The brouhaha started on Monday night, when NYT print editor Tom Jolly tweeted an image of the paper’s Tuesday morning print edition. The lead story featured a headline saying, “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.”
Negative reaction was swift among Twitter users including journalists, Democratic presidential candidates and regular readers. After the response went viral on social media for about an hour, the Times announced that it had revised the headline.
“The headline was bad and has been changed for the second edition,” a NYT spokesperson told The Washington Post.
Later editions of the print edition ran the headline, “Assailing Hate But Not Guns.”
Nate Silver, editor in chief of ESPN-owned FiveThirtyEight, fanned the flames of criticism with a tweet showing the original headline. “Not sure ‘TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM’ is how I would have framed the story,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Lives literally depend on you doing better, NYT. Please do,” tweeted Sen. Corey Booker, who’s running for the Democratic ticket.
“Unbelievable” said Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke.
“The @nytimes can be soo great—and then often it just sucks. An absurd headline. Problematic framing. Inaccurate. Non-contextual,” broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien wrote.
“Hey, @nytimes,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted, “what happened to 'The Truth Is Worth It?' Not the truth. Not worth it.”
NYT staffers also objected to the headline, according to New York magazine contributor Yashar Ali.
“NYT can be an insular institution, particularly when it comes under criticism. But I have never received more texts from furious NYT reporters/writers than I have tonight. They feel like their hard work is being sullied by a horrible headline. And they’re all blaming Dean Baquet,” Ali tweeted.
Readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions, which prompted at least one tweeter to say that such a negative reaction is exactly what Trump wants.
Other reporters defended the newspaper.
“One headline writer’s mistake is not cause enough to close the door on an army of truly great journalists who don’t write the headlines,” tweeted Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown.
Los Angeles Times reporter Del Quentin Wilber pointed out that writing headlines isn’t as easy as it looks. “You are sitting there, trying to fit the entire story into 4 words. Maybe 3. Depends on characters. You are on crazy deadline. And you are also copy editing the story,” he tweeted.
Having written thousands of headlines in my career, I agree with Wilber’s assessment. The NYT’s original headline was neutral and captured in five words the essence of Trump’s public statement that condemned bigotry, racism and white supremacy.
The president’s opponents, many of whom are seeking to exploit the mass shootings for their own political gains, wouldn’t be satisfied with any headline unless it read, “Racist Trump Fails to Seek Gun Ban.”
But that kind of editorializing belongs in the op-ed sections of the paper, or possibly a “news analysis” piece that considers Trump’s speech in the context of his past statements and actions.