On Sunday, May 19, New York Times finance editor David Enrich got a request from a producer at MSNBC to appear on Rachel Maddow’s show the following night. Enrich had a red-hot front-page story for Monday’s paper, about anti-money-laundering specialists at Deutsche Bank flagging suspicious transactions involving Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, and Maddow wanted to bring him on air to talk about it.
Maddow is MSNBC’s ratings queen, jostling with Sean Hannity every night for the crown of most-watched time slot in cable news. That’s why reporters tend to relish the exposure they get from doing her show. Enrich said yes, but after mentioning the planned appearance to the Times’s communications department, he was told he would have to retroactively decline. The reason? The Times was wary of how viewers might perceive a down-the-middle journalist like Enrich talking politics with a mega-ideological host like Maddow. The producer, who was informed that the Times asks members of the newsroom not to appear on opinionated shows to discuss political subjects, was miffed about the cancellation, sources said. Enrich declined to comment. An MSNBC spokesman said, “For over a decade, The Rachel Maddow Show has welcomed the best journalists from across the country and celebrated the hard work they do, day-in and day-out. This includes countless New York Times reporters and editors. That commitment to journalism is part of the DNA of the show.”
It’s not just Maddow. The Times has come to “prefer,” as sources put it, that its reporters steer clear of any cable-news shows that the masthead perceives as too partisan, and managers have lately been advising people not to go on what they see as highly opinionated programs. It's not clear how many shows fall under that umbrella in the eyes of Times brass, but two others that definitely do are Lawrence O’Donnell’s and Don Lemon’s, according to people familiar with management’s thinking. Hannity’s or Tucker Carlson’s shows would likewise make the cut, but it's not like Times reporters ever do those anyway. I’m told that over the past couple of months, executive editor Dean Baquet has felt that opinionated cable-news show are getting, well, even more opinionated. Baquet and other managers have become increasingly concerned that if a Times reporter were to go on one of these shows, his or her appearance could be perceived as being aligned with that show’s political leanings. “He thinks it’s a real issue,” one of my Times sources said. “Their view,” said another, “is that, intentionally or not, it affiliates the Times reporter with a bias.”
It's not so much a new policy as a reinforcement of an old one. Reached for comment, a Times spokeswoman pointed me to the section of the Times’s “Ethical Journalism” handbook that covers broadcast media appearances: “In deciding whether to make a radio, television or Internet appearance, a staff member should consider its probable tone and content to make sure they are consistent with Times standards. Staff members should avoid strident, theatrical forums that emphasize punditry and reckless opinion-mongering.” Without question, this is not how MSNBC's anchors see their shows (or CNN's for that matter). And these guidelines were crafted back in the mid-aughts, a media moment that seems downright quaint compared to today. (What forum is more “strident and theatrical” than Twitter, where many a Times reporter spends hours of their day? Of course Twitter has been its own minefield for the Times.)
Hand-wringing has always been an essential part of the Times's work product, but the current moment has produced a specific variety. In the supercharged post-2016 news cycle, cable news has been experiencing a gold rush, and the programming has arguably become more heated and polarizing than ever before. At the same time, there’s never been more demand on cable news for political reporters, many of whom now enjoy lucrative side hustles as paid contributors at the networks. For the Times, which is navigating its own quandaries of journalistic objectivity in the Trump era, the relationship is becoming trickier than it had previously been.
The guidelines could theoretically create a world of cable news haves and have-nots. A number of high-profile Times journalists have landed political-analyst gigs either at CNN or MSNBC (Maggie Haberman, Julie Davis, Patrick Healy, Mike Schmidt, Nicholas Confessore, Jeremy Peters, and others). It’s unclear whether they, too, would be encouraged to stay away from Lemon or Maddow or O’Donnell going forward, but the way cable-news contracts work is that contributors are obligated to appear on a network generally, not on this show or that. At the same time, several sources pointed out that political reporters generally gravitate toward shows like Morning Joe and Anderson Cooper 360 anyway. In CNN’s case, according to a network source, the only Times contributors who typically go on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon are the opinion columnists Charles Blow and Frank Bruni, who aren’t bound by the same strictures as Times newsroom staff. Of course all of this raises another point—in the current media environment, there’s hardly universal agreement on what constitutes partisan or opinionated programming. Where do you draw the lines?
For a comparison, I asked the Washington Post about its guidelines for cable-news appearances. “We view all broadcast programs as opportunities to expose our journalism to different audiences,” a spokeswoman told me. “We ask our reporters to speak objectively about the news topics they cover or share fact-based analysis with the goal of giving viewers a better understanding of a story. We also ensure clear identification for opinion journalists to share their wide-ranging perspectives.”
The Times’s reining in of cable-news hits is sure to rankle bookers and producers. In fact it already has. Sources told me MSNBC was none too pleased when the Times nixed Enrich’s recent booking. “They definitely weren’t happy about it,” said someone familiar with the situation.
A highly placed source at one of the cable networks said he found the Times’s guidelines to be “inconsistent, incoherent, and poorly conceived.” He also pointed out, “At the moment that Donald Trump became president, and print media was coincidentally in crisis mode from a business perspective, a significant contributor to the success of publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post was the exposure that their great work got on networks like MSNBC and CNN. They are the beneficiaries of some very positive exposure for their journalists.”
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