Trump is gone – can we now talk about fake news at the NYT?

The ‘Grey Lady’ is in deep trouble – like it has been so many times in its 169-year history.

New York Times
People line up for taxis across the street from the New York Times head office in New York [File/Carlo Allegri/Reuters]

These days you wake up in the morning, glimpse at the front page of the New York Times, and you see the United States is in deep turmoil. The situation is so dire that even the journalists from our “paper of record” seem to be struggling to find headlines bold, scary and eye-catching enough to lead their daily reports on America’s ever worsening calamities.

With the continued trauma of Donald Trump’s disastrous tenure as president on one side, the deadly COVID-19 pandemic on the other, and the economic fallout of both in between, the very fabric of this country is being torn apart.

Trump’s second impeachment trial for his role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, which resulted in his acquittal after just five days of deliberations, laid bare the myriad divisions crippling the nation.

As the Democrats tried to whitewash their own systemic corruption by assuming a nauseating holier than thou attitude throughout the trial, the Republicans fully embraced their new role as the elected representatives of America’s white supremacists, to the delight of millions of racists who continue to support Trump after his attempted coup.

Most Americans, meanwhile, had to relive the terror of the deadly January 6 coup attempt as they listened to testimony after testimony detailing the former president and his supporters’ attack on their democracy and constitution.

One Democratic senator making a case for the conviction of Trump even burst into tears when explaining how his daughter visiting him in the US Capitol on that fateful day said she never wanted to come back to the nation’s capital.

In 1953, when the Americans and their British co-conspirators staged a military coup in my home country, Iran, I was just a small child. So I do not really know how it feels to watch in real time a violent attack on the will of your people. But I still sincerely sympathise with that Senator, as I too struggle to alleviate the fears and anxieties my own four American children have about the current state of their troubled homeland.

Under these grave circumstances, Americans desperately need accurate reporting and trustworthy facts in their daily lives. Reliable journalism is more vital for the wellbeing of our society today than ever before, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of misinformation it sparked, are still raging.

But who should Americans turn to for accurate information? Fox News, Newsmax and Breitbart to their right? Or CNN, MSNBC and Washington Post to their left? These two sets of media outlets exist in different realities and speak to two different peoples, who are falsely and ridiculously presumed to be a single nation.

In this depressing, deeply polarised media landscape, many turn to the New York Times, our “paper of record”, to avoid “fake news” and consume quality journalism.

But does the New York Times deserve the trust of the American people?

The ‘Grey Lady’

Soon after the turn of the 20th century, the New York Times established itself as the US “Paper of Record” by virtue of its presumed objectivity and journalistic integrity. But the “Grey Lady”, as the paper is often affectionately called, is now in deep trouble – like it has been so many times in its 169-year history.

There is no point in listing all of its failings, as they are so many and each one of them is symptomatic of much larger issues the Times has failed to address. There are books written on the subject. But we can briefly look at the newspaper’s most recent failings to understand the level of trouble it is currently in.

In June 2020, one of the paper’s top editors, James Bennet, had to resign after publicly defending his decision to publish an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton. In the op-ed, titled Send in the Troops, the fanatical Trump ally called on the then-president to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 and order US military forces to crush the Black Lives Matter uprising launched in response to the police killing of George Floyd. There was an outcry from Black journalists at the Times, and Bennet had to leave.

The next major failing came just six months later. In December 2020, it was revealed that the paper’s award-winning 2018 podcast, Caliphate, was mostly based on the testimony of a Canadian man who pretended to have fought for ISIL (ISIS) in Syria. When it became obvious that this so-called “ISIL terrorist” has likely never visited Syria let alone joined ISIL, and that the journalists in charge of the podcast just bought his lies without any scrutiny, the New York Times had to apologise to its readers. It called the failure to verify the fake terrorist’s claims “an institutional failing” and claimed the podcast “did not meet the standards of Times journalism”. It swiftly returned the Peabody Award it received for the podcast, but fell short of firing the two journalists – Rukmini Callimachi and Andy Mills – who sold the claims of a fantasist as fact to the New York Times listeners in the podcast.

The once hugely popular podcast, and the fake testimony at its very core, also contributed to the ongoing rise of Islamophobia in the West. The testimony of the fake terrorist provided ammunition to those convinced of the inherent, arbitrary and uncontrolled violence of Muslims. Moreover, the podcast overemphasised the role of religious ideology in the rise of the terror group, while ignoring the geopolitical context it emerged from, strengthening the perception that terror is a “Muslim” problem. The Times editors, however, made no attempt to recognise let alone apologise for the real-life consequences of this “institutional failing”.

In early February, we learned that not just one but two prominent New York Times journalists left the newspaper. One of the journalists that departed was Donald G McNeil Jr – a veteran health and science reporter who had been accused of using a racist slur on a Times-sponsored student trip. The other was Andy Mills – the infamous producer of the Caliphate podcast.

Racism, sexual harassment, never mind Islamophobia

Before reading the details of their firing, I naively assumed McNeil Jr was sacked for his racism, and Mills for his apparent journalistic failings and Islamophobia.

As it turned out, I was only half right.

Yes, McNeil left the newspaper over the use of racist language, but Mills’s dismissal had nothing to do with his Islamophobia. It had everything to do with his alleged sexual misconduct.

The moral of the story is very simple: One high-profile Times journalist has been accused of racism. Another, both sexual misconduct and Islamophobia. The New York Times did not want to fire either. But many Black and female journalists are working for the paper, the newspaper leadership’s reluctance to punish racism and sexual misconduct led to a revolt in the newsroom. The paper eventually gave in to the pressure and dismissed both.

Entirely swept under the carpet, as there are hardly any Muslims working in the same newsroom, was Mills’s blatant Islamophobia. The journalist who produced an entire podcast around the false testimony of a charlatan was never held to account for his contribution to systemic Islamophobia. He lost his job because he also had a sustained history of behaving inappropriately in the workplace. Tellingly, the other journalist responsible for the Caliphate fiasco, Rukmini Callimachi, is still working for the Times.

Here is the dilemma: When he was president, Trump repeatedly accused the New York Times of publishing “fake news” because it was, in fact, reporting the truth about his racism, xenophobia, charlatanism and all sorts of other chicaneries. We all thus felt obligated to defend it against Trump’s baseless allegations. But now that Trump is gone, we can revisit that charge, and this time direct our attention to the genuinely fake news that slips into the paper’s pages.

The New York Times routinely publishes “fake news” about Muslims and adds fuel to the fire of American Islamophobia. The Caliphate podcast was the latest, and perhaps the most egregious, symptom of this affliction.

Someone pretended to be an ISIL terrorist, and the paper’s seasoned reporters fell for it – why? Where was their journalistic integrity when they decided not to “fact check” the claims of this charlatan? Is everything forgotten now that they have admitted to their “institutional failing” and apologised? Is anyone ever going to address the institutional Islamophobia that paved the way to this catastrophe?

The fact is the New York Times is myopic and blind-sighted. Its leadership can only see the sites of power that can threaten the paper’s legitimacy and reputation. The increasing number of Black and female journalists in its newsroom has put the New York Times on its toes – and this is a good thing. But as the lack of accountability about the fake Caliphate podcast demonstrated, this is not nearly enough. The paper’s systemic Islamophobia will remain incurable until enough Muslims enter the Times newsroom and start exerting pressure on the paper’s leadership to finally correct course.

A couple of years ago I wrote about the fact that while the BBC likes to wax eloquent when revealing the pandemic of fake news around the world, it puts its head into the River Thames when it comes to its own long history of fake news – including its contribution to the 1953 coup in Iran – that has cost nations a sustained history of misery.  The same is true with the New York Times. It cannot feign authority and legitimacy dismantling Trump and Trumpian charlatanism, if it does not address its own blind spot of systematic fake news that has cost nations like Iraq their interminable grief.

I say so with no sense of glee or delight at the failings of our “Grey Lady”. I am a New Yorker. I read the New York Times every morning before I turn to Al Jazeera to adjust my lenses. But people sitting at a position of power and authority in the New York Times must know they cannot, as we say in Persian, claim to live under one roof but forecast two different weathers.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to better reflect the circumstances of Mr Donald G McNeil’s departure from the NYT.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.