Do You Like This Headline?

I’m asking because, if you don’t like it, and if you’re a Very Important Person, I’ll change the darn thing until you do. After all, that’s the policy of The New York Times, and if it’s good enough for the supremely authoritative, magnificently magisterial, tremendously august Gray Lady — the newspaper that thinks of itself as “the paper of record” — it’s certainly good enough for me.

Maybe I should apologize for the foregoing sarcasm, but, for the life of me, I don’t know how else to respond to the shenanigans currently unfolding at the Times.  Just in case you haven’t heard, here are the facts.

On Monday, August 5, in the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, Pres. Trump addressed the nation.  Part of what he said was this: “The shooter in El Paso posted a manifesto online consumed by racist hate.  In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated.  Hate has no place in America.”

He proposed four steps the country should take to try to prevent such attacks; one step would be to “make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms, and that, if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process.”

The president’s address on such an important topic was, of course, a big news item, and the Times treated it as such.  On August 6, the first edition of the paper went to print and to the web with a banner headline over two-thirds of the front page, all in capital letters: “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM”.  Under that headline was a second headline, only one column wide and in much smaller type: “Condemns ‘Slaughters,’ but Says Little of Gun Control”.

It turns out that there were people who thought that the banner headline framed Trump’s speech in a way that was a tad bit too positive.  Some of those dissatisfied people were among the flock of Democrats who are running for their party’s presidential nomination.

Kirsten Gillibrand, senator from New York, tweeted “That’s not what happened” in response to the headline.  Cory Booker, senator from New Jersey, tweeted: “Lives literally depend on you doing better, NYT.  Please do.”  (I can’t explain why or how lives “literally” depend on the Times’ content; you’ll have to ask Sen. Booker.)  Robert Francis (a.k.a. “Beto”) O’Rourke, who used to be a member of the House of Representatives from El Paso, tweeted “Unbelievable.”  And Bill de Blasio, who is Mayor of N.Y.C. and is rumored to be running for president, tweeted: “Not the truth.”

Guess what?  After all the brouhaha and hullaballoo, the second edition of the Times appeared with the same story, but under a different banner headline: “ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS”, and with a new subheading: “Trump, in Speech, Says Little of Curbing Weapons”.

So, to summarize: (1) Times publishes story about Trump’s address, complete with banner headline; (2) some people, including people who just happen to be Democrats vying for the opportunity to run against Trump, complain about said headline, ostensibly because it casts too favorable a light on Trump’s speech; and (3) Times deletes said headline and replaces it with one that is more negative.

I suppose that is how journalism is supposed to be conducted at the very highest level.

And, believe it or not, we still haven’t gotten to the best part.  The executive editor of the Times—the top man on the “news” side of the paper—is Dean Baquet.  He was interviewed about the headline change, and he said basically two things.

First, he said that the original headline “was written on deadline and when it was passed along for approval we all saw it was a bad headline and changed it pretty quickly.”  So, at the Times, the rule apparently is: publish first, approve later.  Is that any way to run a newspaper or, for that matter, any kind of organization?  ‘Shoot first, aim later’ is bad policy in any endeavor.

The second thing Mr. Baquet said is my own personal favorite.  He said: “The fact that Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker didn’t like it didn’t influence me. I don’t need the entire political field to tell me we wrote a bad headline. It was evident.”

So, we are supposed to believe that intense criticism from Democratic heavyweights had absolutely nothing to do with the Times’ switching out a headline that cast a somewhat positive light on Pres. Trump and substituting a much more negative one in its place.  Did not influence Mr. Baquet at all—not one bit.  (And, if you believe that one, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I could sell you at a very reasonable price.)

Pres. Trump is both wrong and foolish when he says that the media are the enemy of the people.  But there is a good reason why many Americans believe that major news institutions have utterly abandoned the standards of objectivity and fairness that, long ago, journalists tried to uphold.  The Times ought to be ashamed.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at:
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