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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, October 31st, 2022

The New York Times is failing readers with its awful, one-sided 2022 midterms coverage

“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?

Pelosi’s Last Dance? Speak­er Sprints Across U.S. as Repub­li­cans Close In.

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:

Repub­li­cans Tar­get a Top House Demo­c­rat as Winds Shift to the Right

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?)

With Major­i­ty in Sight, Repub­li­cans Hush Talk of Impeach­ing Biden

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:

Democ­rats, on Defense in Blue States, Brace for a Red Wave in the House

“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”:

Fear­ing a New Shel­lack­ing, Democ­rats Rush for Eco­nom­ic Message

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:

Democ­rats’ Feared Red Octo­ber Has Arrived

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:

Democ­rats Wor­ry as G.O.P. Attack Ads Take a Toll in Wisconsin

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:

Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sec­re­tary of State Can­di­dates Strug­gle Against Elec­tion Deniers

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”:

Bernie Sanders, Fear­ing Weak Demo­c­ra­t­ic Turnout, Plans Midterms Blitz

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:

Why Repub­li­cans Are Win­ning Swing Voters

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:

Ahead of the Midterms, Ener­gy Lob­by­ists Plan for a Repub­li­can House

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:

A Repub­li­can Advantage

As head­lines shift in the weeks before the midterms, so do vot­ers’ top concerns.

A week before that, there was this:

NYT/Siena Poll Is Lat­est to Show Repub­li­can Gains

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:

The 2022 Race for the House, in Four Dis­tricts, and Four Polls

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:

Fetterman’s Debate Show­ing Rais­es Demo­c­ra­t­ic Anx­i­eties in Sen­ate Battle

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.

Penn­syl­va­nia Vot­ers Absorb an Unusu­al Debate: ‘I Felt Sor­ry for Fetterman’

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.

Fetterman’s Debate Chal­lenges: Sell­ing Poli­cies and Prov­ing He’s Fit to Serve

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:

In Ohio’s Sen­ate race, Democ­rats are pre­dict­ing an upset, but the G.O.P. isn’t wor­ried.

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:

New York’s Governor’s Race Is Sud­den­ly Too Close for Democ­rats’ Comfort

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.

Ste­fanik Says She’s Con­fi­dent a Red Wave Is Com­ing to the House

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:

With Ads, Imagery and Words, Repub­li­cans Inject Race Into Campaigns

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.

Boing Boing laid it out in the NYT’s for­mat and pub­lished it:

Fake NYT article about Trump's seizure of power by Dante Atkins

Fake NYT arti­cle about Trump’s seizure of pow­er by Dante Atkins

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.

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