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An open letter to Amy Chozick and the NYTimes.

Dear Amy et al,

I just heard your interview on Trumpcast with Virginia Heffernan about your experiences covering the Clinton campaign during 2016 that you write about in your book, Chasing Hillary. Heffernan made you squirm, didn’t she? She never mentioned Chelsea’s hair or popping Champagne. That would be a distraction from what Heffernan actually zeroed in on, which was how the NYTimes handled the hacked DNC emails.

I learned a little bit about you. I learned that you think you have an “Aw shucks, I’m just a girl from Texas” attitude. That’s your persona. You didn’t hobnob with your colleagues at Columbia or Harvard. Noooo, you’re from Austin, thrown into the big, competitive works of the NYTimes, wondering how you’ll fit in. Maybe that persona explains something about what you missed and what you failed to do when you covered Hillary in 2016. You were very revealing.

Let me divert you with a story of my own. When I was a freshman, I had the choice to study a hard science or the classics. My academic advisor got rave reviews from my classics and writing professors. They wanted me to switch my major and go to law school down the road.

I thought about it. I loved my classics and philosophy courses and persuasive writing. Law school would have been a natural fit for me. But when I thought about it, I couldn’t stomach the idea of learning torts. I projected myself down the road and decided that I found the workings of the cell and nature to be much more interesting if less lucrative and impressive.

I got a degree in Chemistry instead. I have never regretted that decision.

You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this.

Recently, after years of unemployment, when the pharmaceutical industry collapsed, throwing hundreds of thousands of us out of work and into an extended period of unemployment, I wondered if a law degree would have been a better economic cushion. By now, I would have been well established. I might have had different expectations in my personal life. I would have been more secure financially.

But I would have been a less good lawyer without the experience and discipline of mind that I acquired with my years in research.

I am bringing this up because, as a journalist, you have reached the pinnacle of your profession. You have a job at the New York Times, the “paper of record”. But you are not a very good journalist.

Yes, you might be able to write well. Yes, you can attract readers with what you write. Yes, you can win prizes someday. But success is not the same as quality. No one would argue that McDonald’s is quality cuisine even if the company is successful.

I think Heffernan got under your skin because she related her own experience at the NYTimes when she was involved in writing about the diplomatic cables that Julian Assange gave the papers. They were probably in the cache that Chelsea Manning brought to WikiLeaks. It was giddy for Heffernan and Keller to be in on something that said something so important about the moral authority of the United States in Iraq. You can criticize the source of the material but Manning’s action was driven by an idealism about how our behavior in Iraq conflicted with our national values. She felt that Americans needed to know about what the government was doing in our name.

But the hacked DNC emails that the NYTimes obtained from what was eventually discovered to be a Russian initiative, did not highlight any national interest hypocrisies. They were just embarrassing to the campaign of only one candidate to the benefit of the other candidate. They revealed a campaign that had some internal divisions, just like any campaign. They revealed that the actors were flawed. They weren’t criminally or morally flawed. They just weren’t perfect. And to those of us who were Clinton supporters, no one’s minds were changed.

The reason our minds weren’t changed is because the behavior of the other candidate was so alarming and over the top that we couldn’t believe that Hillary wasn’t already ahead of him by 40 points. Instead of seeing critical coverage of Donald Trump’s background, his flimsy “policies” and a historical retrospective analysis on how Trump’s tactics resembled other dangerous leaders, you focused on peccadillos of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

I keep meaning to go over the concept of false equivalence. You journalists keep using those words. I don’t think they mean what you think they mean. Someday, I’ll give you my anecdotal review of what the media’s coverage was doing to undecided voters I met.

But back to Heffernan’s interview. She asked you about the decision to release the memos. You explained that the decision wasn’t in your pay grade or something to that effect. But Heffernan is crafty. She’s a much better critical thinker. She got you to admit that you didn’t make the decisions, you were just following orders.

And that was all I needed to hear about the book you wrote that I will not waste my last audible credit on. By the way, I read a lot of non-fiction, history and other books that require concentration. I’m not an Einstein but I think it’s important to exercise my mind. So, buying your book was one of my options for that last audible credit even if I didn’t think I was going to agree with most of it. I like to challenge myself. I recommend In The Garden of Beasts by Eric Larsen to understand how we got to this point. It was published well before the 2016 election season but it was eerie to watch how journalists blithely fell into the same pattern 80 years later.

Heffernan was relentless. She’s a damn good interviewer. She got you to admit a lot of things you probably would have preferred to have left unsaid. What I got out of it was that you may have the ability to think critically and act ethically but you choose not to. You think your role is to remain detached from taking sides and in the end, this detachment allows you to not make moral decisions, even when your country’s future is at stake. You expect us to believe that a person who got to this point in your career did not have any idea who might have been behind all the hacking and ratf*cking stories about Clinton even after your paper was on record teaming up with some unseemly operatives who had written some over the top character assassinating publications on Clinton and the Clinton Foundation.

I’m going to guess that in the excitement of a “knock down drag’em out” campaign season when calm rationality seemed boring and passé compared to the unhinged guy on the other side who said whatever popped into his mind without restraint, anything controversial must have added fuel to an already blazing inferno of hyperbolic coverage. It was very easy to let your standards slip because, what the hell, everyone else was letting it all go.

Coverage of Clinton got to be so petty and personal and gratuitously mean in the New York Times that even Paul Krugman pleaded in October 2016 for you and your colleagues to pull back before you destroyed her momentum past the point of no return. Do you remember that, Amy? It was a frantic plea for you guys to stop your senseless feeding frenzy before it was too late.

I sometimes wonder if we should attribute your contribution to Hillary’s loss as a matter of malice or stupidity. I think it’s neither. The problem was lack of self-restraint, critical thought, the ability to do thought experiments, and lack of concern for your country. I come to that conclusion because in spite of all your efforts, 65 million people were able to apply those thoughts and reached the conclusion that as imperfect as the most qualified person we have ever had running for office as she was, she was a much better choice for running the country and would have protected us from the awfulness that would follow if she lost.

Surely, that was more important than “just following orders” and basking in the status of being a “journalist” at the NYTimes. What you told me today was that you are unable to carefully evaluate the news around you, put it in perspective and tell people what they need to hear. You may think it wasn’t your job to tell us about the massive destructive hurricane that was bearing down on us and what we could expect if Trump won, ie his lack of policy, his unsettling nationalism, his hostility to the press. You weren’t even protective of yourself.

Maybe we gave the NYTimes too much credit in light of what we learned about its complicity in the run up to the war in Iraq. How did we forget so quickly about Judy Miller drinking her first post-incarceration cocktail from a “gorgeous glass”?

I think many of us are wiser now. There are good reporters at the Times. The ones covering the Weinstein sexual harassment scandals are good. The one that covers the cost of medicine is extraordinarily good. I would have given a Pulitzer to those reporters. Maggie Haberman got a Pulitzer because she represents the “failing New York Times” in a hostile White House. I’ve read her and I’ve stopped reading her. I find her shallow and not particularly informative or insightful. But I understand why the Pulitzer committee gave it to her. It was supposed to send a message to the Trump White House.

But the NYTimes will never be the same to me after 2016 and it’s partially because of the coverage of the Clinton campaign. I’m not sure I learned anything of value about the news business except that reporters who allowed themselves get caught up in the melee without critical thought and a complete absence of a sense of goodness, probably don’t merit the title of journalist. You got distracted from telling us what happened from day to day in the context of the country in which we live. That’s what I learned. Well, that and that you probably would have been better off if you’d spent time doing research before you decided to go into journalism.

Sincerely,

RD

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