After the horrendous mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, President Donald J Trump delivered his address from the White House. The content and tone of the speech struck all the right notes: President Trump condemned all forms of bigotry and urged the nation to unite. It was generally very well-received and regarded as an attempt to heal and bring people together. There were, of course, those suffering from an acute case of Trump Derangement Syndrome who were sceptical, but then they always will be cynical, irrespective what President Trump does or says.
The New York Times carried a report on the speech with the headline “Trump Urges Unity Versus Racism”. While the story itself was highly critical of Trump’s speech, the headline was a precise reflection of what was said during the speech.
What followed was nothing sort of an insane firestorm with the headline incurring the wrath of the Left. The Democrat Presidential candidates for 2020 led the attack, claiming that NYT’s headline was both erroneous and not tough enough on Trump. The leader of the Leftwing squad Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claimed it was “a reminder of how white supremacy is aided by—and often relies upon—the cowardice of mainstream institutions”. NYT’s very own a contributing op-ed writer Wajahat Ali condemned the headline as “terrible”, while NYT bestselling author Chuck Wendig termed it “disappointing”. Pollster Nate Silver, who embarrassed himself on election night in 2016 where he claimed that Hillary Clinton has a 71 per cent chance of winning, also joined the chaos, asserting that he would have framed the headline differently.
Any news organisation with a smidgen of integrity would have staunchly stood by their headline. It was, after all, an accurate reflection of the speech. But NYT found it impossible to challenge their far-Left base. What followed was a total and complete capitulation.
Within hours, NYT issued a new headline: “Assailing Hate But Not Guns”. President Trump aptly slammed the newspaper for this abominable surrender to pressure. The headline was amended once again to “Trump Condemns White Supremacy but Stops Short of Major Gun Controls”.
Matthew Purdy, deputy managing editor at NYT, stated that internal complaints triggered the rewrite. This was his statement:
We needed to deliver a nuanced message in a very small space under tight deadlines, and unfortunately, our first attempt at that did not hit it right.
When a group of top editors received an email with the first edition of the front page last night, we saw the headline, realized that it was not a good one and decided to change it. It’s not uncommon for our masthead editors to adjust headlines as we go.
As this conversation was happening among Times editors, readers began discussing the initial headline on Twitter. They rightly pointed out that the initial headline didn’t reflect the story accurately.
It may seem like stating the obvious but once upon a time, the function of a news organisation was to report facts. There was a great effort made by the people who ran the news organisation to be objective. Every news story that was published was subjected to a rigorous fact-checking. In addition, a lot of precaution was taken to ensure that every syllable in the story was devoid of bias. While it is impossible to eradicate bias and perspective when there is human intervention, the effort was commendable. This was the time when there was no World Wide Web and no cable TV news. Only a handful of newspapers and network TV news had a monopoly. The only way to challenge bias was to write angry letters to the organisation, letters that would often be tossed into the dustbin.
The Internet and cable boom mushroomed myriad news channels of all kinds of political leanings. This should have been a positive boom since it gave more people voices and reduced the domination of the mainstream media. But the unintended consequence was people began choosing their news based on their political persuasion. If you are a Left-winger you chose CNN, MSNBC, Washington Post, Huffington Post and NYT. If you lean towards the Right, it’s Fox News and Breitbart, among others.
The result of this polarization is perhaps that news organisations also feel the need to cater to their base. Ever since Trump was elected, both NYT and several other Left-leaning news organisations have breathlessly carried a surfeit of spurious news stories about Trump, usually emanating from unnamed sources. If they weren’t covering Trump colluding with Russia to steal the elections, they carried articles with lurid details of Trump’s love life prior to becoming president. The Mueller Report and hearing exonerated Trump while the sensationalist stories were irrelevant. The same news organisations were very lenient with Left-wing Presidents Clinton and Obama when they suffered scandals. For the Trump administration, the mainstream news media clearly abandoned its role of reporting the news and turned into a political opposition. Apart from its personal dislike of Trump, another goal may have been feeding its ravenous Trump-despising base.
On the funding front, it has become increasingly obvious that corporate houses who exist solely for making a profit are unfit for running news organisations. Firstly, they will not hesitate to cater to the lowest common denominator for readers and viewers. The result is a tabloidisation of news where the focus is on celebrity gossip and clickbait news. Secondly, they will capitulate if they stand to face repercussions. The consequence is the killing of stories if the target happens to be individuals or organisations of influence. Thirdly, they will not hesitate to publish PR pieces for a price.
It is therefore thought that the subscription model gives freedom to the news organisation to conduct itself with relative autonomy. The reporter hopes that with no corporate pressure perennially looming over, they will be able to report with independence. But what about the subscriber who is, in the end, an entity that funds the organisation? In this sense, the subscriber is not dissimilar to a corporate house. How does the subscription model survive if the entire base wants the news organisation to cover the news with a certain kind of political or ideological slant?
If NYT, for instance, covered the Trump presidency fairly, giving him credit for the strong economy, record low unemployment and the near annihilation of ISIS in the Middle East, would its Trump-hating base allow it? If there is a mass cancellation of subscriptions, will the paper survive? The headline change is perhaps an example of how the paper felt compelled to change a mere headline because of backlash. Thus the existential purpose of the paper is not truth but Left-wing propaganda.
Does it mean that in a subscriber model, the goal is to serve its subscribers first and then the truth? In an ideal world, truth, and only truth, should be the sole goal. The news professional should fearlessly stand up to challenges and report the truth irrespective of threats to cut funding or cancel subscriptions whenever an inconvenient truth is presented.
But funding is the bloodstream of any organisation, irrespective of whether the fund emanates from a multimillion-dollar corporate house or from myriad subscribers. News professionals do not operate in a vacuum, much like everybody else, and need to support their families and pay their bills—for which they need to work in a well-funded organisation. The quest for the unvarnished truth has hence become a very expensive and challenging pursuit, now more than any time in history.