The New York Times, the Narrative, and the Relentless Aberrance of the Trump Presidency

Over the past many weeks – and for some Media observers, the past several years – a debate has raged about what we should do with the New York Times.

The Times is, on one hand, the best-known, most powerful vestige of good-old-fashioned journalism left in the United States. Many of its reporters have done exceptional work covering the Trump Administration, it has a long roster of excellent contributors who have been clear-eyed about Trumpism from the start, and the NYT has the resources and influence to take on projects like the ambitious and invaluable 1619 Project just announced this week.

On the other hand, the NYT has a troubling history of bowing to bad faith conservative shrieking about “liberal bias,” and it has, both during the 2016 election and throughout the Trump Administration, appeared obsessed with normalizing and coddling Donald Trump.

no clear link II

The most recent of these SNAFU’s involved the Times’ headline in the immediate aftermath of the El Paso terrorist attack, by a racist Trump acolyte, in which it blasted the embarrassingly misleading, context-less narrative “Trump Urges Unity v. Racism.”

The NYT rightly received criticism for this absurd summation – as well as its general reluctance to adequately identify the President’s proud racism – all of which culminated in a staff meeting last week (transcript here) where reporters challenged executive editor Dean Baquet on criticisms that the Times, on a broad, institutional level, is shrinking from this historic moment.

There is a lot to unpack about that meeting, about the criticism of the NYT and its decision-making, and a great starting point for that is the media critic Jay Rosen, who has written far more persuasively, and with far more wisdom, on this issue than I could hope to muster.

But for me personally, what stood out in the transcript was Baquet’s ham-handed summation of how the “racist” debate had suddenly bubbled to the surface, including the following:

“The day Bob Mueller walked off that witness stand, two things happened. Our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought, “Holy shit, Bob Mueller is not going to do it.” And Donald Trump got a little emboldened politically, I think. Because, you know, for obvious reasons. And I think that the story changed. A lot of the stuff we’re talking about started to emerge like six or seven weeks ago. We’re a little tiny bit flat-footed. I mean, that’s what happens when a story looks a certain way for two years. Right?”

– Dean Baquet, Executive Editor, New York Times

There is an awful lot wrong with this.

For starters, Baquet’s comments gave immediate fodder to the hysterical, bottomless-bad-faith, right wing outrage machine, and inexplicably gave Donald Trump more cover on the issue of his obvious racism.

And this comment is particularly jarring for anyone who has actually read the Mueller Report, which is the most damning indictment of a U.S. President in our nation’s history.

But more than anything, I was troubled by Baquet’s comment because it suggests that the executive editor of the goddamn New York Times can apparently only view the Trump presidency through one simplistic, narrow-minded narrative at a time.

Considering Baquet is in charge of one of the most influential cultural megaphones left in our scattered society, that’s sort of a big deal. If even a fraction of everyday, casually-interested Americans believe that the “story” of the Trump presidency is “Mueller …. racism,” then that segment of America is missing a helluva lot.

And the New York Times, with its unique cultural clout, bears some responsibility for that.

Trump Truck

A couple of weeks ago, in response to a frustrating conversation with a Noxious Mod, I set about writing a post about the impossible-to-quantify aberrancy of this presidency.

The general idea of that post was that we still find ourselves having old-fashioned political conversations – left v. right, dove v. hawk, “sure Trump did X, but didn’t Obama once____________?” – but all of those conversations are built on the faulty premise that any of this resembles politics as usual.

The Trump presidency, I set out to argue, is so dramatically aberrant compared to the 44 presidencies that proceeded it – in its functionality, its motivations, its actions, its sense of duty (or lack thereof) to the American people – that applying a pre-Trump framework to any political discussion is all but meaningless.

We may as well be trying to hold a PTA meeting at a KISS concert.

I wound up, frankly, hopelessly bogged down in the weeds – a common condition here at GTFUP – and ultimately had to sacrifice some darlings and let that post go.

But one thing that came out of the exercise was an angry, growing, list, a reference point that I’ve taken to calling the “Aberrancy Index,” which I think is instructive when thinking about what we we should expect from the NYT, and from the Media at large.

The basic idea of the Aberrancy Index – which I’ve made official on GTFUP’s homepage, and hope to update from time to time – is to chronicle a working list of basic, self-evident statements about this presidency that you could not reasonably apply to any previous U.S. presidency.

Viewed in isolation, certain of these list items can be rationalized: you can hear your self-righteous Noxious Mod neighbor (or Dean Baquet for that matter) saying “well heck, he’s not the first president to have problems with the press…”

But the totality of Trump’s aberrancy – the sheer breadth of my silly Index, the way each instance of lunacy careens off of and exacerbates a dozen others – is staggering, and all but impossible to wish away.

Viewing the aberrancy of Donald Trump as a whole, the only rational conclusion is that nothing about this presidency is normal, that nothing that emerges from the Trump White House can be taken at face value.

That’s a scary proposition to be sure, but the only way this nation is going to be able to adequately deal with the existential threat that is Trumpism, is to be very clear about what we’re up against.

As the writer and observer Greg Sargent put it just this morning, commenting on the President’s Greenland nonsense: “at the core of Trump’s decision-making, moral emptiness and megalomania and total lack of concern for the national interest are all that’s left.”

All of which brings me back to the New York Times.

Dean Baquet’s hopelessly narrow articulation of the “story” of the Trump presidency goes hand in and with what I see as the paper’s cardinal sin in the Trump era: its insistence on constantly treating Trumpism like every other presidency that has come before it.

The Times’ approach for the past few years has been to afford President Trump a presumption of good faith – he is, after all, the President. But, when set against everything our eyes and ears have told us for the past three years, that approach could not be more absurd, or more dangerous.

We’ve seen this manifest recently with AG Bill Barr’s deliberately dishonest “summary” of the Mueller Report. The NYT (and, to be sure, countless other Media outlets) simply took Barr at his word, ignoring the staggering totality of the President’s aberrancy.

In so doing, the NYT effectively allowed the Trump Administration to lie, unchecked, to the American people about – I’ll say it again for the folks in the cheap seats – the most damning indictment of a U.S. President in our nation’s history.


And with 440 days until the election, it’s not hard to envision how damaging the Times’ eagerness to normalize the Trump presidency, to compartmentalize the rampant aberrancy of Trumpism, might become. 

Over the next 18 months, we’re in for an unimaginable deluge of lies and gaslighting.

We can expect to see a run of manufactured “wins” and fake “deals” aimed at bolstering the President, and we should prepare ourselves to see every lever of the federal government – including a healthy dose of Bill Barr – fully corrupted and repurposed towards propping up the President politically, and tearing down his opponents.

The President will continue to stoke the flames of racism, and we will almost certainly see more acts of horrific political violence.

And rest assured, over the next 18 months, we will see electoral cheating – aided and abetted by foreign powers, and the empty, degraded shell that is the GOP – in ways this nation could never have previously imagined.

All the while, a massive right-wing media machine will be working all day, every day, to present a funhouse mirror version of reality, where no matter what this President does, it is celebrated as brave, wise and unprecedentedly patriotic (side note: if you haven’t read the stunning NBC report on the Epoch Times released yesterday, please set GTFUP aside, pour yourself a tall glass of whisky, and buckle up).

In the face of all of that, Dean Baquet’s studied, timid, narrow-mindedness does not exactly instill confidence.

All of this is not to say that the New York Times is fully ignoring the many facets of Trump’s aberrancy. The Times has excellent reporters who are digging deep into many dark corners of this presidency.

But institutionally, the NYT can’t seem to bring itself to acknowledge the sum total of all of that darkness.

And the result of that willful blindness is headlines like “Trump Urges Unity v. Racism,” or the countless times that the NYT has taken the bad-faith inanities of Trumpism at face value, despite a massive body of evidence that nothing this President does is ever in good faith.

It’s like there’s a raging forest fire, and the NYT is sending its reporters to carefully document the health of each individual tree.

I, frankly, don’t know what to “do” with the New York Times.

Plenty of folks I admire, folks far smarter than me, have argued that the ongoing issues with the Times’ approach to Trumpism – as Joan Walsh put it, the fact that the NYT “hasn’t yet reckoned with the disaster to democracy Donald Trump represents” – are a tipping point.

But I also believe strongly that we have to steadfastly support our institutions in moments like these, even when they don’t seem up to the task, and the NYT is one of those institutions.

What I do know is that the Times, like all of our institutions, has been slow to understand just what it is we’re up against.

And, like with all of our institutions, I don’t think it’s off-base to expect better.

We should support the New York Times, but we should also expect the Times to grow the fuck up, before its too late; to stop timidly carrying water for the forces that want to distort our grave reality, and to start treating this aberrant, dangerous President with the respect he’s earned.

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