Review: Why The New York Times is throwing out the book on election coverage with ‘The Field’

By Austin R. Ramsey

More than ever, Americans are turning to the web for their news (and they’re less likely than ever to pay for it, too). A major driver in that shift has increasingly become the manifold world of podcasting, where, not unlike online, newsrooms can reach larger, younger audiences with robust, in-depth reporting available at their fingertips.

The Daily,” a five-day-a-week podcast by The New York Times, has, in many respects, led that charge. Vox’s Recode dubbed it the “forefather” of daily news podcasts, topping the list of daily subscribers at well over a million. It launched in January 2017, just in time to bring a new avenue of Times reporting to the early presidency of Donald Trump.

In the wake of Trump’s divisive Electoral College victory in 2016, and as the nation plunges into the throes of what promises to be another disruptive election, news outlets across the media spectrum have begrudgingly turned some of their focus inward. How did so many experts — including pundits and political commentators — get it wrong?

Few are free from fair criticism.

“The Daily’s” predecessor “The Run-Up” launched Aug. 9, 2016, with a show titled “Could Hillary Clinton win in a landslide?” Besides the fact that the name aged about as gracefully as expired milk, it demonstrates an uncomfortable notion about the news media that suggests many of us practiced the craft with deep-rooted, preconceived notions about the outcome.

Politics aside, that behavior risked earning (and still may) the tired label of “fake news,” and it was unfair to both of the candidates and their supporters.

But this year, in its obligatory period of self-introspection, “The Daily,” and the powerful newspaper engine that drives its coverage, have taken an offbeat, refreshing approach. In February, the Times launched “The Field,” a weekly arm of “The Daily” that examines the 2020 race with adept eyes, keen on coverage that promises to abandon no corner of the electorate and leave no stone unturned.

A stimulating conversation between “The Daily’s” Michael Barbaro and New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet introducing the show reveals the contemporary editorial approach he and others are taking to

photo of NYT reporter Michael Barbaro
Michael Barbaro. (Jake Chessum/The New York Times)

manage the Times’ 2020 campaign coverage. In a few tantalizing exchanges, Barbaro targets his pithy, intimate interview style at his own boss to unwrap the complex decisions that guided the 2016 presidential race.

In no uncertain terms, Barbaro challenged Baquet on the decision, two years before she would even announce her bid for the presidency, to let loose an investigative reporter on Hillary Clinton.

Baquet said he didn’t regret that decision.

“But I’m also conceding, by the way,” he said, “that if I sat down here with a pen and looked at stories at the time, I would edit more carefully to make sure that we did not give a sense of inevitability.”

The Times article about Clinton’s campaign announcement plainly stated that she was “establishing herself as the likely 2016 Democratic nominee.” But Baquet, who has been executive editor since 2014, said the newspaper had erred in creating a sense of inevitability for the Clinton campaign.

He seemed to revel in re-editing the Times’ coverage four years after the fact, armed now with the knowledge of Trump’s stunning upset and the role the Clinton email scandal and Russian hacking may have played in it.

In contrast, Barbaro asked Baquet to read aloud the paper’s story on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ announcement that labeled the campaign “a long shot” and that “his unflinching commitment to stances popular with the left … could force Mrs. Clinton to address these issues more deeply.”

Baquet stuck by the language, insisting that Sanders’ and Trump’s first bids for the presidency were patently “long shots” that journalists did and should have acknowledged.

His take offers a glimpse into the internal newsroom discussions that echo over political coverage every day. On one hand, calling out a candidate for their status as an underdog in the race could have a prophetically chilling effect, diminishing whatever momentum positive news may deliver. On the other hand, a news organization has an obligation to its audience to seek truth and report it, regardless of the consequences.

Rather than abandon traditional reporting values to avoid damaging a campaign, the newspaper has pledged to augment its political reporting efforts, revealing the faces of each of the campaigns as well as their supporters.

Four years ago, as the last ballots were counted in early November, the Times and other major news media were in shock, asking, audibly in some cases, how it could have happened. All of us who like to call ourselves journalists got a lot of flack in the months and years after the last presidential election, especially for our reporting (and perhaps reliance) on polls. Polling is a snapshot in time and not predictive; polling wasn’t that far from the actual results, and the Times led compelling coverage of both Trump and Clinton.

But I think the truth about political coverage is that it’s more than just following campaigns around, even when coverage is charged with meaningful investigations or compelling endorsements. the Times coverage realizes — as embodied in “The Field” — that political coverage is a reflection of the electorate. It’s telling people about themselves.

That means that just because a Democratic candidate isn’t touring the Rust Belt states in the days leading up to Election Day doesn’t mean reporters shouldn’t be on the ground asking voters about how they made their choices. That means Republican voters can’t be counted out in blue states nor Democratic voters in red ones. It means every voice has a place in the news media landscape, because behind every voice is an equal vote.

“The big unanswered question of 2016, for all of our hand-wringing and all the discussion, is why did so many millions of Americans vote for this very unusual candidate,” Baquet told Barbaro. “I don’t think anybody has fully answered it. And I think one of our goals should be to come as close as we can.”

And that’s what “The Field” is all about — reflecting the Times’ renewed commitment to avoiding political assumptions and not ceding power to any one point of view.

Since launching in February, “The Field” has taken listeners on a journey across Iowa to examine the question of electability; New Hampshire as voters grappled with Iowa’s rocky results; Nevada to test the power of unions; and South Carolina, where some candidates could make a last stand.

As news media jostle for audiences in a dynamic and competitive environment loaded by fear and election hype, “The Field’s” insight on political coverage offers a sharp insight on the electorate.