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Not all varieties of journalism are the same
Journalism is more complex than people think. There are lots of steps in the publishing process. There’s the conception of the story, then the investigating and reporting, then the writing, then finally the editing and publishing. And, well, an error can occur during any one of these phases.
On Twitter, New Yorker contributor Adam Davidson criticized a recent New York Times piece written by Maggie Haberman (who leads the byline) and some others at the Times. Which of the phases in the publishing process did the Times get wrong, according to Davidson? Let’s take a look.
Hmmm, (a) conception, (b) reporting, (c) writing, (d) editing, and (e) publishing. That’s … a pretty comprehensive critique. It suggests systematic journalistic failure of a kind that would embarrass a college paper, to say nothing of the “Paper of Record.”
Is Davidson right? Let’s explore.
The problem with the piece’s conception, according to Davidson, is that
it suggests a world in which Trump has a functioning legitimate business that just happens to be under legal review and otherwise would be thriving.
If Davidson is right about this, then the operating assumptions of the piece are all wrong, and that ultimately leads readers away from an accurate picture of things, the exact opposite aim of a publication like the Times. Think about it: If background sources are used to establish a central claim of the piece, viz., that Trump’s businesses would be doing well if not for potentially politically-motivated legal challenges, and if that’s not at all what the reality is, then the piece is actively misleading people. Worse, it is doing so in a way that has potentially serious political consequences.
Davidson also takes issue with the reporting. He highlights the following passage from the piece as particularly misleading:
The deal that had the potential to reap perhaps the biggest profits for him—a merger involving his upstart social media company—is hanging by a thread, as regulatory and law enforcement scrutiny threatens to unravel it.
Davidson calls this paragraph “absolutely bonkers” and claims the news organization’s own reporting contradicts it.
In another example provided by Davidson, the story reads as if Trump himself were the ghostwriter:
His golf clubs, many of which saw a surge in business during the pandemic, have begun to attract new tournaments in recent months, including contentious ones like those managed by the Saudi-backed LIV network.
As Davidson points out, Trump’s own audited financials tell us his golf clubs are losing money—in other words, “attracting tournaments is not the same as profit.” Here’s the problem: This paragraph suggests Trump’s golf clubs are doing well—yet if they’re not, then the picture being painted lacks a resemblance to reality.
Davidson then launches into what is ultimately a broader critique of the news organization, since it has to do with the administrative and editorial dimensions of journalism. He contends that the wrong kind of reporter was assigned this story. The critique is a structural one: the idea is that, at a fundamental level, the Times misunderstands what kind of journalist it needs to assign to a story like this. Here is the offending passage from the Times article:
The company also continues to collect revenue from some of its commercial real estate projects, while many of Mr. Trump’s hotels have rebounded from deep losses incurred in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a person with knowledge of the company’s performance.
This graph—like many others—is exactly what happens when an access journalist writes a business story. Business journalists can actually report out whether or not properties are profitable. We don't just ask some insider to tell us.
So the idea is that Maggie Haberman, an “access journalist,” is ill-equipped to properly report on this aspect of the story—indeed, ill-equipped to properly report on this story at all. In this particular example, Davidson chides Haberman for relying on an insider’s say-so, suggesting that it’s journalistically naive to establish Trump’s financial status based on the motivated assessments of “persons with knowledge.” That’s the kind of thing a financial or business journalist can help determine, Davidson says.
It’s difficult to find fault with Davidson here, since the job of a news organization is to provide readers with an accurate picture of reality and the access mode of journalism simply lacks the tools to adequately analyze claims about the profitability of Trump’s hotels.
But perhaps Davidson’s problem is more with Haberman than with political reporting. He went on to conflate two different things and called them both “access journalism.” But he’s only right about one of them. Davidson was absolutely correct to say that access journalism, which relies on potentially heavily-biased sources to help establish its reporting, is inherently ill-suited for reporting on complex business matters. But then he says that’s the same as when political reporting uses experts to establish its claims. Not at all.
Here is a selection from the Times piece that Davidson takes particular issue with:
Several experts in real estate and commercial law said that Mr. Trump and his business would be able to weather the storms. The Trump Organization generated hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of its Washington hotel this year, as well as from other recent deals, and it has either refinanced or paid off a sizable portion of its loans.
Here’s Davidson’s reply:
Then this graph—more access ask-the-expert nonsense—with a total lack of numbers. If you want to show that Trump's businesses are doing well, then you need to have some actual numbers.
Hang on a sec—“ask-the-expert nonsense”? What?
Davidson is definitely right that actual numbers are needed to establish the article’s claims. But Davidson is absolutely wrong to characterize this as “ask-the-expert nonsense.”
That description suggests the problem is expertise, when the problem is veiled appeals to expertise entirely lacking in any justification. Look at the passage again: “Several experts in real estate and commercial law”—the problem isn’t with expertise, here; the problem is with the nagging sense that (a) we are not actually being provided genuine expertise and that (b) we are certainly not being given any evidence in support of the claim (in this case, numbers). Calling this “ask-the-expert nonsense” is bizarre, since you want reporting of this sort to be expert-rich.
Throughout his critique, Davidson’s animating idea is that political reporters have the wrong “sets of tools” for covering Trump, and that this ultimately does a great disservice to readers. By contrast, “good business reporters look at numbers, comps, public data, private data,” and these are the sorts of things that better establish, for reported pieces, what the truth really is about Trump’s finances.
Although I’ve defended Maggie Haberman from attacks against her journalistic choices in the past, and though I’ve found Davidson preposterous at times in other exchanges, it’s hard to find fault with Davidson’s criticism of Haberman and her co-authors here. Maybe the piece’s claims, after all the business and financial analysis is done, end up being entirely correct … the point is it’s the analysis that must drive the report’s claims, not something else that is potentially misleading to readers.