Flak-catching the Mau Maus
Some hotheads are criticizing the Times' bothsidesing, and the Times is on it!
Hi, I’m Ned Bins, deputy executive director of the New York Times. I’m kicking off sort of a fun, “retro” experiment here at the paper this summer, in which members of the staff take turns playing “public editor” — which, believe it or not, was an actual position at the Times until 2017. I know; I was surprised myself when they told me. It was like finding out that the paper still had, in some dark, unsought warren, its own typewriter repair shop, or chapel.
Legend has it that the public editor would respond to complaints about the “ethics” of the Times’ coverage on some issue or by some reporter. Perhaps in that simpler and long-dead era there was a need for such a feature. But today, as a matter of company policy, no employee ever complains about anything at the Times, and as for reader complaints, to be frank the criticisms we receive via our dusty Letters to the Editor section are either too inside-baseball to merit wider attention or the kind of thing I like to call “Democratic Sociobabble” — and I know, with the crime rate being what it is, how tired we all are of that.
But my granddaughter’s yoga instructor mentioned to me a recent story that had excited comment among her circle, a group of education professionals living in the gritty, emerging neighborhood of Prospect Heights in Brooklyn. So I thought I’d give it a bash.
In bohemian precincts, apparently, the enragés are making a big deal about the way we referred to the response to comments by Carl Paladino — businessman, onetime Republican candidate for Governor of New York, and current candidate for a U.S. House seat in New York’s 23rd Congressional District who has a history of unfortunate comments that have been interpreted by some as “racist,” such as his puzzling characterization of former First Lady Michelle Obama as a male gorilla.
Some background: In comments made on a radio show in February 2021 which have only recently come to light, Mr. Paladino said some things that I will print verbatim here, lest some radical firebrand accuse me of obscuring the facts:
I was thinking the other day about somebody had mentioned on the radio Adolf Hitler and how he aroused the crowds. And he would get up there screaming these epithets and these people were just — they were hypnotized by him. That’s, I guess, I guess that’s the kind of leader we need today. We need somebody inspirational. We need somebody that is a doer, has been there and done it, so that it’s not a strange new world to him…
Context is everything, of course, and the Times has received several phone calls, death threats, and a couple of packages marked EXPLOSIVES insisting that we address the mitigating circumstances surrounding Mr. Paladino’s statement that might better explain it to our readers: for example, that the candidate is mentally infirm; that at the time he didn’t know who Mr. Hitler was; that the Times has no room to talk because of Walter Duranty; that Mr. Hitler did in fact have some good ideas that liberals just don’t want voters to hear about; and, finally, that the editorial staff and its family members would all be murdered if we said anything about it.
We carefully considered these arguments, and in our coverage of the controversy sought to strike as neutral a tone as we could considering the subject was a Congressional candidate’s praise of the highly controversial former leader of the Third Reich. For example, our reporter notes that “Mr. Paladino did not specifically condone Hitler’s actions in his remarks” — which is the kind of even-handed reporting for which our political journalism has always been known.
Nevertheless some social media users have commented on our use of the word “backlash” in our headline. These critics charge our headline masks the fact that no “backlash” as such exists, and that while a Democrat quoted in the story criticizes Mr. Paladino, no Republican does; indeed, Nicholas A. Langworthy, a Republican who is running for the same nomination for which Mr. Paladino contends, refers to the comments as a “distraction” and a “sideshow,” and says nothing about Mr. Hitler at all.
To these critics I would say: What would you have our reporters do? Call up Republicans until they find one who is willing to go on record against Mr. Hitler? If such a person could be found, they would certainly know that their comments would be interpreted as an attack on an elder statesman of their party, and put an end to their career — just as Republican Congressman Chris Jacobs’ favorable comments on gun control apparently put an end to his career. (Ironically, it’s Mr. Jacobs’ seat Mr. Paladino is running for!) One might as well grill Republicans on their opinion of the January 6, 2021 disturbance at the U.S. Capitol.
That sort of “gotcha” journalism has no place at the Times, and as long as I’m public editor — which, ha ha, in a few minutes I won’t be! — it never will. OK, Nellie Bowles, it’s your turn, have fun!