The state of our nation and the state of our president have all but passed the point of rescue, but the press, in misguided pursuit of objectivity and led by the New York Times, still “bothsides” its coverage. Make no mistake: This too is bias, and though it’s not nearly as corrosive to democracy as the Trump administration, it distorts and accelerates that corrosion—all in the name of neutrality, no less.
Little has changed in 2018. The Gray Lady—a Times sobriquet originally meant to invoke respect—has over the last few years revealed herself as a crotchety old biddy, clinging like a trailer-park Trumper to antiquated values that don’t reflect the world as it is, and really never did in the first place.
The job of reporters (not opinion writers or analysts) is to present objective, fact-based journalism and not favor one candidate or point of view over another. But the U.S. press—and the Times in particular—has allowed personal biases not just to slip in to their headlines and reporting, but to govern their philosophy. They have treated the objectively terrible Donald Trump—who says and does objectively terrible things toxic to the very democracy that makes the free press possible—with the clinical detachment of scientists observing a lab specimen. What do primatologists do, though, when a chimp attacks them?
At some point in the production of any piece, reporters and editorial staff must make subjective decisions. They have a duty to reflect the truth as best they see it, not to stack the deck, and to respect the votes and platforms of people on both sides of this divide. Often, Times editors admit when they get it wrong, and as this Twitter account documents so well, they’ll revise headlines and abstracts. But the problem today is deeper than revising individual pieces: Journalists must revise their entire code, and recalibrate the metrics for what constitutes “the truth.” This isn’t because they’re getting it wrong more frequently, it’s because we’re being lied to more frequently. As cognitive scientist and propaganda expert George Lakoff recently pointed out (not in the New York Times) “Trump needs the media, and the media help him by repeating what he says.” In other words, we’re being lied to, but we don’t need to live that lie. And the first step is to not repeat it.
Here, then, in no particular order, are the 17 most atrocious New York Times headlines from 2018—a most atrocious year.
1. Wisconsin Republicans Defiantly ‘Stand Like Bedrock’ in the Face of Democratic Wins.
Not just whitewashing here, but outright lionizing the GOP’s heinous voter suppression and deeply partisan gerrymandering, and refusing to even acknowledge their questionably legal antidemocratic tactics, let alone change them. The Times got dragged so hard for this that they almost immediately changed it: Wisconsin Republicans Defiantly Move to Limit the Power of Incoming Democrats.
2. Body Believed to Be That of Mollie Tibet’s, Iowa College Student, Is Found After Undocumented Immigrant’s Arrest.
As Paste’s Shane Ryan pointed out, there’s literally no reason this story would have been national news if it weren’t for the right-wing sensationalism. From his piece:
So why is the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa college student whose body was found Tuesday morning approximately one month after she went missing, being covered by the New York Times, Washington Post, and any number of mainstream national media outlets?
The actual answer is that Tibbetts was murdered by an undocumented immigrant, and her story has been pushed with breathless fervor by the right wing in America—up to and including President Trump himself—with the aim of promoting an anti-immigrant agenda and, in this special case, detracting attention from the very bad news surrounding the administration….
What’s disheartening is how easily the American right has commandeered the narrative and essentially forced national media outlets like the Times and Post to cover these stories in a straight news fashion—without highlighting or sometimes even mentioning the reason they’re covering the story—and thereby amplifying the right’s racial agenda.
The Times eventually changed this headline.
3. In Era of Trump, Incivility Spreads in a Divided Nation.
A paragon of the media both-sidesism that gives credence to the right wing’s false equivalency: shooting up synagogues, mailing bombs to political and media figures, and beating the crap out of random people on the street = telling the Press Secretary she’s not welcome at a high-end restaurant. The MAGA movement, with Trump at the fore, is wholly responsible for this mess. Eventually the Times got pressured into fixing this one themselves: In Trump’s America, the Conversation Turns Ugly and Angry, Starting at the Top.
Case in point:
4. Proud Boys Founder: How He Went From Brooklyn Hipster to Far-Right Provocateur.
The Times ran this puff piece on Gavin McInnes who a few days prior had, wielding a sword, led his gaggle of angry right-wing losers on a rampage through the streets of New York, pummeling people at random. The Times released a new video of the assault just a few days ago. Good headline: “Proud Boys Founder: The Banal Story of A Racist Loser Who, Wielding Cosplay Sword, Just Led a Gang of Flying Right-Wing Racist Loser Monkeys in Aimless Manhattan Beat-Down Rampage, Presumably Because He Can’t Get The Respect of His Peers—or Laid—Because He’s the Kind of Racist Loser Who Would Wield A Cosplay Sword and Lead A Right-Wing Gang of Flying Right-Wing Racist Loser Monkeys in Aimless Manhattan Beat-Down Rampage.”
5. The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism, and How We Missed It.
Exactly who is “we,” here? Not me, and certainly not the countless victims of right-wing extremist attacks in America. But given that Gavin McInnes headline, we can at least understand why the Times missed it. After net-wide backlash, the paper changed the headline.
6. Trump Says Republican Memo ‘Totally Vindicates.’
An example of the NYT’s award-winning stenography. True, Trump said this, but his claim, unchallenged here, is false. This header gets at the core problem with these “Trump says” pieces: This can’t be a neutral claim. The memo either vindicates him or it doesn’t. And regardless of whatever merit you might find in the memo, it by no stretch “totally vindicates” the man. The memo, released with Trump’s approval by the GOP-led House Intelligence Committee, was an attempt to discredit the initial justification for the Russia investigation as relying too much on the unverified Steele dossier (much of which has indeed been verified). The GOP Wile E. Coyote’d their own argument, though, because they unavoidably also had to note that the initial FISA warrant applications also depended on information the FBI had acquired about Trump adviser George Papadopoulos, which was the inciting incident for the investigation and which predated the dossier. Fix: GOP Memo Vindicates Legitimacy of Russia Investigation; Trump Baselessly Contradicts.
7. North Carolina’s ‘Guru of Elections’: Can-Do Operator Who May Have Done Too Much.
The “Guru” in this profile almost certainly committed unprecedented election fraud, and might have changed the outcome, by suppressing the black vote. Fix: This North Carolina Election Official Suppressed the Black Vote, Now He’s Under Investigation for Systematic Voter Fraud
8. With Outsize Influence, Black Voters Are Ready to Make Themselves Heard.
Outsize influence? This voting bloc has been the most frequently targeted for voter suppression in American history, and that hasn’t changed. The paper fixed this one on its own: Black Voters, a Force in Democratic Politics, Are Ready to Make Themselves Heard.
9. Trump Says Payment to Stormy Daniels Did Not Violate Campaign Finance Laws.
An excellent example of unchecked “Trump says” stenography that makes me wonder whether there really would be much difference if artificial intelligence bots started writing these things. Maybe they already do. Federal prosecutors have since fixed this one.
10. Everything I’ve Done Is 100% Proper, Trump Says of Russia Inquiry.
Another “Trump says” bullhorn. This simply isn’t true, but in uncritically publishing this headline, the paper legitimizes Trump’s line. Fix: Despite Ongoing Attempts to Influence Russia Investigation, Trump Claims “Everything I’ve Done Is 100% Proper.”
11. Newly Emboldened, Trump Says What He Really Feels.
I mean, come on. Fixed: Trump Still Spewing Vituperative Bullshit All The F***ing Time.
12. Eight Bullets Struck Sacramento Man as He Faced Away.
This headline reports the murder of Stephon Clark, the black man Sacramento police shot to death because he was holding a cell phone they implausibly mistook for a gun. But the bullets didn’t jump unbidden out of gun barrels and punch Clark. The Sacramento police shot him in the back. Also, he was black. Also, he was unarmed. Fix: Sacramento Police Shot Unarmed Black Man Eight Times in The Back.
13. Erdogan’s Victory in Turkey Election Expands His Powers.
It’s not just domestic stuff. The Times hasn’t significantly challenged or exposed the creep of authoritarianism around the world. Erdogan didn’t just “expand his powers” here. This election was a tyrannical consolidation, and the result—his victory—was a blow to the country’s hopes for restoring even-handed democracy. Fix: Erdogan’s Victory in Turkey Election Augurs Ascent of Authoritarian Regime.
14. “They Don’t Really Want Us to Vote”: How Republicans Made It Harder.
Harder for whom, exactly? The problem of Republicans suppressing minority votes is so toxic for a functioning democracy that we need the whole truth here, and always. Also, they’re still doing this. It hasn’t stopped, as the headline implies. Easy fix: “They Don’t Really Want Us to Vote”: How Republicans Suppress Minorities at The Polls
15. Rod Rosenstein Suggested Secretly Recording Trump and Discussed 25th Amendment.
This headline for this unmitigated smear of Rod Rosenstein repeats this claim as fact. The reporter—Mike Schmidt—knew who leaked the story, and therefore knew the purpose of the leak was to attack Rosenstein, but the headline doesn’t account for any doubts about the veracity or intent of the leak. This is a common theme among stories about the Mueller investigation: All the leaks come from Trump’s side, and reporters, who know this, have a duty to attribute them responsibly and make the agenda clear. As for this one, the Washington Post almost immediately printed a responsible rejoinder that complicated the story. Fix: DOJ Source Says Rod Rosenstein Suggested Secretly Recording Trump and Discussed 25th Amendment.
But here’s the reverse…
16. Roger Stone Sold Himself to Trump’s Campaign as a WikiLeaks Pipeline. Was He?
This headline takes the opposite approach to the Rosenstein smear and, believe it or not, actually challenges a third-party claim about the investigation. The problem? The facts don’t merit the challenge, which infuses the story—a negative one about a Trump associate—with a measure of doubt. In the actual article, it’s clear to the authors—including Trump enablers Maggie Haberman and Mike Schmidt—that Stone did in fact predict WikiLeaks releases in emails with Steve Bannon. This is far from reasonable doubt, and it doesn’t merit a challenge to Stone’s claim in the headline. The result? Headlines about the Mueller investigation almost always benefit the Trump team. Fixed: Roger Stone Sold Himself to Trump’s Campaign as a WikiLeaks Pipeline.
And last but not least…
17. Trump Says Newspapers Are ‘in Collusion.’
Well, never mind. They might be.