A gigantic double standard was on display in The New York Times on Wednesday as the newspaper reported on articles of impeachment brought against Donald Trump. It's a disturbing double standard that revolves around the paper's stubborn refusal to call Trump, who is a congenital liar, a liar.
The Times' front-page headline, as it appeared in print, was "Democrats Put Focus on Ukraine In an Effort to Protect Moderates." The article, which as of this writing is titled, “Trump ‘Ignored and Injured’ the National Interest, Democrats Charge in Impeachment Articles” on the paper’s website, emphasized that "Democrats made a careful political calculation intended to project unity and protect moderate lawmakers who face steep re-election challenges in conservative-leaning districts."
That's kind of strange, right? For only the fourth time in U.S. history, articles of impeachment have been introduced in Congress, and the Times' front-page story was that the party that holds the House of Representatives was playing politics with impeachment by limiting the articles in order to help "moderates" get reelected next year. The article made a no mention of any political calculations being made by Republicans with respect to impeachment—only Democrats.
But here's the thing: There wasn't a single Democratic member of the House quoted on the record to confirm the claim that concern for "moderates" dictated the impeachment strategy. There wasn't one Democratic member of the House quoted off the record. There wasn't a single Democratic staffer quoted on or off the record. There were no sources quoted. The Times somehow just knew that Democrats were essentially pulling their punches for strictly political reasons.
Quick question: Electorally, why would it matter if Democrats announced four articles of impeachment or two? Does the Times really think voters are so keyed in to this impeachment process that 11 months from now, when they go to the voting booth, they're going to say to themselves, “Gee, I like this Democrat, but oh my gosh they voted on four articles of impeachment”? It's illogical.
Also, who are all these Democratic moderates facing steep re-election challenges in conservative-leaning districts that the Times referred to? According to The Cook Political Report newsletter, as of today there's not a single Democratic member of the House who is expected to lose their seat next year.
The larger problem with the mind-reading approach employed for the Times’ impeachment coverage? When it comes to covering Trump, the Times has been adamant that, because journalists cannot read Trump’s mind, they're limited in how they can describe him. Recently asked whether Trump is a racist, Times executive editor Dean Baquet demurred: “I don’t know. I think Donald Trump says racially divisive things. I think that’s a little bit different. I’m not in his head enough to know whether he says them because he wants to stoke his base.”
Fact: Trump is a racist.
He constantly uses racist language, such as when he demanded that U.S. congresswomen of color "go back" to where they came from and likened predominantly black American cities to rodent-infested hellholes. Yet instead of reading the accurate term "racist,” news consumers have been fed a cornucopia of pointless euphemisms to describe Trump and his actions: "racially tinged," "racially charged," “racially incendiary,” “disparaging," "racially infused," "crass epithet," "crass denigrations," “bluntly vulgar language."
This is the exact same hollow excuse the paper uses for not calling Trump a liar. The rule: Unless Times reporters can occupy Trump's mind, there's simply no way they can determine whether he's a liar. Because, gee, it's possible Trump is just misinformed when he spews "falsehoods." Therefore he's not technically lying, and it would be disrespectful for the newspaper to tag Trump as a constant liar. Right, except it's been documented that Trump has told some of the same "falsehoods" over and over, sometimes as many as 50 to 60 times each, which would mean it's impossible that he's simply misinformed, because those lies have been fact-checked for months, and in some cases years. (This, as Trump's presidency officially becomes the Land of 10,000 Lies.)
That mind-reading defense is a convenient cop-out for the Times. It's also embarrassing to watch the newspaper's leaders treat this so-called conundrum as if it's some impossible-to-solve physics equation, as editors gather and try to determine the correct answer: Is it possible Trump is a liar? The Times has decided that its official policy is to pretend it simply can't figure out what is going on. (When White House adviser Kellyanne Conway lied her way through a CNN interview about Trump's history of hush money payments earlier this year, the Times claimed that she had merely "made false and misleading statements.")
Meaning, all of this is a gigantic waste of time and energy. My hunch is that it's done for access—that if the Times were honest with its readers and routinely labeled Trump a liar, then the newspaper's access to Trump might be cut off. It's also done to fend off right-wing claims of "liberal media bias."
In 2018, longtime Hillary Clinton adviser Philippe Reines mocked the Times on Twitter for publishing a 1,400-word story about Trump’s lies about the so-called "deep state" without ever using the word "lie" or "liar." One of the newspaper's reporters, Julie Davis, responded by insisting that critics focusing on the use of the L-word were wasting their time, suggesting that the omission wasn't a big deal: "If all you can focus on is the absence of 1 word that you want to see, perhaps journalism isn't what you're looking for."
But journalism is what we're looking for. And we're also looking for a paper that doesn't presume to read the minds of Democrats while insisting it's not possible to do the same with Trump.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.