Controversial NYT Whistleblower Story Leads to Backlash, Subscription Cancellations

For the second time since August, The New York Times on Thursday found itself trending on Twitter under the hashtag “#CancelNYT.”

The trend, which totaled 45,000 tweets as of Thursday night, followed backlash The Times faced earlier that day for publishing identifying information about the now-famous whistleblower who has, in recent days, become a central figure in the impeachment inquiry House Democrats launched into President Donald Trump last week.

In the controversial article, The Times reported that the whistleblower is a CIA officer who had previously been assigned to the White House and had since returned to the agency. The Times also said the whistleblower’s complaint “suggested he was an analyst by training” and demonstrated he possessed a “sophisticated understanding of Ukrainian politics.”

Less than an hour before publishing the whistleblower story, The Times reported in a separate article that President Donald Trump had made threatening remarks about White House officials who had spoken to the whistleblower and given him the information cited in his complaint.

“I want to know who’s the person who gave the whistle-blower the information because that’s close to a spy,” Trump said. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”

By Thursday evening, in addition to “#CancelNYT,” trends under “Dean Baquet” and “New York Times” had nearly 100,000 tweets. One Twitter user reported that as of Thursday afternoon, The Times’ subscription cancellation hotline had a wait time of two hours. Another user said it had reached four hours by Thursday evening. 

Those who tried canceling via text were told wait times were “longer than expected.”

In an email to MediaFile, Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for The Times, acknowledged that the paper had seen “an uptick in stops” on Thursday, but said the dip in subscriptions was “nothing that is statistically significant.” The Times sees a mixture of new and canceled subscriptions on any given day, Rhoades Ha said. As of August, The Times had accrued 4.7 million total subscriptions.

This latest instance follows another round of online calls for readers to cancel their subscriptions in August when The Times was heavily criticized for a misleading headline about Trump’s remarks in the aftermath of two mass shootings. And just two weeks ago, The Times’ opinion section was slammed for its mishandling of new reporting on accusations of sexual harassment made against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

[Impeachment Inquiry Will Pose Historic Challenge for Beltway Media]

As if anticipating the backlash to its decision to publish information about the whistleblower, The Times included in the article an explanation from executive editor Dean Baquet, who said publishing information about the whistleblower was necessary to help readers judge the individual’s credibility.

“We decided to publish limited information about the whistle-blower — including the fact that he works for a nonpolitical agency and that his complaint is based on an intimate knowledge and understanding of the White House — because we wanted to provide information to readers that allows them to make their own judgments about whether or not he is credible,” Baquet said.

In spite of the explanation, which was later expanded on in an entry in The Times’ Reader Center, the paper still faced a barrage of criticism from readers, national security and legal experts, as well as members of the journalism community.

Mark Zaid, lead counsel for the whistleblower, tweeted that he strongly disagreed with The Times’ decision and revealed he had “pleaded” with the reporters who broke the story to not proceed with it.

“Publishing details about [the] whistleblower will only lead to identification of someone, whether our client or wrong person, as whistleblower. This will place [the] individual in [a] much more dangerous situation, not only in their professional world but also their possible personal safety,” Zaid tweeted.

On Thursday night, the explanation was updated to include new reporting that suggested the White House had already known the whistleblower worked at the CIA. The Times did not clarify, though, if the Trump administration had previously known that the individual had been assigned to the White House, a detail that could considerably narrow the search for the whistleblower’s identity.

Mieke Eoyang, vice president for national security at Third Way, a D.C. think tank, said The Times was disincentivizing future whistleblowers from using proper channels which protect them from prosecution, instead encouraging them to illegally leak information to the press.

Others agreed, including Eric Schultz, a communications advisor to President Barack Obama, and John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service who said The Times’ decision did not promote the public interest in any way. Meanwhile, Peter Shulman, a professor of history at Case Western Reserve University, said “Ben Bradlee understood something about Washington that Dean Baquet clearly does not.”

Reactions to the controversy among those in the media were less critical. While some like former Sacramento Bee reporter Anita Creamer and ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman pointed out flaws in The Times’ decision and explanation, others like Politico columnist Jack Shafer asked “Where is it written that the press’ job is to protect the identity of official whistleblowers?”

Siva Vaidhyanathan, a columnist at The Guardian tweeted that he was “as frustrated with [The Times] as anyone,” but canceling subscriptions “does nothing” and is only “self-indulgent.” In response, Sarah Jeong, a technology columnist at The Times, who until yesterday sat on the paper’s editorial board, said subscriber cancellations were a real metric of reader dissatisfaction.

“You’re wrong. NYT does pay attention to subscriber cancellations. It’s one of the metrics for “outrage” that they take to distinguish between “real” outrage and superficial outrage,” Jeong tweeted. “What subscribers say can back up dissenting views inside the paper about what it should do and be.”

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