Last Saturday, The New York Times published an extraordinary story. What made the story extraordinary wasn’t the event the Times covered. What made it extraordinary was the way the Times covered it.
On its front page, top right—the most precious space in American print journalism—the Times wrote about Friday’s press conference in which Donald Trump declared that a) he now believed Barack Obama was a U.S. citizen, b) he deserved credit for having established that fact despite rumors to the contrary, and c) Hillary Clinton was to blame for the rumors. Traditionally, when a political candidate assembles facts so as to aggrandize himself and belittle his opponent, “objective” journalists like those at the Times respond with a “he said, she said” story.
Such stories, according to the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, follow this formula: “There’s a public dispute. The dispute makes news. No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story … The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.”
For an example of such a story, consider the way the Times covered George W. Bush’s claim, during his campaign against John Kerry, that Saddam Hussein had worked closely with al-Qaeda. “Bush and Cheney Talk Strongly of Qaeda Links With Hussein,” noted a Times headline on June 18, 2004. Why were Bush and Cheney raising the subject? Because the day before, the 9/11 Commission had reported that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda did not have a “collaborative relationship.” Nonetheless, the Times reported Bush’s claims and Kerry’s response as equally valid. Bush himself had helped create the Commission to provide an authoritative, nonpartisan account of the events leading up to 9/11. Yet the Times refused to grant its view any more weight than Bush’s own. It refused to render any judgment about what was true.
Some of the headlines about Trump’s press conference followed in that tradition. “Trump finally says Obama born in U.S., blames Clinton for controversy,” declared USA Today’s headline. The AP headline announced, “Reversing course, Trump admits Obama was born in the U.S.” (In the body of the stories themselves, to be fair, AP and USA Today acknowledged the falseness of Trump’s claims).
But the Times, once a champion practitioner of the “he said, she said” campaign story, discarded it with astonishing bluntness. The Times responded to Trump’s press conference by running a “News Analysis,” a genre that gives reporters more freedom to explain a story’s significance. But “News Analysis” pieces generally supplement traditional news stories. On Saturday, by contrast, the Times ran its “News Analysis” atop Page One while relegating its news story on Trump’s press conference to page A10. Moreover, “News Analysis” stories generally offer context. They don’t offer thundering condemnation.
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Yet thundering condemnation is exactly what the Times story provided. Its headline read, “Trump Gives Up a Lie But Refuses to Repent.” Not “falsehood,” which leaves open the possibility that Trump was merely mistaken, but “lie,” which suggests, accurately, that Trump had every reason to know that what he was saying about Obama’s citizenship was false.
The article’s text was even more striking. It read like an opinion column. It began by reciting the history of Trump’s campaign to discredit Obama’s citizenship. “It was not true in 2011,” began the first paragraph. “It was not true in 2012,” began the second paragraph. “It was not true in 2014,” began the third paragraph. Then, in the fourth paragraph: “It was not true, any of it.” The article called Trump’s claim that he had put to rest rumors about Obama’s citizenship “a bizarre new deception” and his allegation that Clinton had fomented them “another falsehood.” Then, in summation, it declared that while Trump has “exhausted an army of fact-checkers with his mischaracterizations, exaggerations, and fabrications,” the birther lie was particularly “insidious” because it “sought to undo the embrace of an African American president by the 69 million voters who elected him.”
By that point, I had begun to cheer.
A certain etiquette has long governed the relationship between presidential candidates and the elite media. Candidates stretch the truth, but try not to be too blatant about it. Candidates appeal to bigotry, but subtly. In turn, journalists respond with a delicacy of their own. They quote partisans rather than saying things in their own words. They use euphemisms like “polarizing” and “incendiary,” instead of “racist” and “demagogic.”
Previous politicians have exploited this system. But Trump has done something unprecedented. He has so brazenly lied, so nakedly appealed to bigotry, and so frontally challenged the rule of law that he has made the elite media’s decorum absurd. He’s turned highbrow journalists into referees in a World Wrestling Entertainment match.
Last Saturday, the Times answered Trump’s challenge. He’s changed the rules, so it did, too. The next step is the debates. Since Trump has largely stopped giving interviews to anyone except campaign sycophants and celebrity lightweights, the debates may serve as his last encounter with actual journalists. Those journalists—Lester Holt, Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper, and Chris Wallace—must be prepared to confront Trump in ways they’ve never confronted a candidate before. The more audaciously he lies, the more audaciously they must tell the truth. The risks of doing so are tremendous. The rewards are being able to say that when Donald Trump threatened American liberal democracy like no candidate in modern history, you met his challenge square on.