“Think that poll looks good for Democrats? You’re probably wrong,” read a fake yet suspiciously real sounding headline tweeted yesterday by Doug J. Balloon.
Doug J. Balloon is the screen name of the person responsible for the New York Times Pitchbot, a parody account devoted to roasting the Times for the sadly too often ridiculous and problematic premises of its stories and guest essays.
Doug presently has over 200,000 followers on Twitter, which is substantially more than some of the NYT’s highest profile political journalists. (For instance, Carl Hulse, the newspaper’s Chief Washington Correspondent, has 45.3k followers.)
Doug’s satirical tweets poking at the Times have taken on particular importance during the Biden presidency, owing in part to the Times’ indefensible fixation with relentlessly promoting the Republican Party’s electoral prospects and schemes for taking power. Though the Republican Party has morphed into a political entity that is incompatible with democracy, the Times has inexplicably chosen to regard the party as a legitimate political force and continually award it friendly coverage.
The ending of the 2022 midterms has yet to be written, but NYT editors and reporters are convinced they know what’s going to happen. They are churning out stories that have Republican victory is just ahead as the premise, with headlines that endlessly play up Republicans’ chances and suggest Democrats are doomed.
Let’s take a look at some examples of what the newspaper has published recently that illustrate what I’m talking about. We’ll start with a piece by Carl Hulse, which ran not long before the attack on Paul Pelosi, titled Pelosi’s Last Dance?
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has raised $276 million this cycle, is in no mood to contemplate a Democratic defeat in November, much less discuss her legacy.
“Even as she follows every twist and turn on the House map, the reality is that this could well be Ms. Pelosi’s final trip around the track as party leader,” Hulse wrote, demonstrating that he considers Republicans to have these midterms pretty much sewn up. “The majority she has built and carefully nurtured — not once, but twice — is in jeopardy of falling under the weight of public fears about crime and inflation along with heavy Republican campaign spending and the traditional midterm drag on a president’s party in Congress.”
At the end of his piece, Hulse reports that Pelosi showed no interest in answering a question about what her next moves would be should Democrats lose. “Do you think I would respond to that question?” Hulse quotes the Speaker as saying.
Another recent piece by one of Hulse’s colleagues employed a headline with the words “winds shift to the right,” employing weather as a metaphor:
Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York is in charge of protecting the House Democrats’ majority. But now he finds himself at real risk in his own Hudson Valley district.
Or take this one — “with majority in sight” (how can a majority be “in sight” for Republicans when we don’t know how the election is going to turn out?)
Party leaders have begun to equivocate about whether they would seek to impeach President Biden if they won a House majority, but pressure is building from those who have vowed to do so.
Naturally, “red wave” also found its way into a headline, not even in quotes:
“Reality is setting in”: With two weeks to go, Republicans are competing in Democratic bastions like New York, California, Oregon and even Rhode Island.
Next we’ve got “fearing a new shellacking”:
In the final stretch before the 2022 midterm elections, some Democrats are pushing for a new message that acknowledges the pain of rising prices.
Another variation — Red October:
Many Democrats hoped it would be a “weird election.” But with Election Day just three weeks away, the midterms aren’t shaping up that way.
Worry and wobbling (Dems in Disarray!) made an appearance atop this piece:
Mandela Barnes, the party’s Senate candidate, is now wobbling in his race against Ron Johnson, the Republican incumbent. Democratic nominees in other states face similar challenges.
Democratic Secretary of State candidates are described as struggling:
Democrats are outspending Republicans 57-to‑1 on television ads for their secretary of state candidates. It still may not be enough.
And turnout for Democrats is characterized as expected to be “weak”:
Mr. Sanders said he thought the Democratic Party was “doing rather poorly” at selling itself to working-class voters.
While Republicans are described as winning:
The G.O.P. is gaining an edge in midterm elections that will determine control of Congress.
There was even a “story” on lobbyists getting ready for a Republican majority:
The oil and gas industry is already setting priorities for at least partial G.O.P. control in Congress, with a particular focus on undercutting a Biden administration program to shift away from gas for home heating.
Got all that? Republicans close in, winds shift to the right, with majority in sight, brace for a red wave, fearing a new shellacking, worry, wobbling, Red October, Republicans are winning swing voters, the GOP is gaining an edge.
These are all phrases that The New York Times’ reporters and editors are using to characterize the electoral dynamics of the 2022 midterms.
There are no comparable swath of stories in recent weeks that use a hopeful or optimistic lens for Democrats as a balance or a counter. Occasionally, there is one, such as this piece, that uses a lens which is somewhat friendlier to Democrats.
But that’s a rare specimen.
The Times’ journalists would probably dispute that they are cheering the Republicans on. But they are. Look at what they’re publishing. Look at how they are framing their stories. Whether they admit it or not, they’re totally invested in a victory for the Republican Party and a Kevin McCarthy speakership.
The Times’ “data department” is all in on the narrative, too.
A recent newsletter piece was simply titled A Republican Advantage:
As headlines shift in the weeks before the midterms, so do voters’ top concerns.
A week before that, there was this:
Is four points the real margin nationally? That’s a good question.
Another piece, a collaboration between The Upshot’s Nate Cohn and reporter Shane Goldmacher, was promoted with this heading and subheading:
Polls in Four Swing Districts Show G.O.P.‘s Strength in Midterms
Republicans are poised to retake Congress this fall in races shaped by forces that are beyond the red and blue divide, Times/Siena College polling shows.
“How do you get this headline when you poll four swing districts and one is tied and three have Dems ahead?” asked an incredulous Josh Marshall.
The article itself uses a different, more neutral headline and subheading:
Swing-district polls by The New York Times and Siena College show how the midterm races are being shaped by larger, surprising forces, beyond the traditional red and blue divide.
However, the front page promo heading that drew ire on Twitter and elsewhere was actually a fitting title for the piece, given that it inexplicably characterized good news for Democrats as bad news for Democrats in its opening paragraphs:
President Biden is unpopular everywhere. [This isn’t true.] Economic concerns are mounting. [Data shows that unemployment is low and the economy is not as unhealthy as media coverage suggests.] Abortion rights are popular but social issues are more often secondary. [Abortion rights are also an economic issue.]
A new series of House polls by The New York Times and Siena College across four archetypal swing districts offers fresh evidence that Republicans are poised to retake Congress this fall as the party dominated among voters who care most about the economy.
Democrats continue to show resilience in places where abortion is still high on the minds of voters, and where popular incumbents are on the ballot. Indeed, the Democrats were still tied or ahead in all four districts — three of which were carried by Mr. Biden in 2020. But the party’s slim majority — control could flip if just five seats change hands — demands that it essentially run the table everywhere, at a moment when the economy has emerged as the driving issue in all but the country’s wealthier enclaves.
“We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes,” a modal that often appears in stories on nytimes.com reads. “This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.”
Clearly not forbidden, though, is writing story after story after story after story that uses Republican or Republican-friendly framing. The metaphor of an assembly line is not far off, according to people who have worked for the NYT.
“By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called ‘the narrative,’ ” Michael Cieply wrote in 2016. “We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.”
The narrative. The pre-designated line.
It seems to still be true today: it’s evident from what is being published.
Many readers noticed that The Times’ coverage of the debate in Pennsylvania zeroed in on Fetterman’s performance rather than Oz’s, even though Oz’s comments on reproductive rights were arguably the story of the night:
The Democratic nominee’s performance in Pennsylvania thrust questions of health to the center of a pivotal Senate race, adding uncertainty to the contest and worrying some in his party.
In interviews, Democrats and Republicans had a range of reactions to the state’s Senate debate, including alarm, protectiveness, empathy and worry about the political implications.
The Democratic candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania will use closed captioning to assist with the after effects of a stroke.
There have been no similar collection of stories from The Times in recent days about Oz’s flaws and difficulties. The PA-Sen stories the newspaper is running have focused on Fetterman, repeatedly questioning his fitness for office. That’s the pre-designated line, apparently, and the stories must adhere to the line.
Note the use above of the phrase “Democratic anxieties”.
Contrast those with this headline that says Republicans aren’t worried about Ohio:
Polls show Representative Tim Ryan competing within the margin of error against his Republican opponent, J.D. Vance, in the high-profile Ohio Senate race.
But again, Democrats are often characterized as worried, nervous, anxious:
Tightening polls, fears about crime and apathy in their base are driving a wave of Democratic hand-wringing and a pivot by Gov. Kathy Hochul.
… while again, Republicans are often characterized as very confident.
Representative Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 House Republican, also spoke about her PAC’s success in backing female candidates, 23 of whom are running in the fall.
Headlines play up Republicans’ aggressiveness without suggesting any downsides:
Running ads portraying Black candidates as soft on crime — or as “different” or “dangerous” — Republicans have shed quiet defenses of such tactics for unabashed defiance.
One of my favorite ridiculous quotes of the year was in a New York Times story published earlier this year. The story quoted a former Republican state party chair as saying that Republicans were destined to win and suggesting there was absolutely nothing that Democrats could do about it, which is nonsense:
“Their people are depressed,” said Rob Gleason, a former chair of the Pennsylvania Republican Party. “Nothing’s going to be able to save them this year.”
I can imagine a Times editor or reporter reading this critique, shrugging at their computer, and going, “So? We just call it like we see it.”
But that defense doesn’t work. Their sight is clearly compromised.
We don’t know how the election is going to turn out. No one knows the future. Guesses, predictions, and speculation are not facts. It’s irresponsible and improper, therefore, for coverage to be driven by a set of expectations held by reporters or editors. To deliver objective coverage, journalists must be open-minded… committed to exploring all of the angles and possibilities. And right now, the NYT isn’t.
Objective journalism is supposed to be fair and impartial. The word “fair” is used repeatedly in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Among the first words of the code are: “Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair.”
Admittedly, it can be difficult to be objective. Advocacy publications like this one have opted for the freedom not to be. The exercise of that freedom can certainly be liberating, but we think a democratic society benefits from objective, fact-driven, rigorous news coverage that lacks a partisan or ideological slant.
The New York Times has chosen the objectivity credo rather than the advocacy tradition, but its political writers are not delivering objective news coverage to the newspaper’s readers. That’s a problem. The Times is not the only publication that’s guilty of political journalism malpractice this cycle, but they are definitely one of the worst offenders, which is why we’ve singled them out for criticism.
We are in the leadup to an election in which anything could happen. Occasionally, the truth has slipped into The Times’ headlines, subheadlines, and story copy (such as in Nate Cohn’s piece titled If These Poll Results Keep Up, Expect Anything on Election Night) but as you can see from the many pieces cited above, this mindset of openness to possibilities is the exception rather than the rule.
Our friend Dante Atkins, who is one of the more thoughtful progressive commentators we know, got so fed up with the NYT and its awful coverage that he imagined how the New York Times might cover Trump’s return in 2025 with a parody article attributed to buckraker Maggie Haberman.
The headline? “America’s Emerging Dictatorship Has Liberals On Edge. But for Some, the Stability and Absence of Hard Choices Is a Welcome Change.”
Yeah, that sounds about right.
Responding to right wing misinformation and disinformation is important, but the likes of Steve Bannon and Joe Kent are not the only threat to democracy.
So are apathy and indifference.
So are false equivalency and both-sidesism.
So are buckraking and access journalism.
The New York Times’ executive leadership, editors, and reporters could do this country a great service by rethinking how they cover American politics.
The newspaper’s coverage of Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine is decent, and it still publishes quality investigative reporting.
But in the electoral arena, the Times is doing a terrible job at a time when the United States needs the Fourth Estate to rise to the defense of democracy. That’s why it is so important that the Times hear from its readers that it is failing them.
“I would love to see a Washington newsroom with great reporters who enthusiastically and powerfully expose, explain, and sound the alarm about how dangerously delusional, deceptive, racist, misogynistic and authoritarian the GOP has become,” Dan Froomkin wistfully tweeted the other day.
So would we.
If you’d like to write to the Times’ Politics Editor to urge the NYT to do better, you can send a tweet or DM to David Halbfinger or reach out via his contact form. You may also submit a letter to the editor concerning what the Times has published.