The Memo: NYT becomes news story on Kavanaugh, Rosenstein

The Memo: NYT becomes news story on Kavanaugh, Rosenstein
© Getty Images

The New York Times has been pulled into the middle of two of the biggest stories of the moment — the latest example of the media becoming the news and an uncomfortable position for any news organization.

A report on Friday that Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinGraham requests interviews with DOJ, FBI officials as part of probe into Russia investigation DOJ won't charge former FBI Deputy Director McCabe Rosenstein says he authorized release of Strzok-Page texts MORE had considered wearing a wire to covertly record President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE was the catalyst for a crisis that might yet end in Rosenstein’s ouster.


Separately, a Times report that noted in passing it had been unable to corroborate the account of Deborah Ramirez, the second woman to accuse Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, was seized upon by Kavanaugh allies.

The first story drew displeasure from liberal Times readers and the broader anti-Trump “resistance” on social media. The latter earned rare — and short-lived — praise from Republicans.

Meanwhile, the newspaper of record has stood by its performance.

"At its most fundamental, a journalist’s mission is to follow the facts wherever they lead, with no regard for the political consequences,” Dean Baquet, executive editor of The Times, said in an email. “That’s how we view the Times's role.”

Those values may be more in peril than ever before — not just for the Times but for the media overall — in the current hyper-polarized political environment.

Many people see Trump’s frequent and fierce attacks on the “fake news” media as a huge accelerant in a fire that has been smoldering for years.

“Journalists today should get combat pay,” said Steven Livingston, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

Livingston noted that he himself had been critical of the media in the past but added, “There is a difference between being a source of criticism and being someone who calls the press the enemy of the people. That is a whole different level of antagonism.”

The feverish political atmosphere is intensifying attacks on the media from all sides, however.

In the wake of the publication of its initial Rosenstein story on Friday, the Times published a letter from a reader who objected, not on the basis that the story was untrue, but rather because “it may well lead to the firing or resignation of [Rosenstein], something that I believe will damage our democracy.”

The coverage of Kavanaugh and Ramirez is even more complicated.

Ramirez’s allegation was published on Sunday by The New Yorker, in a story written by Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer. The article sparked a firestorm, and the political world debated what it meant for Kavanaugh’s chances of confirmation.

A Times story soon afterward largely focused on the forthcoming testimony of Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, stated, in relation to Ramirez: “The Times had interviewed several dozen people over the past week in an attempt to corroborate her story, and could find no one with firsthand knowledge. Ms. Ramirez herself contacted former Yale classmates asking if they recalled the incident and told some of them that she could not be certain Mr. Kavanaugh was the one who exposed himself.”

That point was amplified by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Trump declares war on hardworking Americans with new budget request The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in MORE (R-Ky.) among others.
McConnell said Ramirez’s claim was “so dubious” that the Times had “refused to run a story about it.”

The Republican National Committee (RNC) also pushed out the Times’s apparently skeptical points in an email to reporters.

Late Monday, though, another Times story pointedly noted the newspaper “did not rebut her account and, unlike The New Yorker, was not able to obtain an interview with Ms. Ramirez.”

Separately, Baquet told media reporter Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, “I gather some people thought we were trying to knock down her account but that’s not what we were doing.”

By then, the RNC had returned to a more traditional stance in relation to the Times, contending that a new, different story on Kavanaugh from the newspaper was part of a “smear campaign” against the nominee by “Democrats and the press.”

Taken in total, reactions to the reporting on Rosenstein and Ramirez have exposed how deep the fault lines run in how the media are viewed — and they have also frustrated some Times reporters.

“I'm really disappointed at how many people are evaluating stories they don't like, or concocting elaborate theories about their sourcing, based on absolutely nothing more than what they wish to be true,” Times reporter Nick Confessore wrote on Twitter.

The Times’s chief White House correspondent, Peter Baker, pushed back after conservative writer Jonah Goldberg of National Review suggested there would be nothing wrong with the Times trying to rebut Ramirez’s version of events on Kavanaugh.

“The point is our job is to report the facts as best we can, not to seek a specific outcome,” Baker wrote on Twitter.

The debates may be heated but they are hardly surprising, according to media experts.

“We’re in such a highly partisan environment that, when it comes to the media, people end up judging a story by the perspective the story takes compared to their own ideology, beliefs and party affiliation,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communication.

Some argued the problem was much broader than even the media alone.

“Everyone, from journalists to academics to scientists, is being judged according to partisan preference rather than according to the integrity of the reporting,” said Livingston.

Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist who has written about the media, offered an even pithier view.

Different groups, he said, “will look at something that reports a series of facts and will decide those facts have a liberal or conservative bias, or a pro- or anti-‘us’ bias.”

“We live in times where truth is considered to be opinion,” he added.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.