From the Archive: The New York Times' terrible coverage of Trump
The paper's bizarre attempt in 2016 to portray Donald Trump as "more accepting on gay issues" is a warning for 2024
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A couple of weeks ago, I introduced a new feature here, From the Archives, which I described as pieces from the past that I wrote, some of which aren’t available online but have relevance now or are simply interesting to look back on. The first one was "Cardinal Spellman’s Dark Legacy," which was from way back in 2002.
This week I’m not going back that far to focus on something highly relevant as we head into the 2024 campaign with Trump as the fronrunner: The New York Times’ access-driven coverage of Donald Trump in 2016, which we’re beginning to see shades of already. This piece, about Trump’s supposed views on LGBTQ rights, by Maggie Haberman, is a primary example.
As you read it, just think about how things turned out. From Trump’s executive orders harming LGBTQ rights and his banning of transgender people in the military to the extremist Supreme Court he created, the Times—and Haberman—were dangerously wrong. Let’s not forget that, and be sure to hold their feet to the fire moving forward.
HuffPost, May 3, 2016
The New York Times' Bizarre Attempt to Portray Donald Trump as 'More Accepting on Gay Issues'
Donald Trump is opposed to marriage equality. That is true, stated over and over again, almost a year after the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark case, allowing gay and lesbian citizens across the nation to legally marry.
Trump said on Fox News he would "strongly consider" appointing judges who would overturn that ruling, which he called "shocking." And he's assured religious conservatives on the issue in their own below-the-radar forums. Trump articulates that gay and lesbian people should be treated as second class citizens with regard to their relationships, and has made a pact with our vilest long-time enemies, getting the backing of Jerry Falwell, Jr. There really is no other way to put it: We are not equal to Donald Trump.
I would hope that in 1968, a year after the Supreme Court ruled that states couldn't ban interracial marriage, a New York Times reporter would have objectively described a politician opposed to the ruling as a racist, or at the very least wouldn't write an entire article telling us why that politician is "far more accepting" of blacks than other politicians because said politician happens to have had a lot of black friends. After all, with both of them opposed to marriage equality, saying that Donald Trump is "far more accepting" on gay issues than Ted Cruz is like telling us that Barry Goldwater was far more accepting of blacks than Strom Thurmond.
In other words, not much more. And certainly not enough to require an entire piece in The New York Times that puffs up Donald Trump as, comparatively, a friend to gays because he's done business with them and has had gay friends -- some of whom have fled him in the way his former Latino and black friends and associates have fled him.
But that is exactly what presidential campaign correspondent Maggie Haberman bizarrely did a little over a week ago. She wrote a piece headlined, "Donald Trump's More Accepting Views on Gay Issues Set Him Apart in G.O.P.," in which she selectively drew upon things like Donald Trump congratulating Elton John on his civil union in 2005, while treating Trump's opposition to marriage equality as a sort of minor detail and something "puzzling" to people who know him. Haberman even used Trump having "nuzzled" Rudy Giuliani while the former New York City mayor performed a drag skit 16 years ago at a political roast as further evidence of Trump being "far more accepting" of gays. This was offensive, to say the least, as Giuliani is a straight man who was hostile to LGBT rights as mayor and is still opposed to marriage equality. And it betrayed either a naivete on the part of Haberman regarding what it actually means to be gay, or desperation for evidence of Trump's supposed support of gays, or both.
Meanwhile, Haberman omitted crucial details in her piece, such as Trump's appearances in conservative media forums -- on Fox News, on the Christian Broadcasting Network, in a town hall with Pat Robertson and in other venues -- sometimes dog-whistling and other times clearly making public promises to evangelicals on the gay issue. (She did make a reference to "recent alliances with social conservatives," but this was buried way down, and again, presented as a minor detail that has the Log Cabin Republicans -- the only gay group quoted in her article -- "alarmed" and seeking a meeting with Trump.)
The hook for Haberman's story was Trump's having blurted out during an interview a day before that he thought North Carolina's new law specifically regulating use of public rest rooms by transgender people was bad for business and for that reason he opposed it. But no sooner had her story gone online than Trump walked back the comment quite a bit, telling Sean Hannity that while he disagreed he'd leave it up to the state -- just as he and other conservatives would leave abortion and a whole host of issues up to the states. So this wasn't support for federal civil rights. It's true that Trump has said in the past he would support federal employment protections for gays, which Haberman highlighted up front in her piece. But he recently came out in support of the First Amendment Defense Act, a bill promoted by the GOP in Congress to basically allow religious exemptions for such protections -- effectively blunting them -- a critical fact Haberman failed to report in her piece, and which I focused on in a post a few months ago looking at the danger of a Trump presidency to LGBT rights.
Haberman tried to spin her just-published story, after Trump had largely negated it by walking back his North Carolina comment, via a tweet that attempted to morph the story into something more so about Trump's "history" with the gay community -- when the story was very much about the here and now -- which, she wrote, "like everything else w him, is complicated." But Twitter (including me) wasn't having it, and neither were most of the non-Trump supporters in the comments on the Times site. Trump supporters of course were delighted by Haberman's story, tellingly seeing it as one of the few positive stories, if the only positive story, the Times has done on Trump. One explained to me on Twitter that Trump isn't anti-gay; he just believes marriage should be left to the states -- which proved the point.
Gay commentators and pundits weren't having it either, with veteran journalist Kerry Eleveld rightly criticizing Haberman's piece at Daily Kos, as did J. Brian Lowder at Slate. More telling was the silence from gay pundits and reporters who inhabit -- or aspire to inhabit -- the New York/Washington media in-crowd that Haberman inhabits. I didn't even notice any of them tweet her piece.
Haberman is a seasoned, smart journalist with a stellar reputation, and that makes her story -- and her "he's complicated" rationale for writing it -- all the more baffling. One could write the same story about Trump on any issue, after all, because he's been all over the place on everything, and one could choose positions and statements to selectively highlight while downplaying or omitting other positions or statements. So why this story? It's hard to know, as reporters are influenced by so many things in the heat of the campaign, including desiring access and competing with one another for that access.
Two days before this strange piece, Haberman and a colleague published their sit-down interview with Trump, which ran with a headline that touted Trump showing his "Softer Side," surely something that made the campaign happy. Ironically, a day later, two of Haberman's own colleagues at the Times exposed via leaked video how Trump's campaign adviser Paul Manafort is assuring GOP donors behind closed doors that the campaign was indeed reshaping Trump's image and that everything before was an "act." Five days later the Times' own editorial page, drawing upon that story, warned against getting sucked in by the Trump "Pygmalion Project." It may as well have been speaking to its reporter Maggie Haberman.
None of this is to say there wasn't a story here for Haberman, nor that this one shouldn't have been the start of it. There simply were critical facts and details missing, very little nuance and too much editorializing and puffing up. It's true that Trump doesn't loudly blare his anti-gay positions in the way he does his positions on immigration and other issues, and a piece looking at why he uses the dog-whistle on gay issues but nonetheless is as anti-gay as his opponents in what he's articulated in a more low-key manner would have been an interesting way to go.
There was another politician who was a celebrity who had many gay friends. He, like Trump, led a very non-traditional lifestyle, having been divorced. And yet, that didn't hurt him with evangelicals, as he also made dog-whistle promises to religious conservatives during his presidential campaign. But anyone who believed he'd choose his gay friends of the past or his "true" beliefs over those of the group to which he'd politically pandered were in for a terrible shock when Ronald Reagan let thousands of people die -- including his Hollywood friends like Rock Hudson -- refusing to even utter the word AIDS for years as president, lest it offend the moralists who helped put him in office.
Many of those same people are helping put Donald Trump in office -- then it was Jerry Falwell Sr., now it's Jerry Falwell Jr. -- including today in Indiana, over Ted Cruz. I doubt Trump's going to drop them if he's elected, his deeply-felt words of congratulations eleven years ago to Elton John notwithstanding. In his Nevada victory speech earlier this year, Trump bellowed, "I love the evangelicals!" He has reason to because they've turned out for him big time. And they'll be expecting a lot in return.
Maggie Haberman is a Trump shill who did everything she could to get him elected, and everything she could to help him stay in office throughout his impeachments. It's not surprising, given her mother's role doing PR for the Trump family a while back, but she never should have been given the job at the Times.
Of course, the NYT is its own set of Trump problems....
Trump may not have been as anti-LGBTQ+ as other Republicans in the past (I remember him holding the Pride flag upside down in one election event), but he has definitely jumped on the bandwagon of attacking trans people and drag queens in order to rile up his mindless ignorant hateful base voters. I'm not sure what's worse: someone who actively hates and attacks our community or someone who goes along with attacking our community because it's suits him politically...