Last night, the New York Times reported on Iowa Congressman Steve King’s attempt to block the Obama administration from changing the face of the $20 bill from Andrew Jackson to the black abolitionist Harriet Tubman. At first glance, the piece reads as straightforward, workaday journalism. On closer inspection, however, it reveals a few of the paper of record’s most entrenched pathologies.
The article conceals the fact that the Times was among the last to report on King’s efforts, which he packaged in a proposed amendment to a yearly budget bill for the U.S. Treasury. The outlet that broke the story was The Huffington Post. Most other outlets—CNN, New York magazine, the Des Moines Register, The Blaze, and so on—credited HuffPost for the scoop, but the Times did not. As the past two public editors for the paper have observed, Times staffers systemically omit credit when they’re beaten on a story.
Whether or not the Times acknowledges its competitors’ scoops is, admittedly, an issue that only certain members of the media industry can bother themselves to care about. But this tendency can affect the factual accuracy of the Times’ coverage, too. For instance, in the article linked above, the paper asserts that, “The congressman’s motivation for filing the amendment [was] unclear. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.”
We’re not sure why King didn’t immediately return the Times’ request for comment. (The paper’s Washington bureau chief, Elisabeth Bumiller, didn’t immediately return Gawker’s request for comment, either.) But the lawmaker’s motive was anything but mysterious. Even before the Times published its own article, the congressman explained his reasoning to Politico’s Matthew Nussbaum, who apparently tracked him down on Capitol Hill:
“It’s not about Harriet Tubman, it’s about keeping the picture on the $20,” King said Tuesday evening, pulling a $20 bill from his pocket and pointing at President Andrew Jackson. “Y’know? Why would you want to change that? I am a conservative, I like to keep what we have.”
The conservative gadfly said it is “racist” and “sexist” to say a woman or person of color should be added to currency. “Here’s what’s really happening: This is liberal activism on the part of the president that’s trying to identify people by categories, and he’s divided us on the lines of groups. ... This is a divisive proposal on the part of the president, and mine’s unifying. It says just don’t change anything.”
The language of the Times piece suggests the paper was unaware of Politico’s report at the time of publication. But that seems unlikely. Nussbaum, the Politico reporter, tweeted King’s comments shortly before 8:00 p.m and published them on Politico’s website at 8:12 p.m. According to NewsDiffs, the Times published their own article nearly an hour later, at 9:08 p.m.
It’s even more unlikely that the Times has remained unaware of Politico’s story for the past eighteen hours. Yet as of this morning, the paper’s write-up continues to assert that King’s motives are “unclear.” The paper has apparently chosen to keep its readers uninformed about a sitting Congressman’s absurd, racist motivations for opposing a piece of legislation, because informing them would require the citation of a competing outlet.
The Times occasionally updates articles after a competitor complains about the lack of credit, but rarely explains the original omission. By the time those articles have been updated, of course, most of them have been widely shared and linked, and in some cases already been sent to the printer for the next day’s paper. The first drafts of Times articles tend to present the paper as omniscient—as the sole authority of news events—only to be edited, at some later point, to note which outlet broke the story. It’s hard to say what could break this pattern. But it would likely happen far less often if the Times weren’t so willing to quietly rewrite entire articles. (The Gray Lady tends to treat its journalism in the same way Kanye West treats The Life of Pablo: As something that can be altered at any time, for any reason, with little or no notification.)
In any case: We hope the Times updates its article about Steve King’s opposition to Harriet Tubman appearing on the $20 bill with proper credit to The Huffington Post and Politico. Just don’t expect the paper to explain why it couldn’t bother to do so in the first place.