Dear Mr. Baquet,
It must first be said, before any negatives are noted, that the 2016 presidential election saw some truly remarkable examples of journalism. Tamara Keith’s NPR work covering Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street speech transcripts, Andrew Kaczynski’s and Nathan McDermott’s BuzzFeed News coverage of Donald Trump’s support of the Iraq War, and David Farenthold’s Washington Post coverage of the Trump Foundation all immediately spring to mind as pieces of important, accurate, and well-written examples of news reporting. Perhaps the greatest such story came out under your supervision at the New York Times, as a group of four reporters broke the story on Trump’s 18-year-long avoidance of paying taxes. In truth, it is hard to argue that there was any shortage of hard-hitting journalism. What can be argued, however, is that there were several patterns of problems that plagued the news coverage of the election cycle.
The first such problem that consistently stands out in my mind is the issue regarding what was an unnecessary balance in news coverage between the two candidates. Used properly, balance can be an important factor in a fair story. In the case of this election, however, the balance was unwarranted. While both candidates must be represented, it is ludicrous and patently unfair to believe that the two should have been granted equal coverage. Throughout the cycle, it seemed that every time a Trump story came out, it had to be accompanied by a Clinton story. Often, however, these Clinton stories were merely retreads or insignificant pieces of information. For instance, though the Clinton email scandal was a perfectly legitimate story and should have been covered, its constant retread was questionable, at best. Though Trump was leading the most successful internet campaign in history and making such bold statements as his claim that he would attack Iranian ships for rudely gesturing at American troops, the coverage never or rarely seemed to be truly weighted in his direction. This does not, however, have to be said with exclusively negative stories in mind. The balance between positive and negative stories was shockingly one-sided; Politico reported that in one 12-week period, 91% of Trump stories were negative, and Clinton was portrayed with consistent derision as far back as the primaries. Though the controversies regarding both candidates were legitimate and covered rightfully, the lack of focus on the more constructive aspects of both campaigns was unreasonable. Clinton’s steady shift to the left to appease the more progressive members of her party and Trump’s campaign path through key swing states were both topics worthy of a great deal more coverage than they received.
In truth, sometimes I could not help but feel like the only balance achieved was found when it was not needed. The sharpest example of this is found in policy. While Trump’s policies were flashier, they should not have been given precedent over Clinton’s points. However, as can be clearly seen through, for instance, the three debates, Trump’s shocking stances were focused upon while Clinton’s comparatively plain ideas were pushed to the side; in other words, border walls and immigration bans were more dramatic and less conventional topics than solar panels and income inequality reform. In this case, unlike what was discussed with scandals, a healthy dose of balance and equal representation is necessary to best inform the electorate.
The mishandled balance and unequal airtime played handily into another major dilemma of the election season. The election coverage seemed to frequently devolve into a horse-race aimed only at gawking, as the potential first female president took on the biggest political outsider since Lincoln. In this vein, countless back-and-forth stories emerged throughout the election, tilting the race repeatedly between the two candidates. Though the Access Hollywood tape of Trump’s lewd remarks was noteworthy and newsworthy, it did not require the hours of replays it received on broadcast news for weeks after its release. It was played constantly without new analysis, however, because it was flooring and it ratcheted up the stakes. Similar stories plagued Clinton’s campaign. For instance, her case of pneumonia was only truly worth discussing as it pertained to her seemingly attempting to conceal it. The infamous clip of her stumbling on the way to her motorcade was played far too many times for the minimal insight it provided; it does not strike me as relevant that elderly people become lightheaded when they have a chest cold. Even more inexcusable was the mainstream media’s handling of the letter sent by James Comey on October 28. In this case, The Times was not exempt from involvement. On the day the letter was released, five articles were published that discussed the issue. By the next day, this number jumped to 12. Within a week, it spiked to 62. Frankly, this is an unnecessary amount of coverage to give to what was only a story about Anthony Weiner, especially when it is remembered that Comey claimed there might be no significant development from this. This election-changing revelation came about at a time when Clinton was far ahead in the polls; FiveThirtyEight gave her a conservative 90% chance of victory. When such injustices as Bret Baier’s claim of a reopened case hit the airwaves, the polls immediately could be seen tightening, something that undoubtedly pushed more people towards media consumption.
On a very different note, it must be said that the blame for imperfect media coverage of the election is not entirely the fault of the mainstream media. 2016 finds the world in a curious and new place, and, more than ever before, news consumers have a say in the news being produced. Thanks to social media, it is easier than ever before to have your voice heard by the masses. When looking at firsthand evidence of police brutality or France’s #PorteOuverte, I can’t help but find it difficult to flatly condemn social media for its impacts. I will say, however, that it has enabled a large portion of the population to be less receptive to the truth. The “fake news” phenomenon is the epitome of this; people are being fed blatant misinformation and care too little to find more reputable sources. There are, however, more restrained examples. Simply put, media consumers can create an informational echo chamber with minimal effort. A liberal can watch MSNBC, read Huffington Post, and follow Rachel Maddow’s Twitter. A conservative can read Breitbart, watch Fox, and revel in Sean Hannity’s opinions (a term I use in place of something more professional only because he does not self-identify as a journalist). I cannot claim exemption on this front. In the interest of full disclosure, though I balance my intake of media from various reputable sources, I rely most heavily upon the New York Times and the Washington Post, neither of which are likely to often expose me to blistering conservative opinion pieces. On Twitter, I follow several liberal commentator. Twice weekly, I tune into “Keepin’ it 1600,” a political podcast hosted by former Obama administration speechwriters. Though I would like to think that my knowledge of the harmful effects of exposure to biased beliefs protects me from falling into the ignorance associated with ones-sidedness, I cannot be sure even of that. The media climate is currently too volatile and easily manipulated to allow even influencers such as yourself, Mr. Baquet, to truly fix the problems at hand.
If you’ll bear with me for a moment, I would like to present a brief hypothetical scenario. For the sake of argument, let us say that tomorrow, you publish an article in which you repent for your paper’s multiple recent mistakes, acknowledge its innumerable successes, and lay out a clear and indisputable plan to improve your journalistic practices. Beyond that, let us also say that somehow, through impossible coincidence, Martin Baron, Jeff Zucker, Bill Shine, Jack Abernathy, and Gerald Baker all decided to take similar steps. Even in this scenario where journalists unnecessarily kowtow to the public in hopes of bettering the state of American reporting, the problems at hand would not be solved. News consumers would have no more inclination to improve the landscape of journalism than they do now. Ultimately, these problems are not exclusively the results of the major media corporations. The problems belong to the American electorate as well, and until we reach a time when news producers and news consumers can stand hand-in-hand and look forward together at a better tomorrow, these problems won’t be solved. With that in mind, I humbly offer my sincerest gratitude for your time and for the efforts being made on your part, Mr. Baquet, and I look forward to the day when we, as conscientious Americans, can come together to improve the state of journalism in this country.
Robert C. Wenner