In the world of news, cable hits are an eagerly-sought commodity. Reporters love them, because they’re a great opportunity to get some face time with the public and promote their work—plus there’s the potential to land that sweetest of all gigs, becoming a regular (and paid) contributor. Media outlets also love them, as an appearance on a well-known show can generate a lot of free publicity—not a bad thing in a cutthroat business where the competition is fierce and the profit margins are shrinking.
Accordingly, it’s almost unheard of for any news organization to turn down a television guest spot when offered—and yet that’s exactly what happened when MSNBC came calling with a chance to appear in their prime time lineup. The kicker? The spurning object of affection turned out to be none other than the Newspaper of Record:
On Sunday, May 19, New York Times finance editor David Enrich got a request from a producer at MSNBC to appear on Rachel Maddow’s show the following night. Enrich had a red-hot front-page story for Monday’s paper, about anti-money-laundering specialists at Deutsche Bank flagging suspicious transactions involving Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, and Maddow wanted to bring him on air to talk about it.
Enrich said yes, but after mentioning the planned appearance to the Times’s communications department, he was told he would have to retroactively decline. The reason? The Times was wary of how viewers might perceive a down-the-middle journalist like Enrich talking politics with a mega-ideological host like Maddow.
It’s not just Maddow. The Times has come to “prefer,” as sources put it, that its reporters steer clear of any cable-news shows that the masthead perceives as too partisan, and managers have lately been advising people not to go on what they see as highly opinionated programs. It’s not clear how many shows fall under that umbrella in the eyes of Times brass, but two others that definitely do are Lawrence O’Donnell’s and Don Lemon’s, according to people familiar with management’s thinking.
As Keanu Reeves might say, “Whoa.”
[E]xecutive editor Dean Baquet has felt that opinionated cable-news show are getting, well, even more opinionated. Baquet and other managers have become increasingly concerned that if a Times reporter were to go on one of these shows, his or her appearance could be perceived as being aligned with that show’s political leanings. “He thinks it’s a real issue,” one of my Times sources said. “Their view,” said another, “is that, intentionally or not, it affiliates the Times reporter with a bias.”
Did the Times managers figure this out all by themselves? Or did they come to that conclusion after meeting with the Bobs? Either way, it’s one heck of a breakthrough—especially when you consider that self-reflection isn’t exactly a strong suit with most of the national news media.
Even so, I’m not quite certain Baquet and his posse are correct in their thinking here. Reporters can appear on an opinionated show without being tainted by the host’s bias—provided they don’t nod in tacit agreement like some bobblehead whenever the host spouts off a Vesuvian-level hot take on whatever the outrage du jour happens to be. They can even do battle with the host if they so choose.
With the Times, however, the problem isn’t so much that their reporters would appear biased by guesting with Maddow or Lemon; it’s more that being on these shows would confirm their bias, as everyone already knows in which political direction the New York Times firmly leans.
The perception of the Times as a liberal newspaper is well established, and for a very good reason: they’re very liberal. Their editorial board is hard left. Their newsroom is paralyzed by hard left groupthink. Their “straight” news coverage is anything but, with opinion masquerading as objective reporting splashed across the front page every day. In that respect, the appearance of bias is a reflection of reality—and if Baquet is truly worried about that, he needs to look a little closer to home to fix the problem.