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Opinion NYT’s Dean Baquet rips ‘fairly ridiculous conclusion’ in public editor’s column on Russia coverage

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Dec. 27. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via Associated Press)

Executive editors at the New York Times routinely differ with the public editors who deliver less-than-flattering judgments on the work of their colleagues. Less routinely do they express their misgivings afterwards. “It was a bad column,” wrote New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet to the Erik Wemple Blog via email.

The allegedly bad column came off the desk of current New York Times Public Editor Liz Spayd. In “Trump, Russia, and the News Story That Wasn’t,” Spayd criticized the New York Times for failing to pull the trigger on reporting about Russia and its connections with President Trump. Based on interviews with several journalists at the newspaper, Spayd has decided that “a strong case can be made that The Times was too timid in its decisions not to publish the material it had.”

It had a great deal of material, to be sure, and there’s a long trail of URLs to prove it. The newspaper made some key contributions to this coverage area, particularly with its August story uncovering some smelly documents relating to then-Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort — specifically, “handwritten ledgers” indicating “$12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Mr. Manafort from [Viktor F.] Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party from 2007 to 2012, according to Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau.” It also produced a probing look at Manafort’s influence and business dealings involving Ukraine.

The Times in late July also reported that the two Russian intelligence agencies were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.

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What troubles Spayd, however, is what the New York Times used as a seat cushion. “If you know the F.B.I. is investigating, say, a presidential candidate, using significant resources and with explosive consequences, that should be enough to write,” writes Spayd. “Not a ‘gotcha’ story that asserts unsubstantiated facts. But a piece that describes the nature of the investigations, the unexplained but damning leads, with emphasis on what is known and what isn’t.”

Yet the paper did write an Oct. 31 story under the headline, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” The story’s lede administered a lightning summary of the investigative landscape: “For much of the summer, the F.B.I. pursued a widening investigation into a Russian role in the American presidential campaign. Agents scrutinized advisers close to Donald J. Trump, looked for financial connections with Russian financial figures, searched for those involved in hacking the computers of Democrats, and even chased a lead — which they ultimately came to doubt — about a possible secret channel of email communication from the Trump Organization to a Russian bank.”

Spayd acknowledges that the New York Times wrote such a story, though it came “only after other news outlets had gone first.”

In Slate, Frank Foer wrote an extensive story analyzing that strange channel. “Was a Trump Server Communicating With Russia?” reads the headline. Though it’s best for a story with an interrogative headline to resolve the matter, the Slate story didn’t. “We don’t yet know what this server was for, but it deserves further explanation,” wrote Foer in his ending. A heavy debunking by the Intercept noted that many folks had bounced off the email-channel story and concluded that one explanation was Trump hotel spam.

And in Mother Jones, Washington Bureau Chief David Corn broke the story of the former Western intelligence agent who had assembled a dossier of allegations about Trump’s ties to Russia. Published a week before the election, Corn’s story characterized some of the findings that BuzzFeed this month — to much criticism — aired in their full documentary form.

Regarding the Slate and Mother Jones stories, Spayd writes, “Their stories may not have been precisely what The Times would have done, but they offered a model.” Oh no, they did not. Foer’s story was filleted so mercilessly that he was forced to answer all the very significant criticisms in a followup story. Is that the sort of butt-covering bind that the public editor would wish upon the New York Times? As for the Mother Jones piece, subsequent events have treated it well, though if the New York Times had really published something with so little surface-level corroboration, it would have made a nice target for … a public editor. Even the Erik Wemple Blog slammed the Mother Jones piece at the time, and our wife works there.

So those are not good models for the New York Times. “It was a fairly ridiculous conclusion,” said Baquet of the Slate-Mother Jones role-model argument.

An interesting passage in Spayd’s column accuses the paper of reacting too much:

In each instance, it was the actions of government officials that triggered newsroom decisions — not additional reporting or insight that journalists gained. On the server, once the F.B.I. signaled it had grown wary of its importance — without giving conclusive evidence as to why — the paper backed off. Weeks later, the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, publicly admonished the F.B.I. for being secretive about its probe of Trump. That gave The Times cover to write what it knew about the bureau’s investigation into the bank server.

The FBI at one point, notes Spayd, had asked the New York Times to delay publication of its findings on the server. Asked about that dynamic, Baquet indicates that the FBI “discouraged” publication for a single day, though it didn’t matter: “We did not have a story. It was unpublishable speculation,” he writes. “It made no difference what the Feds wanted. She doesn’t understand what happened. We reported the hell out of this, as did other news organizations, and we could prove nothing more than that there was some packets of information from a bank to Trump Tower. Read Foer’s story. What it says is this: ‘Something happened here. I don’t understand it. I have no idea. But I’m going to tell you anyway.’ Sorry, Liz is just wrong. That is not journalism. It is typing.”

Strong objections there. If Baquet sounds invested in the matter, it’s because he is. In an interview earlier this week with the Erik Wemple Blog, Baquet riffed, “We had three or four reporters banging around on that story for months,” he says. “I looked at documents pertaining to that story myself. I ran every meeting on that story. If true, it would have been explosive, but there was no evidence to support anything untoward there.” He continues, “We did all our reporting and we just made judgments as journalists.” When a news organization concludes that it cannot prove something, it doesn’t get to say, “I want to show you my notebook anyway,” says Baquet.

In its late October piece, the New York Times reported that the FBI and intelligence officials had concluded that the hacking of “Democratic emails” was a Russian initiative “aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.” Given the one-sidedness of that hacking — which embarrassed the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party with no corresponding GOP mischief — that conclusion looks risible in retrospect. A newspaper publishes one day at a time, however. “We believe that was the case — that was the state of play … I think the government shifted and … came to believe based on classified information that it was an effort to help Trump. Our view is that on Oct. 31, that wasn’t the case,” says Baquet.

Agree or disagree with Spayd’s conclusions, she depicts a New York Times at odds with the tweets of Trump, who popped out this broadside last March: