloud of personal scandal trailing Trump, but because he had expressed “warmth toward one of our most mischievous and menacing adversaries,” and proposed “to rethink the alliances that have guided our foreign policy for 60 years….”
Further, Times reporter John J. Harwood has been exposed by Wikileaks as an unmistakable cheerleader for Trump’s Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, and a scornful foe of the new president-elect’s. Wikileaks also published emails revealing that yet another Times journalist – political correspondent Maggie Haberman – was viewed as a reliable “surrogate” by the Clinton campaign in her previous job as a reporter for Politico.
So the paper – along with the rest of the Mainstream Media – unquestionably has a lot to apologize for. But Sulzberger’s letter avoided any of these specifics. At one point, in fact, he wrote that “We believe we reported on both candidates fairly during the presidential campaign.” Yet before that, he presented this enigmatic statement:
“As we reflect on this week’s momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you. It is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly.”
But logically, in the process, Sulzbergery raised the question of why a rededication to The Times‘ fundamental mission is needed in the first place if the paper had always been carrying it out.
Sulzberger closed his letter by observing that “We cannot deliver the independent, original journalism for which we are known without the loyalty of our subscribers.” In that vein, it’s awfully interesting that The Times just reported its third quarter profits, and that they were down 96 percent year-on-year. That is, they practically disappeared. And the finances of the rest of the mainstream print media are awfully fragile these days as well.
Declining credibility among readers certainly isn’t the only reason – news outlets have long been struggling with creating a digital model that actually makes money, even as their hard copy revenues keep sinking. But given that the media’s success ultimately relies on its perceived integrity, honestly admitting its atrocious performance over the last 18 months looks like both the right step to take ethically, and an urgently needed business decision.