On Sunday, appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” with host Brian Stelter, New York Times writer Frank Bruni stated that the only honest way for the Times to cover President Trump is to give him negative coverage.
Stelter introduced the subject by discussing the new book by the former executive editor of the Times, Jill Abramson, titled, “Merchants of Truth,” which contains some criticism of the Times for having an “anti-Trump bent.” In the book, Abramson also discussed Dean Baquet, the editor who replaced her, asserting, “His news pages were unmistakably anti-Trump. Some headlines contained raw opinion, as did some of the stories that were labeled as news analysis.”
Abramson also wrote that because the Times has a “mostly liberal audience, there was an implicit financial reward for the Times in running lots of Trump stories, almost all of them negative; they drove big traffic numbers and, despite the blip of cancellations after the election, inflated subscription orders to levels to no one anticipated.”
Stelter turned to Bruni, commenting, “Frank, I used to work at the Times, you work there now, used to be in the newsroom, now you’re on the opinion side. How did people react to Jill’s comments in the book?”
They were not as aghast as you might think. First of all, there’s a lot of respect for Jill. Also, we accept criticism; we criticize ourselves everyday. We try to take a tough look at ourselves. But also, I think most of us have seen more of the book, or talked more to Jill about it. I interviewed her recently for a piece that will come out in a few days, and this is a small part of what she said. If you look at what she says in full, it’s respectful of the Times, on balance, she gives us a lot of compliments and when she asks questions about coverage and coverage of 2016, she spends more time questioning the way we covered Hillary Clinton than she does the way we covered Donald Trump, so this one little strand, while it’s not being reported inaccurately, has been blown out of proportion as her main point and it is one of many, many points, all of which have some merit.
Stelter asked, “But this idea that news coverage of Trump is negative, is too negative, where does the truth lie there?”
Bruni replied, “I disagree wholeheartedly with that. He’s a singular president. He was a singular candidate. No one has lied like him, I mean at that altitude. No one has had the sort of ethical problems that he does, no one has had the areas of ignorance. To call that out accurately is to end up with a body of coverage that is unusually negative, but it absolutely appropriate to the man and the situation at hand.”
Stelter summed up, “So negative, but accurate.”
Bruni then stated honesty required the Times’ coverage of Trump to be negative, saying, “Yeah. Anti-Trump connotes driven by some sort of animus regardless of the facts. I don’t think we’ve been anti-Trump. I think we have been negative and I think that’s the only honest way to cover this president.”
Stelter shifted gears: “What about tone though? Do you think tone is sometimes off?”
Bruni admitted tone was a problem, framing it as a problem for the Times: “Yes, I think the one way in which we leave ourselves vulnerable is our tone can become mocking and sneering and I don’t mean just on the opinion pages where that’s not so unusual but sometimes in news coverage. When we do that we hurt ourselves ‘cause we give his supporters a way to say, ‘Look, they can’t give him a fair shake because they feel so negatively toward him.’ So I do think we have to watch our tone.”