Amid a storm of derision over two widely criticized New York Times stories, the newspaper on Tuesday stoutly defended the editors’ judgments.
One story was a sympathetic account of Donald Trump confidante Hope Hicks’ apparently agonized “existential” decision on whether to obey federal law and honor a congressional subpoena. Complete with a glamorous head shot of the former fashion model, it flatteringly described Hicks as a former Trump aide “who left the White House with an enduring mystique that inspired countless news media profiles.”
The other story was a thorough compilation of the president’s insulting nicknames for his potential 2020 Democratic campaign rivals.
“The reporting was rigorous and we stand by it,” a Times spokesperson told The Daily Beast about the Hope Hicks story, which ran on page A16 of the May 24 print edition.
It carried the byline of White House correspondent Maggie Haberman and led with the assertion that Hicks, former White House communications director and currently the top PR executive for Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, is facing an “existential question” on whether to comply with Congress. On Sunday the word “existential” was replaced online with the less provocative “crucial.”
“Since the President has made clear he doesn’t want his current or former aides to cooperate with the committee, Hicks does face a choice of resisting or testifying,” the paper’s spokesperson continued, but conceded the glitzy photo chosen to accompany the story was not ideal: “The photo of Hope Hicks that was published with our story was a file photo not taken for this article and in retrospect, we should have selected a different image. (Reporters do not select photos that accompany articles.)”
The Times spokesperson also defended the insulting nickname feature—which repeated Trump’s slurs multiple times and counted up the number of times he has abused Joe Biden (21), Bernie Sanders (14), and Elizabeth Warren (10) among the seven candidates included—while several critics complained that the online-only package served mainly to legitimize and magnify Trump’s schoolyard attacks.
“For several years we have chronicled and analyzed who and what President Trump has insulted,” the spokesperson argued. “The latest graphic details the language the president has employed to denigrate his political rivals to illustrate this tactic.”
Yet among some Times reporters, the two stories remained the object of concern in the first instance, and ridicule in the latter.
“It was ridiculous and there was internal grousing about it,” a Times veteran told The Daily Beast about the Trump nickname story, a comprehensive online catalogue that ran online this past Sunday. “In the internal text exchanges, people were pretty scathing.”
This person added that the nickname story was probably assigned as “Sunday holiday weekend story” with little thought given to its implications or impact. “Many people think of the New York Times as being a massive machine where editorial decisions are made with great efficiency—but it’s not.”
As for Haberman’s story, the Times veteran noted that Hicks has been one of the star White House reporter’s more highly valued sources about all things Trump—not only since 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy “and he was a joke candidate,” but currently and in the future. (Haberman is reportedly at work on a book about the Trump White House, and Hicks’ cooperation would surely be helpful.)
While Haberman’s colleague didn’t single her out for criticism, this person said it would have been better if her editors had given the story to another reporter so as not to put Haberman “in a difficult position.”
Television journalist Soledad O’Brien, a frequent critic of the Times on Twitter, seemed to agree.
“Hypothetical but important question,” she tweeted at New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, “what should be the transparency when one is doing a profile on someone who is also a source? Don’t do it? Do it but have someone else write it? Do it but reveal you have a ‘relationship’ with person?”
Rosen replied: “Editors on the politics desk and the masthead have to step in. (And when they don't, the public editor will... Okay, strike that.) Especially given her book contract and the need to maintain Hicks as a source for that project, the assignment should have gone to someone else.”
Rosen added: “There's another extreme insularity here. It's in the phrase ‘an enduring mystique that inspired countless news media profiles.’ That mystique is strongest among the club of White House reporters.”