The NYT Public Editor Repeats the Flaw in Their Clinton Foundation Coverage

Over the weekend, the Public Editor of the New York Times, Liz Spayd, wrote about the criticisms of that publication’s coverage of the Clinton Foundation. But instead of addressing the issues raised by people like Paul Glastris, Paul Krugman and myself, she perpetuated them.

In the case of the Clinton Foundation, The Times started with a legitimate issue: did the former secretary of state give improper access to foreign countries that donated tens of millions of dollars to her family foundation? That’s a question voters deserve to have answered. In fact, reporting by The Times and others has turned up so many potential conflicts that the foundation decided to stop accepting foreign government funding if Clinton becomes president.

As we have repeated over and over again, we agree…those are questions that voters deserve to have answered. Notice that Spayd refers to “potential conflicts.” The NYT editorial she links to begins with this:

Does the new batch of previously undisclosed State Department emails prove that big-money donors to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation got special favors from Mrs. Clinton while she was secretary of state?

Not so far, but that the question arises yet again points to a need for major changes at the foundation now, before the November election.

We have an admission that the investigations into the foundation haven’t shown any special favors for donors…”so far.” But the mere fact that the questions arise suggest the need for changes because of “potential conflicts.” Could there be any better example of what we mean by “merchants of doubt?” In the end, did the NYT provide the answers that voters deserve or did they simply provide innuendo?

But Spayd goes on to say something that is equally telling about the perspective of the NYT in response to these critiques. A lot of them have focused on the problem of a “false balance” in the coverage of Clinton and Trump.

The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates…

I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance, given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates.

That echoes the differences that were discussed by former NYT executive editor Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald on the role journalism. Spayed is assuming that the NYT coverage of the Clinton Foundation was devoid of “ideological motives” and was therefore a matter of objective journalism, whereas the critics were influenced by their “support of liberal causes and candidates.”

What is interesting is that, rather than defend his commitment to the fact that we all approach things from a subjective viewpoint, Greenwald employs exactly the same argument against Krugman.

It should be the opposite of surprising, or revealing, that pundits loyally devoted to a particular candidate dislike all reporting that reflects negatively on that candidate. There is probably no more die-hard Clinton loyalist in the U.S. media than Paul Krugman…

The absolute last metric journalists should use for determining what to cover is the reaction of pundits who, like Krugman and plenty of others, are singularly devoted to the election of one of the candidates.

Both Spayd and Greenwald agree that when one is open about their subjective viewpoint, their opinions should be dismissed as simply a defense of that perspective. That poses a pretty big problem, because I happen to agree with what Greenwald said about that.

The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers.

This raises an extremely important question: Do our subjective assumptions preclude us from dealing with facts? For example, does Paul Krugman’s support for Hillary Clinton blind him so severely that his critiques should be dismissed? And if everyone operates from their own subjective assumptions, can we believe anything that anyone says?

I would propose to you that the entire basis for Fox News rests on those premises. Sure, they adopted the tag line about being “fair and balanced.” But they don’t really make any effort to conceal the idea that they are the conservative alternative to the liberal New York Times. If everyone is operating from their own subjective bias then the news is all narrative devoid of facts. That is what both Greenwald and Spayd are suggesting about people like Paul Krugman. The one difference is that Spayd assumes that there is the ability to approach all of this objectively without any bias.

But the answer to all of this is not to pretend objectivity. It is to challenge the idea that subjectivity robs everyone of the ability to wrestle with the facts. It is true that it is difficult to do so unless we are able to hold our opinions with a sense of uncertainty that can be disrupted by facts when the two collide. To bring this back to where we started, if I have a bias against Hillary Clinton, can I allow the facts that have surfaced in these investigations to lead me to the conclusion that no special favors to foundation donors have been uncovered? Based on what Spayd wrote, that seems to be a bridge too far for the NYT.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.