What The New York Times' Murdoch Alliance Means for 2016

04/27/2015 10:43 am ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

Just one month after Fox News' Bill O'Reilly brazenly threatened a New York Times reporter, warning her he'd go after her "with everything" he had if he didn't like the article she was writing about him, Times reporter Jo Becker happily cooperated with Fox News for its 60-minute special The Tangled Clinton Web, which aired April 24.

Based on the pending book Clinton Cash, which is being published by Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins and heavily promoted by Murdoch's Fox News, Murdoch's Wall Street Journal and Murdoch's New York Post, The Tangled Clinton Web represented a mishmash of half-baked Clinton conspiracy theories that had Hillary and Bill Clinton at the center of a supposed vast web of international bribes and payoffs.

And yet there, featured amidst the waves of misinformation, was a New York Times reporter. Becker's Fox News appearance was noteworthy not only because of O'Reilly's stated contempt for her employer but because Times journalists don't make a habit of regularly appearing on openly partisan Fox News, a cable channel that has embraced birtherism and depicted the president of the United States as a racist, communist sympathizer who apologizes for America. (According to the Times' newsroom guidelines, when appearing on television programs, staffers are supposed to avoid forums "that emphasize punditry and reckless opinion-mongering.")

Why the Becker appearance? In part because she wrote a controversial piece last week that was inspired by Clinton Cash. Part of the Times' unusual, "exclusive" arrangement with the book's author, Becker's article tried, and failed, to show that donations to the Clinton Foundation influenced Clinton's State Department when it signed off on the sale of Uranium One, a Canadian company with uranium mining claims in the U.S., to the Russian atomic energy agency, Rosatom.

By cooperating with the Fox News Clinton special, a program that was drowning in misinformation, Becker and the Times lent the Fox effort a desperately needed sheen of legitimacy (i.e., "Even the liberal New York Times....") And that's likely why, when Fox released to the media a clip of The Tangled Clinton Web prior to its airing, the clip featured Becker's interview -- Fox was proudly brandishing its Times alliance.

What would be the only topic that could create such a strange partnership, where The New York Times, the world's most famous news organization, was working hand-in-hand with a media outlet that, during the last presidential campaign, abandoned all pretense of independent journalism and produced and aired its own four-minute political attack ad?

The endless pursuit of the Clintons, of course.

If The New York Times has decided to throw its hat into Murdoch's ring this campaign season, even just occasionally, as with Clinton Cash and The Tangled Clinton Web, the results for Democrats could be troubling. Conservative misinformation is always most dangerous when it expands beyond the right-wing bubble and is irresponsibly embraced by the Beltway press -- when it's given legitimacy it doesn't deserve.

The Times' decision to form an alliance with a hyper-partisan like Murdoch and legitimize a Murdoch book that Fox News has been relentlessly hyping (it's a "bombshell rocking the Clinton campaign") represents a possible key turning point in the campaign season. It certainly signals the lengths to which the Times is willing to go in its two-decade, Captain Ahab-like obsession with the former first couple.

Note that back in the 1990s, when The New York Times wasted years of newsroom efforts chasing and trumpeting phony Clinton scandals, it did so mostly in a media environment that did not include Fox News -- at least not the Fox News that we know today.

Roger Ailes' cable channel debuted in 1996, in time for Clinton's second term. But it wasn't nearly as influential as it is today, and it wasn't nearly as radical, meaning that when Fox News debuted, it actually represented a conservative news outlet that presented the day's events and opinions through the prism of Republican politics. Today it's much more, of course. In some key ways Fox News has now supplanted the traditional Republican political infrastructure. And instead of delivering a conservative perspective on the news, Fox simply manufactures the news.

And yet the Times recently saw fit to work alongside Fox News in marketing Clinton Cash.

Make no mistake: It was the Times that singlehandedly announced that Clinton Cash represented a supremely important news event last week. It was the Times that trumpeted the "focused reporting" of Clinton Cash and called it "the most anticipated and feared book of a presidential cycle still in its infancy," adding that it would prove to be "problematic" and "unsettling" for the Clintons -- descriptions that must have had Murdoch's publicists beaming with pride.

"The book has credibility because the New York Times cut a deal with the author," wrote Esquire's Charles Pierce.

Meanwhile, is the Times protecting Clinton Cash? Note that ABC News, which did not have an "exclusive" agreement with the book's publisher, found errors in the book and reported on them. Did New York Times reporters and editors not pick up on the same errors? Or because of the "exclusive" alliance they had joined with Murdoch's publisher, did the Times not want to publicize Clinton Cash's mistakes?

Those errors shouldn't have been surprising, though. As Media Matters documented, author Peter Schweizer has an extraordinarily long list of errors, corrections and retractions to his credit. It's an embarrassing laundry list of miscues that would instantly disqualify him from landing a job at the august New York Times.

The refrain? "We had access to some material in the book, but we wanted to do our own reporting," the Times' Washington bureau chief and political director, Carolyn Ryan, told Politico. Translation: Nothing to see here, people; the "exclusive" was just routine, a Times newsroom practice.

Right. And I suppose that when the Times enters into an exclusive agreement with Schweizer's political counterpart, we'll discover just how routine the Times' Clinton Cash relationship is, right? When the Times teams up with a former Obama speechwriting consultant (with deep financial backing from George Soros) who's written for The Nation and Daily Kos, has been a fellow at ThinkProgress, has a long history of attacking Republicans, and gives exclusive pre-release briefings about his anti-Jeb Bush book to Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Dick Durbin?

Don't hold your breath.

Looking back, the Times entered into an ill-conceived agreement for a Murdoch book that provided virtually no hard evidence of Clinton wrongdoing. Then the Times used the book to publish an unsubstantiated, connect-the-dots Clinton hit piece that even Beltway media insiders conceded fell apart after just 24 hours of reflection. (NBC News: It "doesn't hold up that well.")

The Times swung and missed, which was embarrassing enough. But to swing and miss while pursuing a Murdoch-sponsored "exclusive" is awkward for any respectable daily.

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