Opinion | NYT Executive Editor Joe Kahn discusses covering contemporary politics

In April 2023, President Biden felt comfortable enough about his age to tell a joke about it at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. It came at the expense of a certain media outlet. “Look, I get that age is a completely reasonable issue. It’s on everybody’s mind. And by ‘everyone,’ I mean the New York Times.”

The quip was funny because of printed matter: The Times had turned out story after story after story about the president’s age and fitness for office — so much material, in fact, that it helped stir a feud between the newspaper and White House.

Now: Biden’s feeble performance at June’s presidential debate has elevated his age to the status of a national uni-topic — a story that, according to various thinkers, the media failed to place before the American people. The “best news reporters in Washington have failed in the first duty of journalism: to hold power accountable,” wrote Jill Abramson, a former Times executive editor, in a piece for Semafor.

Uh-oh, the “best news reporters in Washington” presumably includes the Times’ White House team. Joe Kahn, Times executive editor, wasn’t having any of the dismissive sentiment. He sent a memo to staffers praising his colleagues’ “steadfast, fact-based reporting” and “industry-leading articles.”

The turnabout leaves a question: How can the Times overindulge in coverage of Biden’s age one day, only to stand accused of participating in an industry-wide failure on that same issue the next day?

It cannot; this is a silly proposition that takes flight based on a couple of factors. One is that not everyone in the media-criticism space does the hours of archival search and study necessary to reach informed conclusions about Times coverage, much less about coverage by the “media.”

The other is a tendency to conflate a lack of results with media failure. Though the Times and many other outlets reported on Biden’s many lapses and concerns about his competency, Democratic power brokers declined for months and months to move against him. White House officials mounted fierce pushback operations against skeptical coverage, arguing it was miscast and irresponsible; the president’s allies on social media accused those who probed the topic of ignoring the real threat: Donald Trump, of course.

So nothing happened until 51 million people watched the story play out on live television.

What we have here is a Democratic Party failure. “It’s not for us to solve it,” Kahn told me Friday.

See below for the full discussion, which has been edited.

Erik Wemple: Jill Abramson, one of your predecessors at the Times, wrote in a Tuesday piece in Semafor that some of the “best news reporters in Washington have failed in the first duty of journalism: to hold power accountable.” The next day, you wrote in a note to colleagues that credited the paper’s coverage, “There’s ample speculation online about what the news media did and didn’t do with respect to covering the president’s age.” Was your note prompted in any way by Abramson’s evaluation?

Joe Kahn: I saw Jill’s statement that she gave to Semafor. And I also saw some of the other things that were out there kind of talking about media coverage in general. So, yeah, that was kind of the context. It wasn’t explicitly Jill, but it was kind of the context and the feeling that she captured in her note.

Wemple: Do you think that has become a consensus?

Kahn: I don’t think it’s really a consensus, honestly, Erik, because I think it’s just factually wrong. For any, frankly, even occasional reader of the New York Times to make an assessment of our coverage as having not prepared readers for this moment or having failed to look into the issue of Biden and his age — it’s very clear to me, I think it’s very clear to our readers that we have been persistently raising this issue, exploring this issue, reporting on this issue — and of fact-based analysis of Biden’s performance in office, as well as voter sentiment around the issue, has been one of the key themes of our coverage of the president himself and the campaign for years now. So it did not strike me as being a correct analysis in any way.

Wemple: Gotcha. When I posted your note to staffers on X earlier this week, there was a lot of derision and skepticism, with Ben Shapiro, one of the right’s most influential voices, writing, “Bahahahahahahahahahahah :: coughing fit :: ahahahahahahaha.” People in conservative America, I think it’s fair to say, aren’t buying your memo. Any thoughts on that?

Kahn: People are entitled and always will have their own reactions to our coverage, both on the right and on the left. It doesn’t surprise me that people on the right are dismissive of us because they are in almost every instance. But I try not to worry too much about media Twitter, whether it’s right-wing media Twitter or left-wing media Twitter.

Wemple: You mentioned earlier that you thought people would be prepared for that [Biden] performance based on Times coverage, but oftentimes the sort of things that make the most impact on people with respect to this particular issue are video presentations. Did the Times do anything on video about Biden’s various lapses?

Kahn: Video clips are definitely an important part of our news coverage, including of Biden. And, yes, I recall multiple video or video-supported pieces of journalism that we did related to age. I think there are sort of three levers that we can pull on critical stories when we think they’re important and we need to put those issues there in front of readers. One is volume: How frequently we do journalism, create stories about an important issue in the news. Another is promotion, essentially the hierarchy of stories but how effectively we use all our storytelling tools. In the old days, it used to be a simple metric of how many stories did you have on Page 1?

That’s not really the metric anymore. It is a metric. But I also look at the different formats that we cover stories like this in. And I think issues related to Biden’s age — we’ve covered it [in] multiple formats, platforms. Did we do anything in the audio space? On this issue, I feel very confident that we covered this well in audio, as well as in text and in multiple formats in terms of our digital report.

And then the third lever is an important one for me, as in the mix of news and enterprise. So, you know, there have been various news elements of this issue over the years. And of course, we’re all over those, right?

So if Biden makes an a significant stumble and a public appearance, we cover that, [and it] often would be accompanied by a video clip. When the Hur report came out, that was directly critical of Biden and referred to him as a well-meaning old man with memory issues. Obviously we covered that as a news story. So news is important, but what’s also important is: Did we at various stages also have kind of proprietary enterprise reporting — our own detailed, whether it’s investigative or explanatory or analytical, reporting that went beyond what was happening in the news, revealed information that required real reporting and insight?

And I feel really confident on all three of those levers, on the volume, on the mix of news and enterprise, and on our promotional treatment of this in terms of the platforms and formats. We covered this story really well. I feel really proud of what we were able to do on this.

Now, does that mean that we solved — the New York Times solved — the problem of Biden’s age? It’s not for us to solve it. What’s on us is to keep our regular readers as well informed as possible about an issue that would be part of their consideration about who to vote for, how to vote, in 2024. And we put that issue regularly in front of readers. Now, whether readers decide to take that information and make a different decision about their vote is up to them. It’s not up to us. We also covered many other issues about Biden’s agenda, some of which people may conclude overwhelm their concerns about his age. But our job is to keep them informed. And in this case, we did.

Wemple: Okay. The Wall Street Journal just weeks ago took an investigative approach to the story, going very deep on how President Biden performed in various meetings. What was your reaction to that story, and do you believe the Times did any version of this sort of investigative piece you mentioned just before, investigative, explanatory? Do you think you went as deep as the Journal did? And obviously the Journal took a lot of heat for that story.

Kahn: Yeah, I think there are several pieces that we did much earlier than the Journal did. I’m thinking, in particular, about some coverage that Peter Baker led two years ago — almost exactly two years ago, as Biden was still pre-announcement for his run in 2024. They took a deep look at his performance in office and [offered] some observations of different episodes in which he has exhibited some degree of memory loss or frailty — that had an investigative element and a deeply reported element. And prompted a really sharp backlash from the White House and the Biden campaign at that time. But we felt like it was an issue that needed to be prominently on the agenda as … Biden and the people around him were weighing whether to run again. So I feel, yes, we absolutely did come at that issue. That’s not the only occasion. There were multiple other pieces of journalism, some of which also involved deep reporting. You know, I think the Wall Street Journal took a crack at it. I feel pretty confident that we were on that subject prominently, both in terms of news and enterprise, well before the Journal was, but certainly other media have had opportunities to look at this as well.

Wemple: But the Journal went behind closed doors to stuff that wasn’t available on video or to public view because the Biden people had said you should see him, you should see him in his work, in his regular quotidian tasks and how he performs behind closed doors. Do you think you guys had anything paralleling that?

Kahn: Yeah. I think if you look at that work that Peter did, the one that I’m referring to, from two years ago, it had a very similar element of looking for evidence behind the scenes, as well as in public appearances related to Biden. And yes, it is true that people who worked with him in that story and others continued to say that in smaller group meetings and one-on-one sessions, Biden continues to be sharp, even if he has these other episodes. But it was a significant catalogue of Biden’s performance, including nonpublic elements of his performance.

Wemple: One of the critiques of the Journal’s story was they relied too much on anonymous Republican sources. And clearly Republicans, at least in my view, have had credibility problems since Trump has lied himself into the position that he has now, which is head of the party and having served a term as president. That said, what is your view of Democrats’ credibility on Biden’s age on this particular issue?

Kahn: I don’t think the White House has been fully forthcoming on the issues around Biden’s performance and his age. I think there’s a good deal still to do in terms of accountability reporting. Among those who had the most exposure to Biden, and you know how to reconcile that with their public comments and the pretty obvious signs that Biden has had some significant deterioration in his health. I don’t think we know the full story yet. I’m eager to continue to report more about to what extent his health deteriorated more recently, as our recent reporting has showed that it probably did. But I don’t think that what we’ve observed and reported about his performance aligns with the public statements of White House officials, the campaign or leading Democrats about Biden.

Wemple: You say the White House hasn’t been fully forthcoming. Can you break that down a little bit more for me? Is it just that they haven’t come forth with all the information you think would be helpful? Or do you think that they’ve been deceptive or mendacious in any way?

Kahn: I don’t know — I can’t really judge that issue in particular. I don’t think that we’ve seen statements from the people most closely associated with Biden that would have prepared the public for his debate performance. … Many tens of millions of people were very surprised by his performance, and it didn’t align with the statements that Biden remains very vigorous in terms of his performance on the job. That was a critical moment. And he performed very badly. I think that’s a universal judgment. So I don’t think it’s very difficult to compare the public statements from the campaign or the people around Biden with that performance and have questions about their accuracy.

Wemple: Understood. The Times has famously fought with the White House, as memorialized in a Politico story. How would you characterize the White House’s response to your coverage?

Kahn: I think this White House has a relationship with the New York Times, possibly with other media as well that isn’t that atypical of the way administrations deal with independent media. There is a respectful but also adversarial element to coverage. And there should be, honestly: We have a full range of coverage about all aspects of the Biden administration, including critical, analytical and investigative reporting. And we get regular pushback when they disagree with elements of coverage. I do think the Biden campaign in particular has put out a stream of statements and accusations about the media and specifically at times about the New York Times that I think are wrong or exaggerations.

Wemple: Specifically what claims? What accusations?

Kahn: You know I can’t — you can kind of go through their own campaign statements. They cite the New York Times as failing to do an adequate job of pointing to the disruptive plans and policies and threats to democracy of the Trump campaign and focusing too much on the flaws of Biden. And I’ve seen that kind of repeatedly. I very much disagree with it, but …

Wemple: Media Matters did a study showing that 78 percent of Times stories in this general topic area were focused just on Biden’s age and mental acuity, and not Trump’s. Six percent focus exclusively on Trump’s. That’s clearly what you were just referencing. Is that a fair proportion?

Kahn: I think it’s just a completely spurious statistic that doesn’t align with the way we covered these issues at all. I think we had full and fair coverage of Biden and his age issue in a way that I think was relevant. And we’ve had extremely full coverage of all the issues around Donald Trump, including his performance — on the stump, on the campaign trail, his sort of stream-of-consciousness rallies, the frequent falsehoods in his public statements and in his social media feed. And just, you know, I just don’t accept the metric that they’re applying to this. We’ve had literally hundreds of pieces of journalism about all aspects of Trump and his performance and his character as a leader and his extremely disruptive agenda were he to come back into office in 2025. But also on all those levers, the volume question, the news: There is no question that a reader of the New York Times would be fully informed about all the issues related to Donald Trump and the implications of him getting a second term, which he’s called an opportunity for retribution.

Wemple: Back in September 2022, Biden had that “Where’s Jackie?” moment, if you recall that. [In which Biden at a public event called out to a congresswoman who had died more than a month previously.] The Times covered it with a stand-alone story. … But then it doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in the subsequent coverage. I thought that was a real significant moment. That really was outside of most of the other, sort of like, lapses and so on and so forth. Why not continue to go back to that, to study that and to dig in on that particular one?

Kahn: I think you’re right. We covered it in the moment. I think we also continued both before and after that to look for enterprise opportunities on that subject. I don’t honestly recall, Erik, you know, whether or why we went back specifically at that episode. I think there have been a number of episodes for Biden in terms of public misstatements. I can recall some of them off the top of my head — mixing up the presidents of Egypt and Mexico — that prompted us to go back at that issue. I do remember the “Where’s Jackie” episode. I don’t know that we went back. … We certainly documented it. Did we go back and separately look at that? But I think there are so many examples where we did go back and we did try to kind of contextualize public missteps in the broader context of his fitness. So I don’t have a specific answer on that one, but it was another interesting data point. I agree.

Wemple: Sometimes news organizations put together these compilation videos, supercuts of all these things. I didn’t see one from the New York Times.

Kahn: Perhaps there’s an opportunity to do that, but I think it’s also very clear from the coverage that we’ve covered all of this.

Wemple: Are you involved in a lot of these calls about Biden’s age, and have you been involved in pushing back at the White House?

Kahn: I have met with officials in the White House, yes, about their concerns. Actually, their No. 1 concern has been … our coverage of Biden’s age, which they think has in the past helped set a standard for the industry. And the fact that we’re covering it so much puts it on the agenda in their view, in excess of the real situation with his age. I’ve sat down with them and talked with them about that and said, ‘We believe that this continues to be one of the important issues on voters’ minds. But we also intend to cover all aspects of Biden and his performance in office and his policies and his agenda.’ That was in the context of trying to continue to push for us to have a full interview with Biden, which they’ve declined to provide to us.

Wemple: Have you gotten any complaints about age coverage since the debate?

Kahn: No, I have not personally gotten complaints about age coverage. I think there’s an element that the Biden White House is in a little bit of crisis mode right now in trying to deal with it. So I don’t think they’re singling out us that I’m aware of. Certainly at this point, most of the news media is covering this issue with kind of a universal focus on age.

Wemple: This may be asking you to know too much about your audience, but obviously the White House, Media Matters, liberal Twitter was all over you guys about your coverage of Biden’s age. Then when you sent a note to staff saying you’ve done really fine work on this, you see a lot of conservative voices hammering you guys for not having done enough. Do you spend any time thinking about that? Is that just [life] at the New York Times? Or is there something about that that you can learn from?

Kahn: One job as an editor is to try to tune out some of the stuff that’s just pure noise but listen to the criticism that may have an element of truth and try to figure out if there are some aspects of our coverage where we’ve had blind spots, where we’ve missed something, where we’ve underemphasized something important in development or naturally overemphasize something. All those levers that I talked about, promotion volume, news and enterprise: Some of the feedback that you get can help shape that. You know, you don’t want to kind of follow media Twitter off a cliff. But I think it’s also a mistake to absolutely, completely tune it out. And so somewhere in the middle there looking for elements of criticism that have a grain of truth — that should be something that we consider as part of our coverage, but not letting sort of punditry or the pretty predictable left vs. right critique of us kind of overly dictate of how we cover. We sort of approach it as an independent media organization. We do journalism that we think is valuable for our readers. And at the end of the day, that’s what we’re going to be judged on.

Wemple: As you look back at this coverage, it’s probably pretty clear that conservative America was not terribly surprised by Biden’s performance at the first debate. I think a lot of people on the other side of the political divide were more surprised or fully surprised. Do you think there’s anything the Times or other news media organizations can borrow from right-wing media in terms of covering this age question?

Kahn: I think there are things that right-wing media can borrow from us — meaning to do actual, real reporting about these issues rather than to sit back and spin issues or do kind of curated, edited clips to try to make a point.

Source link

Related Posts

Next Post

Follow Us



    Please install/update and activate JNews Instagram plugin.