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The New York Times’ disastrously empty rape apology

But her emails.

WARWICK, NEW YORK - JUNE 21,2019: E. Jean Carroll at her home in Warwick, NY. (Photo by Eva Deitch for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WARWICK, NEW YORK - JUNE 21,2019: E. Jean Carroll at her home in Warwick, NY. (Photo by Eva Deitch for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Grey Lady finally admitted that it is capable of making big editorial mistakes.

On Monday, the New York Times ran a piece which quotes its own executive editor, Dean Baquet, admitting that the paper was wrong to underplay the latest rape allegation against President Donald Trump. “We were overly cautious,” says Baquet.

On Friday, New York Magazine ran an excerpt of writer E. Jean Carroll’s memoir, in which Carroll accuses Trump of holding her against the wall of a department store dressing room, pulling off her tights, and forcing his penis into her vagina.

Though the Times did run a short piece acknowledging Carroll’s allegation on Friday evening, it “did not promote the story on its home page until late Saturday morning and did not run a print story until Sunday,” according to the Times’ own coverage of its decision to downplay the story.

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The Times said that it decided not to give more attention to this alleged rape because the story did not meet an “informal set of guidelines” the paper developed for sexual assault allegations — guidelines that developed out of the paper’s own coverage of allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.

“Those guidelines include locating sources outside those mentioned by the accusers who not only corroborate the allegations but also are willing to go on the record.”

There are many reasons why these informal guidelines led the Times to make bad decisions on this particular story — more on that later. But, since Baquet acknowledges that the Times was overcautious here, it’s worth noting what happened several years ago when the Times abandoned all caution in its coverage of one particular story.

In December 2017, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) published a simply astounding study examining how several major journalistic outlets covered the 2016 race between Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The study looked at each of the 13,481 articles published by the Times in the 69 days leading up to the election, with special attention paid to any story that appeared on the printed newspaper’s front page. Each story that mentioned the presidential election was then classified as a “policy” story, a “personal/scandal” story, or a “campaign miscellaneous” story that neither discussed policy nor scandal.

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The results were damning. Among other things, the study found that “in just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”

Beyond the Times’ apparent obsession with Her Emails, the study found that the paper of record virtually ignored each candidates’ policy positions altogether. “Of the 1,433 articles that mentioned Trump or Clinton, 291 were devoted to scandals or other personal matters while only 70 mentioned policy, and of these only 60 mentioned any details of either candidate’s positions.” In total, only 16 front page stories mentioned policy at all, and of those “six had no details” and “four provided details on Trump’s policy only.”

Meanwhile, Trump campaigned on a promise to strip health coverage from millions of people.

Another story that also received substantially less coverage than Her Emails was a videotape on which Trump openly bragged about being a serial sexual predator. During a 2005 conversation with Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush, Trump admitted that he would “just start kissing” women without their consent, and that he would “grab ’em by the pussy.” This story broke in The Washington Post shortly before the election.

A group of Harvard and MIT researchers looked at the Times and several of its peer outlets, and evaluated each individual sentence that appeared in these outlets’ coverage of the 2016 election. According to CJR, they “found roughly four times as many Clinton-related sentences that described scandals as opposed to policies, whereas Trump-related sentences were one-and-a-half times as likely to be about policy as scandal.”

Meanwhile, “the various Clinton-related email scandals—her use of a private email server while secretary of state, as well as the DNC and John Podesta hacks—accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s scandals combined (65,000 vs. 40,000) and more than twice as many as were devoted to all of her policy positions.” (John Podesta is a founder of the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)

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Her Emails, in other words, received more coverage than Trump admitting on video that he is a sexual predator plus all other Trump-related scandals put together. The New York Times’ caution in the face of sexual assault allegations against Trump — at least as compared to its unconstrained mania to cover Her Emails — is not a new phenomenon. It did not manifest suddenly after the 16th woman stepped forward to accuse Trump of sexual predation. It’s driven its coverage of Trump from the beginning.

A quick word should be made on why the Times’ informal guidelines all but ensured that it would underplay the Carroll investigation. Recall that those guidelines ask the paper to look for “sources outside those mentioned by the accusers who not only corroborate the allegations but also are willing to go on the record.”

It’s a very common practice, when someone makes a sexual assault allegation years after the alleged assault took place, for journalists to ask whether accusers told anyone about the assault shortly after it happened. When an accuser confides in someone before the assault allegation becomes newsworthy (or, in Trump’s case, more newsworthy) that lends credibility to an allegation and suggests that the is accuser is telling the truth.

In Carroll’s case, she says that she told “two close friends,” and the Times says that it spoke to these two women and they “both confirmed that Ms. Carroll had described the incident to them, but asked for their names to be withheld.”

The problem with looking for “sources outside those mentioned by the accusers” is that such a guideline all but ensures that the Times will underreport rape allegations. To meet this standard, Carroll could have had to tell four people of her alleged rape, then withhold two of those people from everyone but The New York Times. That’s a ridiculous burden for the Times to place on someone who discloses a past trauma.

To its credit, the Times now admits that its informal guidelines misled its coverage. The fact that a prominent writer accused a sitting president of rape, Baquet now says, “should’ve compelled us to play it bigger.”

But where is the Times’ apology for its decision to treat the fact that Hillary Clinton used a personal email account to conduct work business as a much bigger story than the fact that Donald Trump admitted to sexual assault on camera? Where is the apology for the Times’ decision to treat Her Emails as the single biggest issue of 2016 — far bigger than all policy matters combined?

The price of the Times’ 2016 malpractice is catastrophic. In an election as close as 2016, every factor mattered. And even the smallest changes may have led to a different result. Clinton, after all, won the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots. And, as Tina Nguyen noted in Vanity Fair shortly after the election, “you could fit all the voters who cost Clinton the election in a mid-sized football stadium.”

Had the nation’s preeminent newspaper made minimally competent decisions about which stories to emphasize and which ones to downplay in 2016, it is very likely that Hillary Clinton would be president of the United States.

In that world, children are likely not being held in American internment camps. Trump officials are not sabotaging Obamacare. The U.S.-Iran nuclear deal is still in full effect, and the United States and Iran are not teetering on the edge of war. Neil Gorsuch isn’t quietly gathering the votes he needs to render the Environmental Protection Agency impotent. Congress did not give a massive tax giveaway to the richest Americans. A sexual predator does not occupy the most powerful job in the world.

Apologize for that, Dean Baquet.