On the matter of Haberman-hating
A few thoughts on why Maggie Haberman triggers the reactions she does.
When I was curating the Toddler-in-Chief thread on Twitter and adapting it into The Toddler in Chief, I leaned pretty hard on Maggie Haberman’s reporting for the New York Times. I literally said, “Maggie Haberman’s reportage… is all over that thread.”
This should be unsurprising: Haberman had covered Trump since his tabloid real estate days and her tabloid New York Post days.
Drezner’s World is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
What is a little surprising is the vitriol that Haberman currently inspires on social media. Over the past five years I have interacted with a lot of political reporters on Twitter. While all White House press reporters attracted their trolls, with Haberman there was an order-of-magnitude difference. A sizable faction of very online folks clearly believe that Haberman was not covering Trump, but rather covering for Trump.
This sentiment has bubbled to the surface again in the run-up to the October 4th release of Haberman’s book Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America. Like all authors trying to sell books, Haberman has teased Confidence Man in a variety of ways. Axios reported on some fun details in the book all the way back in February. CNN ran an excerpt earlier this month revealing that Trump’s post-election strategy was ““I’m just not going to leave.” Another excerpt in the Atlantic detailed her three post-presidential interviews with Trump. In one of those interviews, Trump said, “I love being with her — she's like my psychiatrist.”
This has prompted a renewed flurry of vitriol toward Haberman (and one bad legal take)…
...which in turn prompted what might be the Mother of All Streisand Effect tweets by Haberman’s New York Times colleague Jonathan Weisman:
So what do I think? Here are my hot takes on this question:
Haberman is a pretty great reporter! Her stories on Trump were chock-full of tidbits that would have destroyed the standing of most other politicians. That Trump remained standing (sort of) after every one of her bombshell stories is a source of frustration to many, but Haberman is hardly to blame for this.
One source of online anger is the practice of reporters publishing books that contain damning details that many would have liked to have seen come to light in real time. I get the occasional frustration with access journalism, but Matthew Yglesias is absolutely correct when he observes, “one reason journalists don’t always tell you everything they know right away is that which things people are willing to tell you hinges in part on what you are planning to disclose and when.” For example, Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin told the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner that, “We spoke to a lot of people, not necessarily literally in real time but very close to near time—with the understanding that the information they were sharing would not come out until much later…. people are always more willing to speak for history than they are for a story that’s going to be in the paper the next day.” No doubt some sources will spill dirt to reporters like Haberman only if that information stays embargoed for a period of time. Asking Haberman or any other reporter to violate those kind of rules is nuts. Such a gambit works once, and then no source trusts you ever again.
Weisman’s tweet was super-awkward but nonetheless true. Haberman reported tons of dirt on the Trump White House. I doubt that anything that comes to light in Confidence Man would have altered any election outcome or criminal prosecution to any degree.
Haberman is hardly the only reporter who has had a post-election book come out with details not reported in real time during Trump’s term of office. Off the top of my head Martin & Burns, Jonathan Karl, Peter Baker & Susan Glasser, Carol Leonnig & Philip Rucker, and Bob Woodward & Robert Costa have published post-2020 books filled with anecdotes that are embarrassing for Trump. Some of Haberman’s critics may have gone after these reporters as well, but I do not recall any of them facing the same degree of outrage as Haberman.
Why is Haberman the target of a disproportionate amount of online ire? My speculation is that there are two dynamics at work here. First, in her Twitter feed, Haberman gave more weight to stories that offered a more favorable view of Trump’s political machinations, which annoys folks who despise Trump. Second, never underestimate plain-old sexism: as a woman, Haberman gets far more vitriol than her male counterparts.
So my take is simple: Haberman is a good reporter. It is better to see these accounts at some point than to never see them at all. The notion that reporters are hoarding dirt for their books misunderstands how journalism works. Ironically, after five years of opposing a political leader who rubbishes professional expertise an awful lot of people now seem irrationally convinced that they know how to be a journalist better than Maggie Haberman.
Unfortunately, this vitriol has likely made Haberman more closed off to debating her takes.
She’s obviously done some great reporting that we might otherwise not have gotten, but just as sources need to trust her for her to be effective, she also needs to maintain credibility and trust with readers. The smart takes like this one defending her fail to address that issue: that people who are upset with her believe she’s been derelict in her duty to report information that has some bearing on constitutional order and national security. Do journalists have such an explicit duty? I don’t think so, and I believe many journalists would agree. And yet, I think there is a line which her reporting comes dangerously close to in this regard. Would this take pass the smell test if, say, Haberman knew that Trump had sold nuclear secrets to a foreign power, and instead of calling the FBI or reporting it in real time, she held on to it for her book? Based on her behavior to date, I don’t know if I’d put that past her — and I think that’s where “trolls” are coming from. Takes like this and the defensive posture of the Times, in which that line is not acknowledged or engaged with, frustrate just as much as they educate.
I agree Haberman is a great reporter but I think this article misses some important dynamics.
The biggest is that Haberman argued with critics on Twitter constantly. She doesn’t nearly as much now but in 2018 she wrote a long article for the Times discussing this a bit. I’d be happy to pull up examples if needed but it was combative and I think got a lot of folks on her bad side. Most of the people she argued with were trolls but many had legitimate concerns (or at least ones where the answer was not obvious) and she often was dismissive. I do think this was substantively different from how most political reporters dealt with critics.
More charitably, she also mentions in her piece on leaving Twitter that her relationship with Trump was often a feedback loop since he was paying attention to her content. This often looped her into the conversation with Trump and made it seem like she was close with him in a way that was more friendly than a reporter/subject relationship. This was unfair.
The final piece is she would often break anecdotes and stories that were not in her actual reporting via tweets. I never figured out if she was reporting this information in her capacity as a Times journalist or she was tweeting things that hadn’t gotten past the copy editor. At the very least, this was stretching the boundaries of appropriate reporter twitter protocol.
Like I said at the start, she’s a terrific reporter. But I think there were some legitimate concerns with her conduct. Price of genius I suppose.