Members Only | June 24, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
How the New York Times Creates Credibility for Trump
If there are few consequences for lying, there are few for rape.
There’s a good reason why the Times decided against running on its front page news of the latest woman to accuse the president of rape. The Times still does journalism the way it always has. It gives people in power the never-ending benefit of the doubt.
When you are willing to give people in power the benefit of the doubt no matter how many times they have proven they are unworthy of that benefit, it’s not all that important when the 16th person comes forward credibly to accuse Donald Trump of anything, even if, in the case of columnist E. Jean Carroll, the allegation is rape.
Conventionally, news stories seek to weigh accusations against denials. In this case, Carroll said Trump raped her in a department store in the 1990s. (She is the 16th woman to make such allegations against the president; she outlines the allegation in detail in a new book excerpted Friday in New York magazine). The president said he did no such thing. Conventionally, this is all the press can do in the absence of a court decision. One person says one thing. The other says another. And that’s it.
That might be acceptable if this president were not Donald Trump, and if Donald Trump had not told more than 10,000 lies and falsehoods since taking office. If he were any other source, reporters would have blackballed him. No one that unchained from observable reality is worth the time it takes to figure out what’s true or what’s false.
The Times and others have created a fiction in spite of being dedicated to the truth.
The president, obviously, is a unique source. But instead of vetting the president’s claims, the Times and others—it’s not the only bad actor—decide to give him the benefit of the doubt, which is to say, give him credibility where he has little. How? By “balancing” Carroll’s accusations with his denials. Worse by burying the story on page A23 of the Sunday edition, signalling to all that the story is not that important.
In giving Trump credibility, the Times and others, but especially the Times, have created a fiction in spite of being dedicated to establishing the truth without fear or favor. That fiction is a president credible enough to be paired with a woman who has not told, as far as we know, more than 10,000 lies and falsehoods. In equating things that should not be equated, the Times upgrades Trump while downgrading Carroll.
Giving people in power the benefit of the doubt no matter what does something else. It gives people in power incentive to keep lying. If there are few consequences for lying, there’s likely few consequences for things worse than lying, like rape. All Trump had to do to keep Carroll’s allegations from blowing up over the weekend is deny them. In this sense, the Times is creating conditions in which anything is permissible for this president, and Trump can trust that he can go as far as he pleases.
This is dangerous territory.
All presidents govern in the people’s name, but only because the people have given him that authority. That authority is revocable if the president proves that he can’t be trusted. The people, however, can’t know if he can be trusted if elite news agencies like the Times continue to give him more credibility than he deserves, thus creating a media fiction that actively works against the will of the people. In this sense, the Times, wittingly or not, is enabling degradation of the American republic.
The Times, like I said, is not the only bad actor, but the Times is unique in our politics if only because the president himself considers the Times unique. Nothing gets under his skin more than the Times, because he venerates the newspaper. This is why the Times should bear a larger share of the responsibility than other major papers. This is why the Times treatment of the E. Jean Carroll story merits our critical attention.
At the very least, the Times and its emulators should frame all future allegations against this president in the context of trust so that it’s clear to readers that the president’s credibility, based on what we know, is inferior to that of his accusers. Ideally, the Times would stop maintaining the fiction of a credible president, start vetting each of his claims, and reaffirm service above all else to democracy.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.