The New York Times Has Learned Nothing From Its Disastrous Coverage of the 2016 Election

The Grey Lady seems bent on repeating her most egregious mistakes this November.

Photo Credit: Erika Cross / Shutterstock

In a foreboding sign for New York Times readers, the paper has named one of the pillars of its 2016 campaign coverage to oversee its political coverage leading into the crucial 2018 and 2020 elections. The paper drew criticism during and following the 2016 presidential campaign for too often providing false equivalence between the candidates and focusing on the politics of personality rather than policy.

The Times editors announced Patrick Healy as the paper’s new politics editor in a March 5 memo. He will be responsible for “building a team for the midterms and the looming 2020 presidential election” in order to cover the “epic battle” ahead.

At the Times, Healy has alternated between political reporting -- including extensive coverage of Hillary Clinton’s Senate and presidential campaigns -- and stints on the paper’s culture desk. His resume includes drawing false equivalencies between Clinton and Donald Trump, obsessively fixating on Hillary and Bill Clinton’s relationship, and coining the sexist term “the Clinton Cackle” to describe Hillary Clinton’s laugh.

I know what you’re thinking. Media Matters is criticizing the Times for its coverage of Hillary Clinton and the 2016 election again. Yes, we are. And it annoys me too.

We extensively chronicled the inaccurate, sexist, gossipy, and disproportionate criticism that journalists at major news outlets, particularly at the Times, provided Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. At times, that work drew groans and sneers from those who viewed us as Clinton shills.

But toward the end of the campaign, other journalists and pundits began pointing out deep flaws in the coverage of the race. And in the months since Trump was elected, researchers published studies at Harvard University and Columbia Journalism Review that detailed how excessive coverage by the Times and other outlets of relatively minor issues surrounding the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server created a false impression that those issues were equivalent to Trump’s panoply of scandals, while also drowning out discussion of policy differences between the candidates.

Meanwhile, as women came forward alleging sexual misconduct by leading lights of political journalism, a new conversation began about how sexism in journalism impacted coverage of Clinton during the election.

Frankly, I’d love nothing more than not to revisit the media’s coverage of the 2016 election. The Clinton era in American politics is over (Hannity's nightly show aside), and I’d just as soon move on to covering new topics. But it's impossible to do so when the newspaper of record remains convinced that it did nothing wrong during that campaign, setting itself up to repeat the same mistakes.

The paper’s editors “seem to resist the very idea that they have anything to re-examine in their approach to the 2016 campaign,” The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote in September. Other Times moves since the election indicate that the paper’s leaders are concerned only with criticism from conservatives.

The promotion of Healy -- whose political reporting at the paper has revolved around Clinton -- suggests that the paper is completely comfortable with its coverage of the 2016 election and its treatment of the former secretary of state.

A review of Healy’s work reveals evidence of nearly every criticism one can imagine being made of the Times’ coverage.

False equivalence? Read Healy’s contributions to the Times’ obsessive coverage of Clinton’s email server in the waning days of the campaign. “In just six days,” two researchers wrote in Columbia Journalism Review after reviewing the paper’s coverage, “The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”

Casual sexism? Healy started a media whirlwind when he launched the term “the Clinton Cackle” with an over 900-word account on her laugh, writing that Clinton appeared to deploy her chuckle in a “particularly calculated” manner. By coining a “pretty damn gender-specific” term, journalist Rachel Sklar wrote, Healy had produced “a hit piece masquerading as analysis.”

Gossipy trash? Check out Healy’s 2,000-word investigation (for which he spoke to “some 50 people”) into how many days the Clintons spent together over a 17-month period, complete with a reference to a “tabloid photograph” Healy suggested pointed to a Bill Clinton affair. Healy later acknowledged that the amount of time they spend together is “pretty similar” to that of other congressional families. And the Times public editor wrote that the part of the story referencing the tabloid photo belonged “in the trash can.”

Favorable misreading of Trump? Healy’s widely-panned (and subsequently rewritten) report presented a Trump speech in Mexico as “an audacious attempt ... to remake his image on the divisive issue of immigration,” leading the paper’s public editor to investigate why so many readers thought the piece “looked like a significant misportrayal of events.”

Bizarre optics obsession? Peruse Healy’s take on Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. The paper’s public editor criticized Healy’s piece for its “jarring, sexualized top” in an article titled “A Convention Speech, Not a Bodice Ripper.”

Banal “both-sides” reporting? Try his story on the candidates’ transparency around health records. Its premise was that both “have been more secretive and selective than many recent presidential nominees in providing up-to-date details about their personal health,” even though the piece acknowledged Clinton had provided significantly more information.

Focus on personality over policy? Columbia Journalism Review literally described one Healy piece as “so high school.”

Stenography? Healy’s most recent piece on Trump featured him calling the then-president elect, asking his reaction to actor Meryl Streep’s criticism for mocking a Times reporter’s disability, then writing up Trump’s denial rather than pointing out Trump was lying.

I could go on and on. And apparently I have to, because the Times is woefully uninterested in interrogating where its coverage has gone wrong in the past and trying to improve it as the 2018 congressional race moves forward and the 2020 presidential elections loom


Matt Gertz is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America.

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