The New York Times clearly reported in Thursday’s newspaper that Rick Perry, nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to head the Energy Department, “initially misunderstood” the role. It just wasn’t clear where that reporting came from. No one quoted in the story said exactly that. And there was no mention of unnamed transition team sources.
That lack of attribution prompted conservatives, such as Joe Scarborough and Mary Katharine Ham, to question the validity of the Times’s report. It didn’t help that Michael McKenna, a former Trump energy adviser whose quote in the article came closest to supporting the premise, told the Daily Caller that the Times misinterpreted his remarks.
In the Times report, McKenna said of Perry: “If you asked him on that first day he said yes, he would have said, ‘I want to be an advocate for energy.’ If you asked him now, he’d say, ‘I’m serious about the challenges facing the nuclear complex.’ It’s been a learning curve.”
McKenna’s comments suggested that Perry needed to get up to speed on the Energy Department’s priorities but didn’t explicitly indicate that Perry was confused about what the energy secretary’s job covers.
The Times responded to criticism with a statement asserting that the piece “accurately reflected what multiple, high-level sources told our reporters.” In other words, the McKenna quote was the best the paper could get on the record, but other people who spoke off the record supported the article’s conclusion.
So, the bottom-line question is this: Do you trust the Times — poster child for the mainstream media — or do you not? The article is a litmus test for your faith in the Times and, perhaps, much of the rest of the media.
If you do trust the Times, then you can easily accept the idea that reporters Coral Davenport and David E. Sanger had off-the-record conversations with informed people and that these conversations formed the basis of a true report, which began like this:
When President-elect Donald J. Trump offered Rick Perry the job of energy secretary five weeks ago, Mr. Perry gladly accepted, believing he was taking on a role as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry that he had long championed in his home state.
In the days after, Mr. Perry, the former Texas governor, discovered that he would be no such thing — that in fact, if confirmed by the Senate, he would become the steward of a vast national security complex he knew almost nothing about, caring for the most fearsome weapons on the planet, the United States’ nuclear arsenal.
If you do not trust the Times, then you believe that the paper exaggerated Perry’s cluelessness and probably suspect that these “high-level sources” don’t exist.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes, in a Twitter exchange with the Washington Examiner’s T. Becket Adams, aptly summarized the divergent conclusions readers could draw.
To be clear, the NYT report offers exactly zero support for its assertion Gov. Perry didn’t know what the Dept. of Energy did. But whatever. pic.twitter.com/WB8tKRGwVg
It is worth noting that the Times’s report about Perry puts the newspaper’s credibility on the line in a way that an otherwise similar story about Ben Carson, in November 2015, did not. The Carson story stated that the retired neurosurgeon, then a leading Republican presidential candidate, was “struggling to grasp foreign policy.”
That piece had a strong, on-the-record quote from a Carson adviser to back it up. Duane R. Clarridge, Carson’s national security adviser, told the Times that “nobody has been able to sit down with [Carson] and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East.”
Such candor is pretty rare from a member of a politician’s own team. But without the same kind of quote in the Perry story, the Times is asking readers to trust that unseen newsgathering buttressed the unflattering depiction of Trump’s energy secretary nominee. Some readers have that trust; others don’t. The camp you fall into probably says a lot about your regard for the media, more broadly.