The editor of the New York Times said an interesting thing the other day: He doesn’t do the front page.
“I don’t lay out the page. I don’t pick the front-page stories,” Dean Baquet, lead editor of the paper, told the Columbia Journalism Review after his paper changed a headline Monday night because reporting neutrally about President Trump for even five words isn’t allowed anymore.
I know some people who edit New York newspapers for a living and I’m pretty sure they not only write front-page headlines, they dream front-page headlines. The front-page headline is the face of the newspaper, whether it’s running in print or online. Granted, Baquet has a lot on his plate. But the front-page headline is the main course.
So who does edit the front page? The mob, apparently. Baquet is fortunate in that there are a lot of volunteers out there willing to do his job for nothing. Nate Silver, the former Times blogger-turned-Resistance pundit, came out against the Times on Twitter when it ran the unexceptionable headline “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM.” I say “unexceptionable” because the lead story was about a speech in which the president did, in fact, urge unity against racism.
Nevertheless, a Twitter campaign mounted, with thousands of keyboard warriors riling themselves up with the #CancelNYT hashtag.
So the Times caved and changed the headline to “ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS.” Trump’s speech was supposed to assail guns? “Curse you, inanimate objects!”
There should probably be at least one small corner of the media devoted to opinion-untainted reporting of the facts, a k a, “the news.” A good test for whether you are writing news or opinion is the following: Can the reader guess which way the writer voted? Don’t laugh: There used to be such reporting. Nowadays you can’t even find it at the Associated Press.
The Times’ policy since forever was to surround the main news stories with “news analysis,” i.e., barely disguised opinion columns, just so you’d know not just the facts but what to think about them. The Times did so again, in its Monday night package on Trump’s speech. Its reporters offered opinions like “Mr. Trump is ill-equipped to provide the kind of unifying, healing force that other presidents projected in times of national tragedy.”
So there was plenty for Trump haters to feast on, right there on the front page. Somehow this isn’t enough anymore. Contempt, ridicule, mistrust and disgust with everything Trump says or does has to be right there in the headline, even if there is only room for five words.
If the Times proved that it’s in the tank for Donald J. Trump by running the entirely accurate headline “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM,” the memo didn’t make it over to the Opinion section, where we were offered a vast panoply of takes ranging from “When the President Is a Bigot, the Poison Spreads” (Susan E. Rice) to “This Is What Happens When Our Leader Normalizes Hate” (Janet Murguia) to my favorite, “Trump Is A White Nationalist Who Inspires Terrorism” (the Spinal Tap of columnists, Michelle Goldberg, who never fails to dial it up to 11).
Two years ago, Times reporter David Sanger noted, “The biggest single mistake we could do in navigating our coverage of the Trump administration would be to let ourselves become the resistance to the government in place.” If so, the Times should tell Resistance Twitter to stuff it instead of inviting it to rewrite the front page.