More than a year after she resigned as White House Communications Director, Hope Hicks found herself back in the news last Tuesday after she was served with a subpoena for documents and testimony by the House Judiciary Committee.
In her coverage of Hicks’ subpoena, New York Times White House Correspondent Maggie Haberman wrote that Hicks was facing the “crucial question” of whether or not she would comply. The article was accompanied by a glamorous head shot of Hicks taken by a Times photographer and flatteringly described her as a former Trump aide “who left the White House with an enduring mystique that inspired countless news media profiles.”
In addition, the Times promoted the story on Twitter by describing Hicks as facing an “existential question” — phrasing that drew criticism for downplaying the illegality of defying a subpoena and gravity of Congressional oversight.
It’s a subpoena, not an invitation.
Complying with a Congressional subpoena is not an “existential question”, it’s the law. https://t.co/AYM8ykD7mc
— Abigail Spanberger (@SpanbergerVA07) May 26, 2019
The Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith tweeted that the Times portrayal of Hicks’ decision as “legitimate” was a “testament to the degree to which norms have shifted to accommodate Trumpian criminality.” Smith said that the framing of Hicks’ choice as an “existential question” was “infuriating,” adding that if she were not “white, wealthy, and connected,” defying the subpoena would not be an option.
“She would appear, or she would face the threat of prison like the rest of us. As she should,” he said.
Jay Rosen, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, tweeted that “the word ‘existential’ has no business here” and coupled with the rest of the article, presented obeying the law “as almost a lifestyle choice.” Rosen also criticized the Times for its choice of photograph, calling it “absurdly out of place.”
Former Pulitzer Prize winning Times reporter John Markoff agreed with Rosen, while Stuart Elliot, another former Times reporter, asked if Hicks was receiving “glam shots and kid-glove treatment” because she may have been a valuable anonymous source for White House reporters.
The possibility of Hicks’ involvement as a source was further probed by Peter Maass, senior editor at The Intercept, who pointed to praise Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch recalled hearing about Hicks from “many people” at the Times when she was being considered for her current job at the company last year.
“I had an advisor of mine call people she would have worked with and universally, and I should mention that many people from the New York Times, universally said she was a fantastic choice,” Murdoch told an audience at The Times’ DealBook conference last November.
Who at the New York Times vouched for Hicks when she was up for the Fox job? Assuming it was a reporter/s, what does that say about their relationship with Hicks and the paper's coverage of Hicks? Paging @jayrosen_nyu @jackshafer @Sulliview 😉
— Peter Maass (@maassp) May 28, 2019
On Sunday, the Times quietly swapped out the word “existential” for “crucial,” without any editor’s note or explanation added to the story. In a statement to The Daily Beast on Tuesday, a Times spokesperson avoided commenting on the Times’ word choice but did concede the photograph used was a mistake.
“The photo of Hope Hicks that was published with our story was a file photo not taken for this article and in retrospect, we should have selected a different image,” the spokesperson said.
In defense of Haberman, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote that the criticism of her story illustrated “the extraordinary and almost pathological hatred her name provokes.”
“The progressive loathing of Haberman draws some of its force from the mistaken belief that straight news reporters should stand up to the president and call him out for his unfitness to hold office,” Chait said.
Jonathan Martin, a national political correspondent at The Times, added that Haberman was “relentless,” “tough” and “the most indispensable journalist of the Trump era.” Other Times reporters including Kenneth Vogel and Katie Rogers tweeted their own defenses of Haberman, which largely ignored the substantive criticism of the Hicks story and instead vouched for the caliber of her reporting.
Fordham Law School Professor Jed Shugerman criticized Haberman’s colleagues for “wagon-circling around her,” calling it “defensive,” “obtuse” and a “sad commentary on journalism.”
“You don’t need to be each other’s cheerleaders. Just hire an ombudsperson and show you learn from mistakes,” Shugerman said, referencing The Times’ controversial 2017 decision to eliminate the position of public editor in favor of a digital venue for readers to share criticism called the ‘Reader Center.’
“People were legit mad about that Hope Hicks piece,” Shugerman added. “Don’t be dismissive. [The Times] is in trouble if it refuses to learn from them.”