Last week, at a New York Times event at UCLA, the dean of the university’s Luskin School of Public Affairs jarred several Times reporters on the panel when he took them to task during his introduction for the event ― chiding them for their reporting on the 2016 election and for the paper’s “both sides” journalism amid the current “civility” debate.
Professor Gary Segura first lauded the journalists ― Los Angeles bureau chief Adam Nagourney, national political reporters Maggie Haberman and Alex Burns and polling analyst Nate Cohn ― as “some of the finest reporters in the United States.” He noted that the Times has, since the election, “fundamentally changed journalism,” breaking stories daily “in the face of great adversity.” Then he weighed in with his criticism:
It would be great to celebrate them. But I want to make sure that tonight’s event also holds The New York Times accountable.
The New York Times has played a role in our current debate, maybe one that they’re not necessarily comfortable with. In April of 2016 one of our guests, Maggie Haberman, said, “Will Trump actually be good for the gays?” Guess what? I don’t actually speak for all gays and lesbians. But no.
There was laughter from audience members, who clearly saw the absurdity of thinking of Trump as pro-gay since he has continually assaulted LGBTQ rights since taking office. Segura continued:
During the campaign there were efforts to normalize Mr. Trump. There was wildly imbalanced coverage between emails on the one hand and a history of corrupt behavior on the other... And more recently the civility debate — the “both sides”... Looking at the chants of “Lock her up!” and equating them to “Please leave my restaurant” are actually damaging our civil discourse.
Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan, formerly the Times’ public editor, earlier this year discussed why the paper comes under such criticism:
What the Times does really matters, affecting the whole media and political ecosystem. When it exerts its muscle, it can change the course of history. And when it errs — in fact or in judgment — the consequences can be monumental. And err it does.
And on one particular issue that Segura raised, the Times erred in a way that locked in a narrative that was profoundly dangerous to LGBTQ civil rights.
In light of the upcoming retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy ― the swing vote on marriage equality, whose seat Trump will now fill on the Supreme Court ― it’s important to look back at the Times’ highly damaging reporting. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College because of fewer than 100,000 votes in three states. This means any group of voters could have turned the election ― including those who voted for Trump thinking he wouldn’t harm LGBTQ civil rights.
Segura was actually being kind in saying that Haberman had asked if Trump would be “good for the gays.” Haberman actually didn’t ask the question, but rather emphatically stated her incorrect answer in an April 2016 piece titled “Donald Trump’s More Accepting Views on Gay Issues Set Him Apart in G.O.P.”
As I noted in a piece criticizing her article days later, Haberman offered scant evidence for Trump being “more accepting,” reporting that it was “puzzling” to people who know him that Trump has publicly opposed marriage equality for years. After all, Trump ― or someone running his blog ― congratulated Elton John on his civil union 11 years before, Haberman noted. Most offensively, she cited the fact that Trump had “nuzzled” former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani while Giuliani performed a drag skit at a political roast 16 years before as evidence of Trump being “more accepting” of gays.
Haberman downplayed and buried Trump’s courting of evangelical leaders on the campaign trail and ignored his promises that he would, if elected, diminish LGBTQ rights. She omitted key statements he made in conservative media outlets from Fox News to the Christian Broadcasting Network of disdain for what he called the “shocking” Obergefell v. Hodges marriage equality ruling and how he would consider appointing justices to overturn it.
As Sullivan describes, the influence of the Times in setting a narrative is profound. In story after story that followed Haberman’s, from The Washington Post to ABC News, Trump was described as supporting LGBTQ rights based on oblique and superficial statements he made at larger public forums ― and by referencing Haberman’s piece ― while omitting his very clear anti-LGBTQ promises to evangelical leaders. (I wrote column after column criticizing the media for this, to no avail.)
In July 2016, then-Times reporter Ashley Parker tweeted a story she’d worked on about Mike Pence soon being named as Trump’s running mate. The story said this action could inject the issue of gay rights into the general election debate ― an issue the story claimed had been “largely overlooked with Mr. Trump at the top of the Republican ticket.”
I replied to Parker’s tweet, saying that the issue had been “overlooked” by her and her Times colleagues, but not by others of us, and I tagged Haberman and Burns. This touched off an exchange with Burns that was quite revealing. He said that gay rights had not become a “flashpoint” in the campaign, and then asked, “When was the last speech Trump gave promising to roll back gay rights?”
I was dumbfounded.
Trump had repeatedly made anti-gay promises to evangelicals in very public forums during the campaign, as had been reported by HuffPost, the gay press and watchdog sites such as People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch.
It’s true that Trump didn’t often make anti-gay statements during his major campaign speeches that were televised ad nauseam. But aren’t campaign reporters even more obligated to tell us what the candidate is saying a bit below the radar, especially since those major speeches were televised in full on CNN and elsewhere for all to see?
At the UCLA event last week, Burns was irked by what he sarcastically called Segura’s “measured introduction,” but, tellingly, he seemed more annoyed that Segura raised his concerns publicly rather than in private. “I wish the dean had mentioned any of those things when we were hanging out in the green room before,” he said. Haberman chimed in: “There was plenty of opportunity.”
Similarly, when I wrote my critique of Haberman’s piece in 2016, she confronted me on Twitter. One of her grievances was that I didn’t privately write her an email before going public. There seems to be more concern among Times political reporters about damage control and mitigating criticism than actually addressing the very real problems their stories sometimes create ― and which can’t be undone.
Haberman was particularly annoyed that I’d speculated ― based on her reporting in that several-day period, and on statements coming from the Trump campaign ― that her motive for the story was to retain access to the campaign. As Sullivan noted, “With unique access to power, the Times is addicted to it — too often allowing those at the top of government and business to seize its megaphone.”
Indeed, the Times’ political reporters, in what seems like an effort to show they’re being “fair” and thus maintain access to the Trump team, too often give the administration a pass or a freebie. And the puff piece about Trump being more accepting on gay rights, citing weak evidence, seemed to be just that. It was desirable to the campaign because it helped Trump look more moderate in a larger forum while he could still court the hard right in other places.
With Haberman’s great reporting skills and astute understanding of politics, there’s no other rational explanation for her baffling story. The same goes for some of the gratuitous and sometimes inaccurate attacks she’s made on critics of Trump and his Cabinet, such as when she claimed Michelle Wolf had made an “intense criticism” of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ physical appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner ― a claim that was factually incorrect.
As one of her Times colleagues on the UCLA panel noted, Haberman is often called the “Trump whisperer.” But where does that status come from? It’s not magic, after all. Haberman and other reporters dole out treats, whether it’s polite defenses of Trump and his Cabinet members, “both sides” journalism or the occasional puff piece.
The suck-up pieces at the expense of LGBTQ rights at the Times have continued well after the election, even as the paper acknowledged its mistakes during the campaign and vowed to change. It pains me to see this in part because I wrote a lengthy piece in the ’90s for The Advocate, interviewing top Times editors, reporters and its publisher, on the transformation the Times had made, moving beyond a homophobic past in the ’80s and becoming a beacon of equality for LGBT people ― inside and outside the paper.
That piece was taken note of in stories in The Washington Post and other media at the time. In 2012, then-Times executive editor Jill Abramson, speaking at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention, read from my piece, detailing the reporting and expressing her pride in the changes at the Times. (Abramson is among those just in the past two weeks who’ve criticized the Times as still making mistakes in political coverage and needing “a course correction.”) That year I also moderated a panel discussion at the Times, with several of those who were interviewed in my Advocate story on the panel. So, yes, it’s disconcerting for me to now see pieces by Times political reporters that seem to excuse or dismiss homophobia.
In January 2017, as the new administration was having problems with perhaps one of its toughest Cabinet members to confirm, Times reporter Jeremy Peters wrote a piece, “Betsy DeVos, a Friend of L.G.B.T. Rights? Past Colleagues Say Yes,” that attempted to counter DeVos’ strong anti-LGBTQ record. But DeVos, since becoming education secretary, has shown herself to be the enormous threat to the well-being and dignity of LGBTQ students that many of us predicted.
The Times also was used by the Trump administration in promoting Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, even as much of his record showing a “religious liberty” crusade hostile to LGBTQ rights was surfacing. “Gorsuch Not Easy to Pigeonhole on Gay Rights, Friends Say,” read the now familiar-sounding headline of Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s Times piece in the lead-up to the confirmation hearings. Of course, it was Gorsuch’s past opinions, writings and record that mattered ― not his gay friends, as I pointed out in my response to that story. And judging by his dissenting opinions since joining the court, Gorsuch has been as hostile to LGBTQ rights as we thought he would be.
These are prime examples of what Sullivan noted: Addicted to power, the Times allows those at the top of government to seize its megaphone. It makes you wonder if there will shortly be a Times story about how Trump’s nominee to replace Kennedy, whoever that may be, has a gay cousin or a lesbian sister who says he or she is just swell.
Meanwhile, Trump, judging by the records of those on his reported shortlist of possible nominees ― all straight out of the conservative Federalist Society recommendations ― will have nominated someone to replace Kennedy who’ll likely provide a deciding vote to assault LGBT rights.
And he’ll cement his promise to the religious right ― a promise that was ignored or downplayed by The New York Times throughout the election campaign and into his presidency.
Michelangelo Signorile is an editor-at-large for HuffPost. Follow him on Twitter at @msignorile.