Following the violent insurrection at the Capitol, the New York Times last week published an obsequious love letter to one of the Republican Party’s largest donors, helping the billionaire launder his reputation just in time for the beginning of the post-Trump era. A few days later, the same newspaper fired an editor after she tweeted a mildly positive thought about Joe Biden’s inauguration, touching off allegations that she was punished for expressing political views.
The two episodes could be construed as proof of the paper’s Republican bias, but that’s not quite accurate. Amid the ongoing debate over so-called cancel culture, the contrast between firing an editor after a vaguely partisan tweet and proudly publishing a corporate press release displays something bigger — it exposes what kinds of loyalties are prohibited and celebrated at corporate media outlets that pretend to be impartial.
Put another way: it exposes the gaping crack in the facade of objectivity — and provides a microcosmic illustration of one reason why new survey data show the public’s trust in media has now hit a new low.
The facade of objectivity is built on the premise that politics is only a contest between red and blue and nothing else — in this construction, objectivity only means never expressing affinity for either party. Though we don’t know all the circumstances of her termination, Times editor Lauren Wolfe’s firing was received by the media industry as a defense of objectivity: she tweeted that she felt “chills” upon seeing Joe Biden’s plane land before his inauguration; this was construed by some critics as an inappropriate declaration of Democratic Party fealty, and she was terminated.
Whether she was fired for other reasons or not, the media industry’s interpretation is important, because it illustrates the pervasive culture of fake objectivity. The assumption that journalists can be terminated for commenting on the red-versus-blue war tells us that everyone working in media understands the big no-no is partisanship. In general, this aversion to partisanship allows editors to preen in front of the objectivity facade as courageous defenders of just-the-facts-ma’am reporting.
Democracy, though, isn’t just a tribal battle between warring parties. The red-versus-blue obsession obscures how politics is mostly driven by a trans-partisan struggle between people and money — and in the same week the Wolfe controversy erupted, the Times published two articles that make clear its reporters are more than welcome to take the side of money in that far bigger political conflict.
This isn’t some grand conspiracy to rig coverage — but the contrast spotlights a deep, innate media culture that permits and even encourages the toeing of a corporate line.
Big Business Has Not Broken With Republicans
The first Times article blared the absurd headline “Big Business Breaks With Republicans” and purported to tell the story of courageous corporate executives “sending a clear message that they were fed up with Washington” by temporarily suspending their relatively small corporate political action committee donations to Republican lawmakers who voted to overturn the national election results.
The Times omitted the fact that no major company has agreed to halt the far bigger donations made by executives to the super PACs that actually bankroll those lawmakers. The paper also conveniently didn’t bother to ask companies whether they or their executives plan to halt donations to the dark money groups that increasingly dominate American politics.
Instead, history was abjectly revised, with the Times asserting that “executives from many of the company’s biggest brands publicly sparred with the president” during his tenure — somehow erasing the myriad tax, regulatory, and environmental favors that corporate interests coaxed out of Trump.
The namesake of Edelman — a giant corporate PR firm — was quoted non-ironically insisting that if you try to undermine democracy “businesspeople are going to hold you to account,” while the head of the Anti-Defamation League was given space to declare that “C.E.O.s have become the fourth branch of government. They’re trying to hold the country together.”
Somehow, there was no mention anywhere that many high-profile businesspeople and CEOs have long been funding the GOP machine, which has for decades pumped hate, bigotry, and vitriol into politics while trying to disenfranchise voters.
These were the taboo facts that couldn’t be mentioned by a newspaper that constantly tells its readers it fearlessly publishes all the news that’s fit to print. And the result was a story in the world’s largest newspaper that abetted corporate America’s mendacious attempt to scrub itself of insurrectionist stench before a new administration took power.
Corporate Stenography Shielding A Billionaire From Accountability
Before you argue that this drivel was an anomaly, remember that the Times quickly followed it up with hagiography that is difficult to distinguish from a press release cooked up by the same Edelman PR flack uncritically quoted in the first apologia. Indeed, the subsequent article was so pure and foul in its intentions and execution that it belongs in the cautionary tale wing of a future Newseum so as to warn the next generation about how a seemingly free press can quickly devolve into Orwellian propaganda.
The piece was about Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman, who the Times depicted as an altruistic political do-gooder who was “never a big player in politics” but who was “pulled into” working with Trump. Schwarzman, who infamously likened Democrats’ proposal for slightly higher taxes on billionaires to the Nazi invasion of Poland, was recast as a statesman who only occasionally took “lighthearted shots at what he regarded as wrongheaded Democratic policies” — and who only reluctantly decided to accept “an odd alliance” with Trump in order to selflessly help his country.
“Although Mr. Schwarzman sometimes spoke with Mr. Trump multiple times in a week, according to people briefed on those calls, the two weren’t always aligned,” we are told. “The benefits of Mr. Schwarzman’s alliance with Mr. Trump have proved elusive.”
Here’s the reality: Schwarzman has been one of the single most powerful financial forces in the rise of Trump and Trumpism, and the benefits of Schwarzman’s alliance with Trump were the opposite of elusive — they were plentiful.
In the last three election cycles, Schwarzman delivered more than $63 million to GOP candidates and GOP-aligned super PACs, according to data compiled by PoliticalMoneyLine.com. During the 2020 election, he poured more than $40 million to super PACs boosting Republican Senate candidates, GOP House candidates, and Trump, and he directly gave $325,600 to GOP lawmakers who voted to overturn the 2020 election results, according to federal election records.
Schwarzman was Trump’s leading Wall Street cheerleader during his reelection campaign. The Financial Times reported that, shortly after the election, Schwarzman “defended Donald Trump’s response to this year’s US poll results during an emergency meeting of senior business leaders” and “took issue with suggestions made during the meeting that the US could be on the verge of a coup.”
Schwarzman was so with Trump that after the 2016 election, the new president appointed Schwarzman to chair a council of corporate executives overseeing federal policy. And even after that panel was disbanded, Blackstone reaped big rewards from Trump’s administration:
- Blackstone’s tax rate was driven to zero in 2019 after Trump’s tax legislation helped make it more lucrative for the firm to convert from a partnership to a traditional corporate structure. Blackstone hasn’t reported its 2020 tax rate yet, but according to PitchBook, the firm predicted it would have an effective tax rate between 11 and 13 percent over five years after its conversion — well below the 21 percent corporate tax rate established in the GOP tax law.
- The Trump Labor Department issued a directive paving the way for private equity firms to reap fees off workers’ 401(k) savings — an idea that was also boosted by the Trump-controlled Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). That’s been a longtime dream of Schwarzman’s — he’s said that getting access to those savings would be “a huge opportunity for the firm.”
- Trump fended off public pressure, reversed his campaign pledge, and preserved the cartoonishly unfair tax loophole for carried interest, which Blackstone and the private equity industry have relied on for outsize income and profits.
- While the Times‘ latest story on Schwarzman makes him seem like a reluctant participant in politics, the paper broke the news in 2019 that hospital staffing companies owned by Blackstone and private equity giant KKR were secretly funding a dark money campaign against bipartisan legislation to end “surprise medical bills,” which generate big profits for the firms. The $75 million campaign worked, and Congress shelved the measure. Lawmakers recently enacted a new surprise billing fix — one that was sought by the private equity industry and that will likely further drive up health care costs.
- Trump helped seal a $20 billion Saudi infrastructure investment deal for Blackstone (which the Times mentions but downplays).
- Trump’s judicial appointments solidified a Supreme Court majority that has issued a series of rulings further insulating financial firms like Blackstone from accountability.
An article that mentions none of these goodies except the Saudi deal is not journalism — it was corporate stenography that just so happened to be timed to help Blackstone snuff out a threat to its bottom line, as evidenced by a tell in the piece.
The Times let on that some publicly accountable institutional investors — like public pension funds — aren’t happy with Schwarzman’s political activities. That raises the prospect of some of them pulling their money out of his firm — and lawmakers in at least one state are ramping up that kind of pressure.
So, Schwarzman needed press coverage that distances him from the authoritarian Republican movement, and the Times duly obliged by deciding whom — and whom not — to quote in the pension world. The paper led with a laudatory comment from a Republican-appointed former pension official in Illinois, who said Schwarzman’s “involvement with Mr. Trump was ‘an epic positive’ for the country” — and the quote was proudly tweeted out by the reporter who wrote the article.
The New York newspaper somehow did not quote the lawmakers in their own state pushing for a review of investments in Blackstone. Nor did they quote recently departed Pennsylvania State treasurer Joe Torsella, whose pension fund has invested in Blackstone, who said the day after the insurrection that “Wall Street executives like Stephen Schwarzman have spent their careers enriching themselves at the expense of our public pensions, and need to be held accountable for funding the machinery that resulted in the violent insurrection on January 6.”
In fact, there’s not a single quote from anyone in the article saying anything even mildly critical of Schwarzman. Not one.
Though we can’t know motive, it’s worth noting that after publication, the Times story’s headline changed to one more positive for the billionaire CEO, revising it from a focus on Schwarzman’s fealty to Trump (which could be perceived as negative) to having it focus on Schwarzman’s allegedly positive contribution to society.
The headline first read: “Steve Schwarzman, a Trump Adviser, Stays Loyal Till the End.”
Now it says: “In Trump, Stephen Schwarzman Found a Chance to Burnish His Legacy.”
Declining Trust in Media
Of course, some individual reporters at the Times do some great work — including on corporations and the rich. I know a bunch of journalists there who are deeply committed to comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, as the saying goes.
But last week’s episodes at the paper are emblematic — they aren’t isolated incidents. News organizations go out of their way to pretend that their he-said-she-said treatment of Republican and Democratic politicians proves they are objective in the red-versus-blue wars. Meanwhile, for every one tough-minded report scrutinizing corporate power, you’ll typically find ten or twenty stories depicting CEOs and corporations buying elections as the great earnest saviors of America.
The situation at the Times exposes the double standard and institutional ideology at play — not just at the paper of record, but throughout the national press corps. And the worst part is that right now, this power-worshiping ideology — hidden under the guise of objectivity — is helping corporations and their executives escape accountability for their complicity in fueling a right-wing movement that attacked our democracy.
For the last two weeks, there has been a flood of corporate media headlines promising America that business interests are breaking their ties with Republican extremists. The proof for these assertions is the same nonsense the Times cited — a momentary pause in relatively small corporate PAC donations. Meanwhile, almost nothing is being said about these same corporations promising no effort to curtail their executives’ much larger donations to the GOP machine, nor are there pledges to disclose their dark money spending.
Corporations and their executives are getting exactly what they want in all of this coverage.
They spent four years sucking up to Trump and ravaging the country for their own gain. Now that Trump and his party are out of power, they want to wash off the GOP sludge they’ve been joyously bathing in and reposition themselves to take advantage of the new political topography — all while taking no real steps to cut their ties to the right-wing movement, just in case it reclaims power or maintains value in driving policy discussions.
And now, the Times and other billionaire- and corporate-owned press corps are enthusiastically helping them by pretending American corporations are contrite, self-reflective, and making real moves to protect democracy, when in fact they’re doing nothing of the sort.
The end result is as grotesque as it is illustrative: a harmless tweet is seen as a great offense, but an entire system of corporate-worshiping ideology is considered totally normal and “objective” — even when it is the opposite.
The public isn’t stupid — readers may not be able to detect every individual nugget of bullshit, but new polling numbers suggest they have a decent bullshit detector. The survey data from Edelman show a precipitous decline in trust in media, with a majority of Americans saying, “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.”
No doubt, some of that is the result of Trump’s abhorrent campaign to demonize the free press as an institution, and some of it is a product of social media–fueled misinformation. But some of it comes from a more honest place — it comes from the entirely understandable feeling of distrust you get when you read stories like these in the Times and elsewhere.
It is that nagging sense that reporting about politics and the economy is often agitprop sculpted to defend the rich, the powerful, and the well-connected who just so happen to be the sponsors and owners of elite media.
That sensation isn’t wrong, and it isn’t the problem — the propaganda is.