New York Times forfeits ethics in publishing Trump taxes

Dean Baquet, NYT

Lost in the weekend’s biggest story — the publishing of Donald Trump’s tax returns from 1995 — is the New York Times editor behind the decision to run the story.

Dean Baquet has served as executive editor of the Times since 2014. And time and again, he has not illustrated the kind of integrity to hold arguably the most powerful position in media. A few prime examples will be introduced momentarily.

{mosads}To review why Baquet is the focus of this column, here’s a quick review of the Trump tax story: The New York Times says his tax records were simply sent by mail to Susanne Craig, a reporter for the paper who covers government and politics. Craig wrote in her story — showing a $916 million loss by Trump that may have allowed him to legally not pay federal income taxes over the past two decades — that she’d been “on the hunt” for Trump’s taxes for some time.

The Trump campaign, however, argues the documents were obtained illegally.

“The only news here is that the more than 20-year-old alleged tax document was illegally obtained, a further demonstration that the New York Times, like establishment media in general, is an extension of the Clinton campaign, the Democratic Party and their global special interests,” the campaign responded in a statement.

Federal law clearly states it is illegal to publish someone’s tax returns without authorization:

It shall be unlawful for any person to whom any return or return information (as defined in section 6103(b)) is disclosed in a manner unauthorized by this title thereafter willfully to print or publish in any manner not provided by law any such return or return information. Any violation of this paragraph shall be a felony punishable by a fine in any amount not exceeding $5,000, or imprisonment of not more than 5 years, or both, together with the costs of prosecution. 

Susanne Craig appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday to recount how the records ended up in her possession. The interview was standard fare, with Craig stating, “It’s not a crime to check your mailbox.”

When asked by host Brian Stelter if more documents were coming and who may have sent the ’95 documents, Craig responded, laughing, “We’re doing a lot of reporting around this. So we’re going to keep going.”

Maybe a ‘no comment,’ ” Craig concluded on who her source was.

Never mentioned in this interview conducted by Stelter — a former Times reporter — is Baquet. And here’s why his role here is particularly relevant: At a Harvard University forum just two weeks ago, Baquet stated he would risk jail time to obtain Trump’s tax records, arguing he would “seriously fight to publish his tax returns,” because Trump’s “whole campaign is built on his success as a businessman and his wealth.”

Stelter responded to my open query on Twitter asking why Baquet was omitted from being broached.

For an executive editor — who hasn’t gone on the record with any reporter at that point — to state he felt there was no legal risk in this situation is something that Stelter should have shared with his audience, especially considering it is billed as a media affairs show. But he didn’t. Stelter also omitted any mention during the hourlong program of Baquet’s recent statement about risking jail time if it meant getting Trump’s tax returns.

Per Law Newz’s Robert Barnes, a California-based attorney whose practice focuses on tax defense and First Amendment law:

“In criminal willfulness prosecutions, this is as close as you get to a ‘smoking gun’ of willful intent to break the law: public admission the person knows they would be breaking the law, but advocating it anyway,” writes Barnes. “Worse yet, because Baquet is a ‘key employee’ with authority to bind the company, this conduct could be considered a crime of The New York Times as a company.”

The Times argues it has a right to publish the records under the guise of free speech.

But ask yourself this: Do you really think Baquet would also risk jail time to obtain Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 “private” emails that have been deleted?

How about hacking into Goldman Sachs servers to get a transcript of her speeches to the Wall Street giant?

Would Baquet publish Clinton’s medical records, which she refuses to release as John McCain did in 2008, to the tune of 1,173 pages’ worth?

Rhetorical questions all.

This isn’t the first time Baquet has seemingly gone outside of standard journalistic protocol to damage Trump. If you recall back in March, the newspaper leaked Trump’s off-the-record comments to its editorial board to BuzzFeed.

The comments — showing a softening on his immigration stance — were meant to damage Trump, who was edging closer to clinching the Republican nomination.

“I don’t know how it got out, but I’m certainly not going to do a leak investigation,” declared a defiant Baquet, who didn’t even offer an apology to Trump for allowing the comments — which were supposed be kept under lock and key in the spirit of being off the record — to so easily get out. That’s how it goes when the ends justify the means.

As I wrote at the time, it’s a good thing Baquet wasn’t running the show during the Jayson Blair fiasco, because he’d probably see an investigation there as unwarranted  and inconvenient too.

As witnessed time and again, accountability and Baquet are rarely two words that exist in the same sentence in his relatively short time as executive editor.

In December of 2014, BuzzFeed published a story about an email written by Times columnist Maureen Dowd that revealed she permitted Bernard Weinraub — a former Times reporter — to actually preview a column she had written about his wife — now-ex Sony executive Amy Pascal — before it was published.

That’s about as big a no-no as there is in journalism outside of fabricating a quote.

The emails clearly show Dowd assuring Pascal through Weinraub.

“I would make sure you look great,” Dowd wrote to Pascal via her husband. Weinraub responded to Dowd: “You can’t tell single person that I’m seeing the column before it’s printed.”

Baquet’s response when presented this overwhelming evidence? Absolutely nothing. Not a statement condemning the behavior by one of his most-read columnists. Not even a short suspension for Dowd.

That’s what many would call tacit approval of such conduct. In a related story, the Times is considered by some to be the gold standard of journalism.

Trump’s taxes are out. The media world is talking about it today and what it means for a candidacy currently going in the wrong direction.  

But let’s not forget how those documents got out in the first place.

Two weeks ago, Baquet proudly declared he would risk jail time — which could be up to five years, according to federal law — even if it meant illegally obtaining Trump’s tax documents.

Two weeks later, Trump’s 1995 record magically ends up in a New York Times reporter’s mailbox — you know, just like Trump’s off-the-record comments ended up in a BuzzFeed reporter’s inbox in March.

And just like Dowd’s column ended up in her embattled subject’s inbox before it was published without any repercussions.

Anyone else seeing a pattern here?

More importantly, anyone interested in introducing Baquet to a word clearly foreign to him?


Concha is a media reporter for The Hill.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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