In a discussion in March at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former “Nightline” host Ted Koppel told a story about the time three decades ago when he asked a New York Times reporter to come on his ABC program. The reporter responded that he’d have to check in with his boss, Abe Rosenthal. “He called me back later and he said, 'Abe said, ‘Sure, you want to go on ‘Nightline,’ go ahead — go on ‘Nightline,’ but then don’t come back to the New York Times,’” recalled Koppel during a chat with Marvin Kalb. “The point being twofold: One, you work for the New York Times and I don’t want you wasting precious time and effort helping Koppel out on his program. Second point was, Koppel’s going to ask you some tough questions and you may end up expressing some opinions and I don’t want my New York Times reporters expressing opinions on television.”
It seems the Times is inching back toward the Rosenthal standard.
As reported in Vanity Fair by Joe Pompeo, the newspaper recently canceled a scheduled appearance by Times finance editor David Enrich on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” to discuss a story Enrich had written on Deutsche Bank having flagged transactions by Donald Trump and Jared Kushner in 2016 and 2017. Maddow has a lengthy history of welcoming journalists with big scoops on Trump to appear on her show. In a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog, Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy wrote, “We’re not going to comment beyond saying that our guidance on external appearances has not changed. With the current cable TV news climate, we’re in the position of more often enforcing existing, longstanding guidelines in our ethical journalism handbook.”
That enforcement, writes Pompeo, encompasses Maddow’s show, as well as shows hosted by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and CNN’s Don Lemon.
The impetus for the newspaper’s initiative appears to be what C-suite types might call brand protection. That is, the mere appearance of a New York Times reporter on the set of “The Rachel Maddow Show” yields the idea that the newspaper is aligned with a liberal agenda. Koppel himself voiced this concern: “I cringe every morning, every afternoon, every evening when I see that succession of really fine reporters sitting shoulder by shoulder with people who are openly and unabashedly partisan,” he said. “Because if you’re just a regular viewer out there, how tough is it going to be to for you to make that distinction in your own mind? I get it: [New York Times reporter] Peter Baker is a totally clean, totally objective, totally professional correspondent, which I happen to believe he is. The impression, though, is damaging.”
Bolding added to highlight the condescension expressed by a journalistic icon. Know what? People can distinguish between the partisan loudmouth and the careful, measured reporter on a cable-news panel, even and especially when they’re sitting “shoulder by shoulder.” Which is to say: Placing a level-headed and fact-guided reporter alongside an activist creates a perception that enhances the Times, instead of diminishing it. And if the reporter does somehow “lapse” into opinion — as though reporters don’t already have their own opinions — perhaps it’s time for a masthead meeting.
Plus: Tinkering with permitted vs. embargoed shows may seem like a worthy endeavor to some Times executives. But to the rest of the world? “'Well, [that] the New York Times would look perfectly objective as long as they don’t appear on Maddow’ seems laughable to me,” Tim Graham, executive editor of conservative website NewsBusters.
As Graham noted, this enforcement jag of the New York Times has its limitations: For instance, reporter Susanne Craig — she of the towering scoops on Trump’s taxes — appeared on May 7 on O’Donnell’s program to discuss Trump’s massive losses as a businessman. As it happens, the New York Times has been keen on promoting its Trump-tax reporting, which is as important and complicated, but isn’t terribly bouncy.
Both CNN and MSNBC hunger for content from the New York Times and The Post. The reason? Scoops. As a measure of this dynamic, consider the Mueller report, which demonstrated that the two newspapers accounted for a whopping share of earth-moving stories on the investigation and the inner workings of the White House. Instead of just reciting stories that appear in those publications, cable-news outlets produce more compelling television if they can corral the reporter who brought the information to light in the first place. It’s this very imperative that explains why the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman, Michael S. Schmidt, Peter Baker and the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, Carol D. Leonnig and Robert Costa are among the folks who have contributor deals on cable news.
For the sake of cable news, New York Times, please reconsider! Every minute of airtime filled by an actual reporter, after all, means one less minute of airtime filled by a pundit who will offer “analysis” like this on television: “The progressive far-left policies are in some ways fear-based. They rely on a fear about climate change and um, you know, anti-amnesty Republicans.” Less of that, please.
One check on the Times cable-news policy is the reporters themselves. They’re eager to hold forth on the fantastic scoop that they just spent weeks, months or years reporting. They’ll talk about their exploits to their mothers, a curious media reporter, a random e-mailer and, preferably, to a cable-news host and an audience of millions. Any major outlet that curtails this perk stands to lose a bit of luster as an employer.
An MSNBC spokesperson put the question in sharp terms: “The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and most every other publication in America have confidence that their reporters are capable of explaining and defining their journalism to many different audiences. Hopefully, the Times will come to recognize that, too.”