MDC Partners CEO Mark Penn weighed in on the big New York Times headline switch the other night on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.
The paper, as you probably have read, initially ran a headline on a story about Trump’s reaction to the carnage in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio last weekend that read: “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.”
An immediate social-media backlash ensued and within an hour or so, the headline had been revised to “Assailing Hate But Not Guns.”
Penn called the switch “incredible” and a “cave in” to a political faction—left-leaning Democrats—that will “haunt” the paper “for some time to come.” At one point, he even quipped that maybe the Times ought to run its headlines by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for approval before publishing. Ouch!
Penn, of course, has been in the spin-doctoring business for some time. He was a high-level advisor to both Bill and Hilary Clinton and served as CEO of Burson-Marsteller before joining Microsoft, where oversaw strategic PR campaigns.
So he’s naturally going to have an opinion about a big-league brouhaha like the Times headline switch.
Some wonder whether Penn’s move was a bit dicey, given his new role as CEO of an ad agency holding company. Lots of marketers like to steer clear of political controversy, although there’s no immediate evidence Penn’s remarks ruffled any feathers on MDC’s client roster.
Clearly, there’s room for those who care to to take his comments out of context for their own purposes. Just as Trump did when referring to Penn’s comments in a tweet to suggest that even Democrats support his effort to brand The New York Times as the mother of all fake-news publications.
But Penn clearly feels strongly about the issue. Separate from his talk with Tucker, he tweeted that “The day a Twitter mob can change a headline on The New York Times, this paper is truly finished and replaced by a kind of "1984" Ministry of Truth. The news is now what people say it is.”
I think he’s wrong, but I certainly feel he’s entitled to express his opinion. I think the Times wrote an idiotic headline the first time around and had the good sense to change it fairly quickly.
As the paper has pointed out, repeatedly, on its front pages, Trump is a racist. It was clear during the campaign when he labeled Mexicans rapists and murderers. It was clear in the aftermath of Charlottesville, when he called the white supremacists there decent people. And it was clear last month when he told The Squad to go back where they came from—a comment that Penn tweeted was “stupid and offensive.”
This isn’t a watershed moment for the Times and the paper isn’t going down a memory hole. This is silly season and two weeks from now, people are barely going to remember this contretemps took place. If at all.