In its no-holds-barred campaign to get Biden off the Democratic ticket in this year’s presidential election, the New York Times has reached a level of journalistic activism I haven’t seen from that organization in my lifetime. Although the Times won’t acknowledge that it’s doing this, or explain why or who’s making the decisions, the onslaught from both the editorial and “news” pages leaves no doubt in my mind, and I’m not remotely alone on that.

But when the Times published what will someday be the focus of ethics classes in journalism schools — an account of neurologist visits to the White House, inviting unfounded speculation that Biden has Parkinson’s disease (he doesn’t) — we shouldn’t chalk it up to just another missile in the Times’ anti-Biden barrage.

This story was a disgrace. Dripping with innuendo, it contradicted itself once the reporters got to the place where they added context that belonged at the very top. The editors who let this story out into the world are either incompetent or indifferent to the standards that should rule in situations like this.

I’m going with indifferent, because the editors also had to know that the piece was going to launch an innuendo storm throughout the media. The Times, for better or worse, has massive influence on what other journalism organizations publish. So this story was predictably going to dominate the day in political coverage, and was the spark for a grotesque scene in the White House press room, where journalists shouted at a press secretary who was a hundred times more competent and respectful than they were.

The Times killed off the position of public editor in 2017, early in the Trump administration. If that post was reinstated and occupied today by someone who had authority and honor, I have zero doubt that he or she would be preparing a scathing denunciation of this pathetic episode.

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Someone who follows my work suggested to me that the Times must know something devastating about Biden that it can’t print (yet), for whatever reason. I’ll grant the possibility, but would rate the probability as roughly the same as winning big money in a lottery. The likeliest explanation for anything, per Occam’s Razor, is usually the correct one — and what’s likely here is that the Times got so caught up in its dumping on Biden that it couldn’t resist something that — only at first glance and not an inch past that — might be sensational. I don’t know and the Times almost never explains itself.

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Note: I’ve revised my description of the Times editors who let this travesty happen. The word I originally used could be interpreted as an accusation of corruption, which I emphatically do not believe should apply here.


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2 thoughts on “The NY Times’ neurologist story was a disgrace

  1. As a retired reporter and editor, I’m aghast at incompetence which begs to be described as deliberate. Not just this story, but a misquote of a pool report in which they said he admitted to falling asleep during the debate while everyone else properly quoted his joking remark that he was so tired he nearly did. Now they’re circulating a story that Nancy Pelosi said he should consider stepping aside when the clip at Morning Joe clearly indicates that she said he should make up his mind and the caucus would back him up.

    I never got away with that kind of sloppy work and I was at far, far smaller newspapers. Not sure it matters whether they are purposefully dishonest or just incredibly incompetent.

  2. I’ve seen the story about Parkinson’s floating around earlier. It’s possible that what happened here was a fear-of-missing-out rush, where there wasn’t sufficient fact-checking about something which confirmed the beliefs of the reporter and editor. It’s not exactly unknown for stories to be “too good to check” – though of course this case is very embarrassing.

    But what do you find so “won’t acknowledge that it’s doing this, or explain why or who’s making the decisions”? I thought the “President Biden Should Leave the Race” Op-Ed was quite clear, and the surrounding coverage pretty open about the motivations. The basic problem is that literally in the space of an evening, the idea that “Biden is too old to be a winning candidate” went from being a Republican calumny, where any Democrat who broached it should be harshly attacked as a fascism-enabler, to conventional wisdom among many (not all, but many) high-level Democratic Party power-players. I don’t find that mysterious or puzzling, the reasons were obvious. I also understand why this has caused whiplash. Note there’s an “extreme” version, “Biden is senile”, which does seem to be false. But there’s a “moderate” version, something like “Biden is too enfeebled by his age and the demands of the Presidency to also campaign effectively” – and that seems to be debate-ably true (pun originally unintended, but I like it).

    Once more, on “show, don’t tell”, a real question – what would you consider adequate to meet your standard of “transparency”, and why is that Op-Ed not good enough? This reminds me of a long time ago where I talked about how top bloggers would slice and dice the standard, so that even if they had enormous conflicts of interest, just put the right few words in the right place, and – it’s OK, they were covered, it was moral. But if anyone else did something even slightly dubious, those people would never get it right, the requirement would always be set so they didn’t qualify and were immoral. What specific hypothetical words need to be said, where?

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