Botched New York Times Headline Prompts Yet Another Conversation About Covering Trump

The New York Times received intense criticism on Monday night for a front page headline about President Trump’s response to two horrific mass shootings which happened over the weekend. The headline read: “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.”

After a preview of the front page was shared on Twitter just hours before the next day’s edition had been finalized, several journalists, media critics and readers criticized the Times for failing to contextualize Trump’s comments with his history of stoking racial tensions.

“This is the ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ of racism,” tweeted Jamil Smith, a senior writer at Rolling Stone, referencing an infamous headline gaffe which incorrectly reported the results of the 1948 presidential election. Meanwhile, others slammed the headline for contradicting the nuanced reporting it referenced and said they had heard private complaints from Times reporters who blamed executive editor Dean Baquet for the inaccurate framing.

Will Bunch, a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, went a step further and called on Baquet to resign. “America’s top paper needs a leader who understands the grave threat this nation is facing,” Bunch tweeted.

In a televised statement given on Monday, Trump denounced white supremacy and said such ideologies “must be defeated.” However, prior to the midterm elections last November, Trump repeatedly warned of an “invasion” of migrants at the southern border. And during a campaign rally in May, when a rally goer suggested shooting immigrants, Trump made a joke while thousands of supporters cheered him on. 

After federal law enforcement officials confirmed that the gunman who killed at least 22 people in El Paso, Texas on Saturday had published a 2,300 word anti-immigrant manifesto, several members of the media called on news outlets to clearly delineate Trump’s long history of racism.

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin wrote that “the media must do better” and that responsible coverage of the mass shootings would begin with a reminder that Trump had “never condemned white nationalism and, in fact, consistently has abetted it.” By pretending Trump isn’t himself the “purveyor” of white nationalism, the media has “enable[d] him to maintain the patina of respectability and his followers to support him while disassociating themselves from the white nationalism he foments,” Rubin added.

Within an hour of the initial framing going viral on Twitter, the Times had taken note of the criticism and revised the front page headline to: “Assailing Hate But Not Guns.”

On Tuesday, Baquet, the Times’ executive editor, addressed the controversy in an interview with Gabriel Snyder, a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. Snyder was recently appointed by CJR as a public editor for the Times, a position which existed at the paper itself until it was eliminated in May 2017.

Baquet took responsibility for what he called a “bad headline” which did not have “enough skepticism of what the president said.”

“This is a story with some subtlety to it,” he added. “It needed to do three things: convey what Donald Trump said, the reasons to be skeptical of what Donald Trump said, and white supremacy as an evident problem.”

Despite the “fair explanation” of how the headline came to fruition, Snyder wrote that it was “almost irrelevant to the bigger problem at hand,” referencing the divide between the expectations of readers and the approach the Times has adopted to covering the Trump administration.

While Times readers may have come to expect the paper to become the “vanguard of the resistance,” Baquet is informed by a much more “traditional view of journalists as objective chroniclers of the news,” Snyder added. During a media summit last October, the Times’ publisher A.G. Sulzberger echoed Baquet’s stance by saying the paper would be neither “baited” nor “applauded” into becoming the opposition.

In comments emailed to MediaFile, Snyder said he understood why the Times’ leadership was defending its position as a “non-partisan arbiter of facts,” adding that it was “an awfully tough position to maintain in the current hyper-polarized political and media environment.” Still, Snyder insisted that journalists “should not simply repeat what public figures say” and said “providing context is crucial.”

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