In his thundering scoop on Cliven Bundy, New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney noted that a certain cable news network has helped to whip up a frenzy over the Nevada rancher’s defiance of the federal government: “Mr. Bundy’s standoff with federal rangers — propelled into the national spotlight in part by steady coverage by Fox News — has highlighted sharp divisions over the power of the federal government and the rights of landowners in places like this desert stretch of Nevada, where resentment of Washington and its sprawling ownership of Western land has long run deep.”

Don’t interpret that line, however, as an elbow from the New York Times to the chin of Fox News. In a discussion with the Erik Wemple Blog today, Nagourney said that Fox News had covered Bundy’s standoff “sensibly.” “It’s an interesting story for them. They give it a lot of attention. That’s the way cable TV is now and I have no problem with it. CNN does the Malaysia plane.” Much of the coverage, noted Nagourney, comes from Fox News’s commentators, such as Sean Hannity, and the Bundy story — ringing with implications for federal vs. state power — “goes to their bread and butter,” he said.

To recap the events of recent hours: Nagourney’s article, in today’s print version of the New York Times, carried a couple of explosive paragraphs from Bundy regarding race in America. The rancher wondered aloud if African Americans today might be better off as slaves, “picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?” The quotes have lit up the entire political world, in part because Fox News has done a whole bunch of sympathetic coverage of Bundy, whom the feds accuse of allowing his cattle to graze illegally on public lands for two decades, racking up around $1 million in fees and fines and such.

The remarkable dimension of Nagourney’s story is its timing: A clash between Bundy’s armed supporters and federal rangers with the Bureau of Land Management occurred earlier in the month. Nagourney visited the Bundy ranch on Saturday and, to the best of his knowledge, was the only reporter around. “By this point, the story was beginning to settle down,” he said.

Bundy, however, hadn’t. He needed only have an audience to crank up his awful remarks about race. As Nagourney put together his story, which places Bundy’s crusade in a national-cum-political context, he surely sensed that the references to cotton-picking and the like would distinguish the story from all the ink that had preceded it. “I guessed it but didn’t know it,” he said. Since other outlets weren’t there for Bundy’s rant, however, Nagourney had the luxury of knitting the explosive comments into his front-page story.

A cynical outsider might just look at the timing of Nagourney’s piece and suppose that the New York Times had decided to let other outlets cover the tick-tock of the Bundy saga before swooping in with a voice-of-God treatment. Not the case: Logistical issues kept
Nagourney, the paper’s Los Angeles bureau chief, from getting to the story sooner. “That’s an old-school way of being a national or foreign correspondent, and we definitely do not want to do that,” he says.

After all this, even Nagourney wondered just how his revelations had such an impact. “My question is — I’m assuming he never said this before.”