The New York Times, And The Consequences Of Forfeiting Integrity

It was between Janus and the Four Season's song. "Two Faces Have I..."

It was between Janus and the Lou Christie song “Two Faces Have I…”

It would be extremely beneficial for the culture and enlightened civic discourse if there were a trustworthy, reliably objective observer with integrity and intelligence to provide fair, forceful pronouncements on the political controversies of the day. Such an observer would have to be seen as free of partisan and ideological bias, or at least show signs of actively trying to counter their effects. This, of course, is the idealized concept of what competent and ethical journalism is supposed to provide, and to the extent that any journalism organization was deemed capable of providing it, the New York Times was it.

Yesterday, the Times editors published an editorial called “The Stolen Supreme Court Seat” that was so partisan in tone and inflammatory, not to mention ridiculous, in content that it could only be taken as a biased political screed. Worse than that for the long term, however, is that the piece decisively disqualifies the Times as an arbiter of complex national issues whose judgment can ever be trusted as genuine and persuasive.  Many will argue that the Times’ biases have been blatant and unrestrained for many years, and this is true. That New York Times editorial may not be the first smoking gun, but it is the smokiest yet.

Do recall that Ethics Alarms substantially agreed with the Times in its main point that the Republican Senate’s refusal to hold hearings and consider President Obama’s nomination of federal judge Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated last year with the sudden death of Justice Scalia was unethical:

“For Senate Republicans, holding hearings on President Obama’s qualified and moderate nomination for the Supreme Court is both the ethical course and the politically smart course. It is also in the best interests of the nation. In fact, the Byzantine political maneuverings by the President and the Republican leadership, by turns petty and ingenious, have handed Republicans a political chess victory, if only they are smart enough, responsible enough, and patriotic enough to grab it. Naturally, they aren’t.”

Note: unethical, but not illegal or unconstitutional. By using the inflammatory term “stolen” implying legal wrong doing, the Times intentionally adopted the language of political hacker, and Democratic Party talking points. Strike One: You cannot be trusted as objective and non-partisan when you intentionally endorse partisan rhetoric:

No matter how it plays out, Americans must remember one thing above all: The person who gets confirmed will sit in a stolen seat. It was stolen from Barack Obama, a twice-elected president who fulfilled his constitutional duty more than nine months ago by nominating Merrick Garland, a highly qualified and widely respected federal appellate judge. It was stolen by top Senate Republicans, who broke with longstanding tradition and refused to consider any nominee Mr. Obama might send them, because they wanted to preserve the court’s conservative majority.

Except that the seat was not “stolen.” Traditions are not laws, and as we will see in a second, the Times has not objected to the shattering of traditions and the engagement of dubious ethical devices when its favorite party was the perpetrator and the Times’ editors’ pet agendas were in play. The Constitution only says that the Senate must “advise and consent” in the President’s nomination of Supreme Court Justices. It never specified that process. It did not, for example, speak about an  initial vetting by a Senate Judiciary Committee, or of an American Bar Association verdict on judicial fitness. It also didn’t require an up or down vote as the manner of “consent.” The Senate leadership saying, “Nope, sorry, don’t like that one; send us another,” is as much a refusal to consent as a vote to reject, and a good argument could be made that Obama’s neglecting to ask the Senate to advise him of acceptable candidates before acting, as is his wont, unilaterally is as much a breach of Founder intent as Mitch McConnell’s vote embargo.

I strongly believe that Obama could have had Garland or another judge of his choosing confirmed if he had been willing to lower himself to the kind of negotiation and horse trading that effective Presidents engage in. Obama can’t or won’t do that; he’d rather duck accountability by claiming that he was “obstructed.” Do you really think that there isn’t any legislation Obama would ordinarily be expected to veto that the GOP wouldn’t have accepted in trade for a moderate new justice like Merrick Garland? Maybe Mitch McConnell is even a bigger fool than I think he is, but this seems very unlikely, particular when he thought, as we know he did, that Hillary Clinton would be the next President and that Garland’s name would be pulled in favor of someone far more radical. Obama made a calculated political choice to leave his selection for SCOTUS as part of the election day referendum.

Would the Times be complaining that Obama’s choice was “stolen” if the Democrats had won a Senate majority as many expected and President Hillary Clinton had pulled Garland’s name in favor of some black, female, gay, gun-rights hating, Citizens United-opposed jurist who would guarantee a strong liberal majority on the Court? Of course not. What happened to Obama’s nominated justice was pure moral luck, rescuing McConnell from having an ugly and stupid tactic blow up in his face like a Wile E. Coyote booby-trap and working out better than any sane Republican dreamed. “Stolen” is misrepresentation—fake news, in fact. A lie.

Strike Two.

A desperate and unethical measure worked, so the New York Times is whining. There are good and sound arguments to be used to condemn McConnell’s gambit—the fact that it worked doesn’t make it right—but the Times is ethically estopped from making them, especially this one:

“It certainly obliterates a well-established political norm that makes a functioning judicial branch possible. As Paul Krugman wrote in his column on Monday, institutions are not magically self-sustaining, and they “don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms.”

This is hoot-worthy hypocrisy by both Krugman and the Times, and Ethics Strike Three swinging.  Did either protest when Obama and his Justice Department defied their oaths and duties by refusing to defend a still valid law, the Defense of Marriage Act, against a lawsuit? Why no…and that is as horrible a precedent as one can imagine, directly attacking the Rule of Law. Did either protest when the Affordable Care Act was passed by ducking House approval using reconciliation, a parliamentary device never before employed to pass major legislation? No…and this violated “a well-established political norm” that will eventually be used against Democrats, undoubtedly accompanied by screams of indignation—from the Times editors and Krugman. Obama using  Executive Orders to alter legislation and nullify standing laws, like those prohibiting illegal immigration? Oh no, obliterating those norms are fine. Social justice, don’t you know!

Up until 1987, the norm was that a President’s choices for the U.S. Supreme Court would be respected and consented to by the U.S. Senate, as long as the nominated judge was honest, competent and qualified. That meant that a consequence of Presidential elections was that a sitting President could fill SCOTUS vacancies as he saw fit, no matter what it did to the Court’s ideological balance. In 1987, however, the Democrat-controlled Senate shattered this norm to block President Reagan’s nomination of D.C. Circuit Judge Robert Bork, a brilliant and intimidating conservative who would be replacing moderate Justice Lewis Powell, presumably shifting the Court rightward. Nobody seriously denied that the brilliant Bork was unqualified, and “by the well-established political norms,” he should have easily confirmed. The Times, however, endorsed the ultimately successful efforts of Senate Democrats to destroy that “norm,” writing in an Oct. 5, 1987, editorial, that the party in control of the Senate has “every right to resist” a President’s Supreme Court nominees:

“The President’s supporters insist vehemently that, having won the 1984 election, he has every right to try to change the Court’s direction. Yes, but the Democrats won the 1986 election, regaining control of the Senate, and they have every right to resist. This is not the same Senate that confirmed William Rehnquist as Chief Justice and Antonin Scalia as an associate justice last year…The division of power thus makes moderates of both parties decisive. Against this change in political reality, for Mr. Reagan to nominate Robert Bork was to stick a thumb in moderates’ eyes…The Senate need not and should not endorse views so alien to the Supreme Court’s honored role as definer and defender of constitutional liberties.”

There is literally no way this position and the one articulated in yesterday’s Times editorial can be reconciled, except by appeal to a double standard based on partisan preferences. This is especially and hilariously true when one considers the Times’ appeal to “constitutional liberties” as sacrosanct. In the last election, the Democratic Party platform called for an amendment to limit the right of free speech, as protected by Citizens United. The Democratic Party is on record as wanting to severely limit the right to bear arms, and to abridge Fifth Amendment rights in order to remove other rights from suspected terrorists without Due Process. In short, the Times demonstrated yesterday that it has no integrity, and worse, doesn’t understand that integrity is required to engender trust.

The editorial is correct in its general proposition that Merrick deserved hearings and a vote, but completely unpersuasive because the Times position issues, not from objective analysis, but from pure hypocrisy. We know that the Times would not similarly protest an unethical  stratagem identical to McConnell’s if it successfully derailed the nomination of a conservative judge. We know that the righteous appeal to preserving “well-established political norms” would never be invoked if a progressive goal was at risk, because we have seen the Times nod approvingly when the Obama Administration and Democrats have stomped on such norms again and again.

Thus we know that the New York Times, having recklessly proclaimed its absence of integrity and proven that vacuum beyond all doubt, cannot be trusted to provide any objective analysis or guidance. Ever. Ever, that is, until it takes remedial measures, such as acknowledging its inconsistency, apologizing sincerely to readers for abusing their trust, and striving in the future to write editorials based on fair and objective analysis rather than lock-step compliance with partisan talking points.

20 Comments

Filed under Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Government & Politics, History, Journalism & Media, Law & Law Enforcement

20 responses to “The New York Times, And The Consequences Of Forfeiting Integrity

  1. charlesgreen

    Wait–this was an editorial, right, not a piece of reportage?

    I routinely read the Wall Street Journal for its reporting, then occasionally take a cocked-eye view at its editorial page, which I consider to be hugely partisan. That in itself is useful on occasion, when you want to know the partisan point of view.

    Ditto with the Times, it seems to me; they’re reliably liberal. The bigger issues, it seems to me, are when the editorial page appears to bleed into reporting.

    What’s the role of the editorial page, in your mind?

    • To bring the force of the paper’s reputation, trust and competence to bear to clarify national issues and events. EDITORIALS, not op-eds. I once was an editorial page editor. My job was to fairly and competently frame issues of importance to readers, and help them find their way through them with the best analysis I could muster.

      I hope you aren’t arguing that a newspaper can remains trustworthy when its editorials distort facts and display bias, selective history and partisan advocacy. Are you? These people edit the paper: if they will lie under their own names, they will distort the news as well. (And, in the Times case, they do.) If anything, editorials should be held to higher standards.than news reporting. An editorial is supposed to speak from reliable authority, either intellectual or moral. If it takes contradictory positions according to which party is involved, what good is it? Just a means for confirmation bias? I expect, and from a major paper we all should expect, honest analysis and a fairly argued position.

      This was not honest. This was a convenient set of fallacies and rationalizations as well as bad legal analysis to support a partisan screed. Fine. Such editorials from boards willing to prostitute themselves this way are sentenced to never convincing anyone who doesn’t already hold the editors’ partisan biases. Do you think that helps anyone?

  2. Steve-O-in-NJ

    I have always looked at Pinch Sulzberger’s paper with a very jaundiced eye, since his sneering dismissal of his dad’s question about the Vietnam war as one of the dumbest questions he had ever heard. The paper has always come down on the liberal side of issues, hasn’t endorsed a Republican for President in decades, and has bent over backwards to cover for folks who didn’t deserve cover (like Bill), so it has become predictable. The only thing it has going for it is the carrying of the full texts of important documents and speeches, which you can usually get online now.

    The Times lost a chunk of its credibility in the Clinton years. It lost another big piece during the war on terror when it published classified information with troops in the field. It has lost the rest now after spending a year with a Hillary button firmly pinned to its lapel as a naked advocate for ALL THINGS OBAMA.

  3. Other Bill

    The NYT is so biased I simply can’t read it. I noticed it even in the ’70s as a kid. And it’s so parochial. I’ve always thought NYC is, ironically, the most provincial town in the U.S.

  4. I didn’t even mention the dumbest part of the editorial. That was the part where the Times suggested that because Trump lost the popular vote, he should nominate Garland himself! New Rule from the Times: the electoral vote winner is bound to govern like the losing popular vote winner would have! There’s the integrity problem, and the stupidity problem. That’s a suggestion worthy of the 7th grade. Who is the Times writing for? That suggestion is silly, they would never make it if the parties were reversed, it is impractical and impossible, and only an idiot would read it and say, “Hey! What a great idea!”

  5. Chris

    I really wish you would stop misusing the term “fake news.” No one is going to assume that the word “stolen” refers to its legal meaning; that’s clearly editorialization. Fake news is news that is entirely made up and designed to deceive; this isn’t that.

    • I’m holding new sources accountable when they misinform. Newspapers deal in words, and when they use a word like “stolen,” they are making a statement, and this is a false statement. What is stolne supposed to mean, then, other than illicit, illegal, a theft? This was no theft. It’s intentionally misleading to say “The SCOTUS seat was stolen.” It was a political fight, and the GOP got lucky and won. Winning isn’t stealing. Fake headline, fake assertion, fake news.

    • charlesgreen

      Chris, I think you’re completely right about this.

      There IS a distinction between:

      the very valid complains that Jack and others raise about misleading, or biased, or badly-argued positions taken by news media, both mainstream (e.g. NYT) and even fringe (e.g. Brietbart) publications,

      and

      completely hack jobs who have no formal connection or training in media, and whose objective is to flat out create mayhem – teenage kids in Albania, folks who say things like the Pizza-gate controversy.

      There is a HUGE difference between these two types of situations; they deserve to be distinguished in public debate.

      Those who are intentionally conflating the two – by using the term “fake news” to include both eastern european hackers and mainstream US media – are doing us all a disservice.

      You want a word to describe your legitimate concerns with the NYT? Great, choose one. Just don’t use “fake news,” which was functioning just fine until various people chose to use it to obfuscate.

      Sorry Jack, there IS a difference between the NYT and Albanian teenagers. You yourself have quite rightly made the distinction between them; why not extend the difference to the more precise use of language, rather than fanning the flame wars around “fake news?”

      • Matthew B

        What the NYT is up to is far more damaging than what some Podunk is creating and spreading on Facebook. Fake news wouldn’t have the ability to resonate with so many if the NYT wasn’t so egregiously biased.

        • charlesgreen

          Complete bull.

          First, Facebook has what, 10,000 times as many readers?
          Second, how many armed attacks on pizzerias, hate crimes, and international incidents a la Pakistan has the NYT caused in the last six months compared to “real” fake news?
          You are around the bend to equate the two, much less that the NYT caused the other. Not only around the bend, it is outrageous.

          • You’re all wet on this one, CB. THAT’s your conveniently narrow definition of “fake news”? Obviously ridiculous nonsense that launches a single wacko into a vigilante attack on a pizza place?

            THAT’s “bull” and self-serving bull encouraged by the news media. A single false or misleading Times headline causes infinitely more damage by seeding the misconceptions of trusting citizens who are more discerning than the pizza nut job. The “fake news” published by mainstream media news sources out of bias, negligence or incompetence is far more consequential and just as fake—just harder to kill.

            There is no excuse, after it has been debunked over and over again, for the “women earn 77 cents on the dollar for the same jobs as men” Democratic talking point to be published by newspapers and repeated by CNN talking heads. The “fact” that “Hillary Clinton is the most qualified Presidential candidate ever” is demonstrably false, yet reporters kept saying it. “It is difficult for any party to win three straight Presidential elections” is flat out false, easily checkable, and was published credulously by the Times more than once. Fake news all.

            If you want to make a sub-category of “silly fake news that only idiots believe but we all know there are too many idiots,” like the Pope endorsing Trump, be my guest. But when the Times writes that James Comey “exonerated” Hillary, that’s fake news too: false, misleading and harmful.

            The news media’s fake news obsession is nothing but a desperate CYA exercise, and their clients, the Democrats, are endorsing it. This is Rationalization #22, “It’s not the worst thing”—except that it is. Mainstream media fake news is far worse than Albanian teenager fake news.

          • Matthew B

            Where do you rank the 1970 memo from the office of Lt Col Killian on the fake news scale? That was from the MSM and was every bit the complete fabrication as the pizza story.

  6. DougC

    Lou Christie, not The Four Seasons.

  7. E2 (nee Elizabeth I)

    All of the above said, I have to admit that I subscribe to the daily NYT, despite my residence being far from New York and how pricey it is to do so. Why? Because regardless of their political biases, they remain the ‘fullest’ newspaper around. My local paper can’t begin to achieve this. So knowing their bias, should I still support them? Help! It is a selfish rationale, I think . I should take a stand, cancel my subscription and tell them why. Not that they will care, but I will have made my ‘witness’ in any case. Then, of course, no newspaper at all. Ideas?

  8. Slick Willy

    “Print is dead”

    I quit reading newspapers decades ago. I prefer to be lied to by Internet news sites instead. It produces less trash to take to the curb.

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