Over the weekend, the New York Times published an extensive and well-reported profile of the thinking behind the heinous immigration policy being orchestrated from the White House. It included plenty of quotes from an interview with JV white nationalist, and Senior Trump adviser, Stephen Miller. AdWeek’s tech editor reported that they declined to use the interview for a podcast with the reporters of the story at the urging of the White House.
This was the explanation from one of the reporters at the NYT, Julie Davis.
The Times quickly followed with a statement.
So Stephen Miller agreed to do an on-the-record interview, and some audio portions of that clip were not played because the White House objected to using the interview in that manner, even though they consented to a recorded interview. Former writer for the NYT, and the creator of FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver, put it bluntly.
It's impossible to state one way or the other whether this is a good decision, because you and I do not know what the Times gets out of acquiescing to this petty request. We can get an idea of what Stephen Miller and the White House receive out of it: avoiding bad press. It's one thing to read stories about evil, it's another thing to hear the horror. If you combine what was likely a flippant tone of voice by Miller (since he revels in playing the troll) with the heartbreaking audio clips from inside America's child concentration camps, you can create a pretty effective piece of emotional persuasion.
Stephen Miller and the rest of his racist cronies in the White House don't want you to feel sorry for these kids that they are actively separating from their parents. They can't win the battle on an empathetic level. They can only accomplish their final solution using fear. By refusing to broadcast an on-the-record audio clip that the White House didn't want released, the New York Times aided this agenda in a very small way. That does not mean it was their intent nor an endorsement of the policy—that's just the impact of their actions.
I can't imagine trying to accurately report from the inner workings of the Trump reality show that is our nation's capital. Any kind of reporting on those in power requires trade-offs, but getting an accurate read of whether those sacrifices are worth it must be impossibly difficult given that federal policy can change in the span of one Fox & Friends segment. But let's be clear: they're ceding ground to a man who deserves to be prosecuted at the Hague for crimes against humanity. Whatever access they get in return is unknowable for those of us who don't enjoy that kind of access, but it better be worth it.
The New York Times has done vital reporting in the Age of Trump, and sometimes their reporters get hit unfairly for how they treat our manchild-in-chief. This is not one of those times. It's understandable for the White House to object over an interview where the production of it was not completely clear, but that doesn't change the fact that they agreed to have their words documented. How they are documented is secondary to the importance of the story, and besides, it's not like this would be unprecedented. You think Mitt Romney would have tried to stop outlets from running his infamous 47% remark if he had the chance? Public officials should be publicly accountable for their words in public. The Times is backing away from that principle here—ever so slightly.
At the end of the day, this comes down to trust. The New York Times is not as trusted by the public as it once was. This is partially thanks to its sometimes ridiculous opinion page where “facts” are published that would never see the light of day in any of their other sections that truly value the concept of journalism. It’s also due to their sometimes-cozy relationship with Trump—although that issue has far from a black and white answer given the instability and pettiness of our president. However, the seemingly thousands of profiles of Trump voters where the NYT allows them to spew falsehoods and white nationalism, combined with its “Truth” ad campaign make the Times’ brand look more like a marketing shtick than an actual governing principle.
If the New York Times were not hemorrhaging our respect in plenty of other areas, perhaps they get the benefit of the doubt on this one. After all, they published a lot of heinous Stephen Miller quotes this weekend. The issue at the heart of this is presenting it as text or audio. The propagandists in the White House don’t want the audio out, which should be reason enough to get the audio out. Access journalism has become a dirty word in our modern age, and it’s because of instances like this—where we’re told that journalists monitoring those in power must abide by wishes of the powers that be in order to gain some amorphous and indescribable advantage. This is very much an “ends justify the means” argument put forth by the Times in order to ever-so-slightly advance the Trump administration’s agenda, and all we can do is hope that it’s worth it in the long run.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.