As regular readers of this blog know, I really like the New York Times. I think it’s by far the best newspaper in the country, and I am thrilled to write for them whenever they hire me. But that doesn’t mean the Times is perfect. Last week, news editors came under fire for substantially altering a story about Sanders’s legislative record after it was published online—changing its headline, in the process, from “Bernie Sanders Scored Victories for Years via Legislative Side Doors” to “Via Legislative Side Doors, Bernie Sanders Won Modest Victories.” Today, the Times seems to have reframed another Sanders victory in its analysis of last night’s Democratic primaries. Hillary Clinton won in Arizona, while Sanders won in Idaho and Utah, giving him 67 delegates to her 51. But Jonathan Martin’s analysis does not report delegate totals and strongly implies that Clinton won.
Here are the first three paragraphs of Martin’s piece:
Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump overwhelmed their rivals in the Arizona primaries on Tuesday, a show of might from two presidential front-runners who are hoping to avoid prolonging the nominating contest and begin training their fire on each other.
But Senator Bernie Sanders thrashed Mrs. Clinton in the Idaho and Utah Democratic caucuses, demonstrating his enduring appeal among liberal activists even as she closes in on the party’s nomination. And Senator Ted Cruz, who won the Republican contest in Utah, captured more than 50 percent of the vote, giving him all 40 of the state’s delegates and sustaining hope among Mr. Trump’s opponents that he can be slowed, if not stopped.
Mrs. Clinton’s commanding victory in Arizona, where 75 Democratic delegates were at stake, gave her the night’s biggest prize, and her margin there was substantial enough that Mr. Sanders was unlikely to emerge with significantly more delegates, though he took two states to her one.
Part of the problem here is that results from Idaho and Utah came in after midnight eastern time. It seems Martin naturally focused on the result he knew: Clinton had won Arizona, where “75 delegates were at stake.” But her “commanding” and “overwhelming” 18-point win only garnered 51 of them. Sanders won 32% more delegates, on a night when he neither commanded nor overwhelmed.
Again, this information was not available to Martin last night. But in discussing changes made to last week’s story about Sanders’s legislative record, editors cited the unique capacity of online stories to incorporate edits in real time. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems both feasible and appropriate to update Martin’s analysis—even in the early paragraphs—with information about delegate totals. That information would substantially alter the claim that winning Arizona gave Clinton “the night’s biggest prize,” since the prize Sanders won was bigger.
None of this means that Martin or the Times is somehow in the tank for Hillary. It does remind us, though, that our expectations can shape our analyses of current events. Pretty much everyone, myself included, believes Clinton will win the Democratic nomination. Martin would probably be unwise to declare last night a turning point in the Sanders campaign. But this election has repeatedly taught us that what pretty much everyone believes can be wrong.
How long did it take conservative pundits to abandon the narrative that Rubio would eventually win? How many times did Bill Kristol declare peak Trump? It doesn’t mean he wasn’t calling it as he saw it. But it’s hard to look at how overwhelmingly wrong people were about Trump and Rubio—and Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush, and Michigan, and any number of other events this election cycle—and deny that people also tend to see it as they called it.
Narratives are real, and Martin’s analysis of last night’s results seems to reflect a powerful one. He’s probably right: Arizona was another victory in Clinton’s march to the Democratic nomination. But the path of that march has been thought out in advance. Maybe this election would look different if major media sources believed that Sanders could win. He won last night, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the paper.