By Laurence Kotlikoff
Originally posted at Forbes, February 2016
Jonathan Martin’s prominent NY Times article, “Hillary Clinton Is Calm, Cool and Effective,” published on February 12th, struck me as opinion dressed up as news. Martin begins by telling us that Clinton “remained calm as he (Sanders) pungently sought to highlight their differences.”
I watched the debate. I do not recall Sanders going ballistic. But in not describing Sanders as calm and cool, Martin suggests that Clinton was calm and cool and Sanders was not. Instead, Martin references Sanders as pungent. To most people, pungent means smelly. As for effective, how does one measure that without seeing changes in poll numbers? But Martin’s article was written before any such objective assessment could have been made and, indeed, he cites no poll numbers.
Mind you, Martin is not a NY Times columnist. He is the national political correspondent for The New York Times. This means he is supposed to report on political news, not make political news. But a news report that in its title and first few lines describes one candidate as “calm, cool, and effective” and the other as smelly has nothing to do with actual news and everything to do with one person’s opinion.
Had Martin written, “Gee, I have taken no poll, nor have I asked a random sample of viewers of the debate anything whatsoever about whether they perceived Clinton as calm, cool,and effective and Sanders as smelly, but, you know, that’s my opinion and mine alone.” the reader would have understood that Martin was not doing his job, but that he was at least being honest. Unfortunately, Martin’s column contains no such disclosure.
Let me be clear. I’m not objecting to Martin’s column because I’m a Sanders supporter or differ with Martin’s opinion about Clinton’s comportment. I just don’t think that a single person’s opinion about a candidate’s behavior is worthy of front-page coverage by the New York Times. Nor do I think it is responsible to praise one candidate’s behavior and, by omission and word choice, implicitly denigrate another’s. Any fair person would have to surmise, absent real evidence to the contrary, that both candidates handled themselves as adults, were respectful of one another, and that one was no more calm, cool, or effective than the other.
The rest of Martin’s column consisted of repeating Clinton’s talking points. There are seven paragraphs in a row that list all of Clinton’s attacks on or dismissals of Sanders’s positions. But there is no comparable length description of Sanders’s attacks on and dismissal of Clinton’s positions. So even when Martin remembered that he was supposed to be writing about what actually happened, not how he felt about what happened, he reverted to presenting his opinion by presenting only half of the facts.
If Martin is a supporter of Clinton, which he seems to be, I suggest he start each of his articles about the Democratic race with, “Just to let you know, I’m a supporter of Secretary Clinton and don’t take anything I write below as more than an unpaid ad on her behalf.” Then those of us who pay to read news in the New York Times can quickly move to something of substance.
In closing, I hope I’m not being overly harsh on Jonathan Martin. I haven’t systematically studied his writings, which, on balance, may be highly balanced. That would certainly even the score, but it wouldn’t justify writing any particular news article in a biased manner. I’m also surely reacting to the failure of so many other political correspondents, whether in print or on the air and whether they are covering Republicans or Democrats, of injecting their opinions in what they write and say when their admittedly tricky job requires firmly keeping their opinions to themselves.