Furor over NYT’s Trump tape is much ado about nothing

It’s absurd to single out any single event in this election cycle as odd, since the whole affair is so bizarrely weird that it feels like something you’d stumble into on the other side of the looking glass.

So, for the sake of accuracy let’s just call the convoluted controversy over the tape of Donald Trump’s off-the-record conversation with the New York Times’ editorial board interesting.

During this week’s Republican debate, you may have heard Trump refuse his opponents’ calls for him to release the recording. Here’s what’s at issue: Back in January, Trump went to The New York Times for one of the off-the-record interviews the paper’s editorial board conducts with candidates in races where the Times plans to endorse. At Trump’s request, part of the interview dealing with his views on China and trade was conducted on-the-record and a copy of the tape was made available to business reporters working on that story.

There were somewhere around 30 people at the interview, including members of Trump’s campaign staff, and the Times’ executive editor, Dean Baquet, who attended as a guest of the editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, because he was “curious” about the developer-turned-candidate. During the course of the session, Trump may have made remarks indicating that, if elected, he would take a much more flexible approach to immigration than his campaign rhetoric indicates. At some point, someone who attended the meeting may have gossiped about Trump’s remarks, or someone who had access to the tape talked about what they’d heard.

The demands Trump’s GOP rivals, who want the tape released, are easily dismissed. Anyone who requires further evidence of the developer and pitchman’s habitual mendacity and hypocrisy probably is still waiting for the nice young Nigerian man to whom they sent their banking information to wire that million dollars into their account.

As a result, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith posted this item: “The New York Times is sitting on an audio recording that some of its staff believes could deal a serious blow to Donald Trump, who, in an off-the-record meeting with the newspaper, called into question whether he would stand by his own immigration views.”

The phrasing obviously suggests that a Times editorial writer, reporter or editor was—at least in some sense—the item’s source, though nothing about it excludes the possibility that BuzzFeed’s Smith came by the information second-hand.  
Predictably, Trump’s opponents and former GOP candidate Mitt Romney—who has emerged at the frontrunner’s most pointed critic—demanded that Trump release the tape. Others called on The Times to make the contents public, though the paper understandably declined.

Normative journalistic ethics dictate that only the person who was promised their remarks would be off-the-record can waive the guarantee. It’s a principle more than one reporter has gone to jail to maintain.

The demands of Trump’s GOP rivals are easily dismissed. Anyone who requires further evidence of the developer and pitchman’s habitual mendacity and hypocrisy probably is still waiting for the nice young Nigerian man to whom they sent their banking information to wire that million dollars into their account.

What makes this affair different is the degree to which The Times’ practices and motives are being called into question. Online, the paper has been assailed by a swarm of self-appointed journalistic arbiters, who contend there’s something novel or nefarious about this sort of off-the-record conversation with a candidate. In fact, they occur—and have for as long as I can remember—in newspapers and broadcast outlets across the country.

Many of the 40 years I worked at the Los Angeles Times, for example, were spent on the editorial pages and we routinely met with national, state and local candidates seeking the paper’s endorsement. Sometimes those interviews involved the entire editorial page staff, sometimes—usually with local races—smaller groups.

While serving as the legal affairs editorial writer, I interviewed dozens of judicial candidates one-on-one. It’s a useful exercise: the format allows for a more relaxed look at the candidate and a freewheeling conversation about their views. There’s also a chance, if the interview goes well, to get a deeper and more candid feel for the office-seeker’s character and personal beliefs. Those are sorts of things you want to add to the public record when you’re considering an endorsement.

Journalism, particularly political journalism, is more than a continuing series of “gotcha” moments. It’s also an exercise in judgement and a search for understanding. The fact that we usually fall short of where we’d like to be in that search does not diminish its importance.

Internet journalist and activist Glenn Greenwald, however, has raised more fundamental questions about the interview and, perhaps more important, about the Times’ role in its aftermath.

“The off-the-record ritual in this context,” he wrote, “can have only two possible purposes: One, candidates can lie to NYT editors in order to induce them to think more favorably about their candidacy, or, two, they can secretly and honestly acknowledge that their public statements made to voters are false but have the editors be bound by the off-the-record agreement not to alert the public.” On his blog, The Intercept, Greenwald further argued that such an agreement “virtually ensures that the journalists become the candidate’s collaborator in deceiving the public.”

There’s a false either-or dichotomy at work here, one inherent in Greenwald’s conception of journalism as a kind of unending inquisition. It’s a peril of the purely investigative reporter’s mindset.

Journalism, particularly political journalism, is more than a continuing series of “gotcha” moments. It’s also an exercise in judgement and a search for understanding. The fact that we usually fall short of where we’d like to be in that search does not diminish its importance.

Greenwald—like others, though few so pointedly—goes beyond criticism of journalistic method and into conspiracy. “Having agreed to keep these parts of their discussions with Trump off the record,” he wrote, “how can the NYT possibly justify its slinking around in the dark, trying to disclose what Trump said through leaks, insinuations, and winks? It certainly stands to reason that NYT editors who gave Trump their assurance that this portion of the discussion would be off the record subsequently broke their promise: either by telling other NYT editors and reporters who then started gossiping about it, or by directly leaking it to people like Ben Smith.”

If the “leak” occurred as the result of gossip, the implied charge that the editors intended that to occur is overreaching and patently unfair. As an attorney, Greenwald surely is aware that you don’t assume a fact not in evidence. Who’s to say any journalist was involved? Perhaps a clerk or secretary who had access to the tape for some reason talked to a friend about it. It’s impossible to tell from the BuzzFeed item.

I worked with Baquet when he was managing editor and, later, executive editor of the LA Times. He is not only a street-savvy former investigative reporter, who won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing civic corruption in Chicago. He’s also one of the most straightforward and honorable editors with whom I’ve ever worked. The notion of him dabbling in conspiracy of any kind is frankly ludicrous.

Describing the Trump session to an interviewer this week, Baquet said: “It got talked about in the newsroom — that’s probably not a good thing. I may have even talked about it, to be frank. That’s probably not a good thing. On the other hand, I also think it’s much ado about nothing.”

That’s as good a summary as any—or it would be, if this wasn’t the weirdest election in history.

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