When the New York Times commissioned a cover for the January 24, 2014 issue of its Sunday Magazine, the result was an eye popping departure from the norm. Readers accustomed to covers of political powerhouses like those of Barack Obama looking presidential, a thoughtful Newt Gingrich with his chin resting on intertwined fingers or Sarah Palin flashing her toothy smile, were assaulted with an unflattering rendering of the head of a hairless Hillary Clinton embedded in a planet orbiting amidst an interstellar array of objects variously identified as the Chelsea Quasar, Friends of Bill Black Hole, Katzenberg’s Comet, and so on and so forth.
The cover by artist Jesse Lenz for an article by Amy Chozick titled “Planet Hillary” on Clinton’s influence on the people within her political universe, generated so much comment that Arem Duplessis, then the magazine’s design editor, wrote a story about its genesis, including an acknowledgement that earlier versions that presented Clinton in a more humorous and less grotesque light were rejected. Many readers were merely bemused, but some defaulted to an oft-peddled line: The Times had it in for Hillary Clinton and yet again had gone out of its way to portray her in a negative light. Indeed, when Clinton’s husband had last appeared on the magazine’s cover, he was flatteringly photographed in a dark suit with a hot pink necktie and relaxed demeanor. Indeed, the title of the article was “The Mellowing of William Jefferson Clinton.”
“This is a good study into how a merely bad idea turns into fullblown idiocy,” wrote one indignant reader. “What woman ever wants to be portrayed as a huge, round, bald blob of head, capable of gobbling up whole galaxies?” asked another.
The Times pleaded that no harm was meant by the cover, but Clinton’s defenders were back on the attack against The Gray Lady late last month after an extraordinary series of gaffes that began with an exclusive story published online and then in some print editions stating that the inspectors general for the State Department and intelligence agencies had sent a referral to the Justice Department requesting a “criminal investigation” into whether Clinton “mishandled sensitive government information” on a private email account when she was secretary of state. The account had become a controversy in its own right, the subject of Republican-led congressional investigations, relentlessly biased coverage on Fox News, and attacks by some of the Republicans who hope to face the presumptive Democratic nominee in the 2016 presidential election.
There followed a series of clarifications, changes and corrections that raised more questions — about The Times coverage and motivation — than they answered. Then came a tough column by Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan in which she took issue with the paper’s seemingly laissez faire use of the “multiple high-level” confidential government sources who “confirmed” the investigation and faulted it for a lack of transparency, and finally an unsigned Editors’ Note, certainly written by or at the behest of Dean Baquet, who as executive editor holds the highest ranking position in The Times‘ newsroom, that obliquely apologized for missteps “that may have left readers with a confused picture.”
It turns out that the “criminal investigation” was merely a procedural step in a bureaucratic dance to determine whether sensitive government information was mishandled, rather than whether Clinton herself mishandled information, but the damage had been done and the impression further cemented that the most influential media outlet on the planet — that is Planet Earth, not Planet Hillary — had again gone out of its way to portray her in an unflattering light.
I reach a somewhat different conclusion about the email story and The Times‘ coverage of Clinton overall, although one not particularly more favorable to the paper. As a career journalist who sat through hundreds of story meetings, vetted dozens of potentially controversial political stories, and directed the campaign coverage of a major metropolitan newspaper for no fewer than four presidential elections while being involved in 12 presidential elections in all, I believe that The Times made two fundamental errors of judgment that resulted in what Public Editor Sullivan termed “was, to put it mildly, a mess”:
* Reporting a less sensational version of the story would have been smart. Waiting another day to publish the story would have been smarter, but that’s not how the news business works in a hyper-competitive 24/7 world when fairness, accuracy and transparency take a back seat to being first.
* Lurking behind those shadowy confidential sources are people who want to embarrass Clinton, almost certainly including Representative Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House’s so-called Benghazi Committee and previously the source of intentionally misleading leaks concerning Clinton.
My review of The Times‘ last 50 Hillary Clinton stories betrays no particular bias, only a pretty damned good paper with a richness of resources that is devoting a fair number of them to covering a person who in great likelihood will be the next president. But as the most influential media outlet, The Times is going to be second guessed as well as be gamed by people with less than pure motives like Gowdy. The former comes with the territory; succumbing to the latter in unacceptable.