“We Were In A Headless-Chicken Phase”: NYTimes Reporter Rebuked For Anti-Trump Tirade On CNN

Authored by Jonathan Turley,

The New York Times’s Science and Health reporter, Donald McNeil Jr. is under fire for a tirade against President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and others in an interview on CNN.  The comments were so political that the paper itself issued a rebuke and told McNeil to stick with science in the future.

McNeil’s statement that “we were in a headless-chicken phase” could as easily describe the status of journalistic ethics.

McNeil’s comments were made in an interview with CNN International’s Christiane Amanpour, who I previously criticized for a shocking call to silence Trump by declaring his speeches criminal “hate speech.”

In the interview, McNeil called for firings over how “we completely blew it” in responding to the virus:

“We were in a headless-chicken phase, and yes, it’s the president’s fault, it is not China’s fault. You know, the head of the Chinese CDC was on the phone to Robert Redfield on Jan. 1, again on Jan. 8, and the two agencies were talking on Jan. 19. The Chinese had a test on Jan. 13; the Germans had a test on Jan. 16. We fiddled around for two months, we had a test on March 5 and it didn’t work. We didn’t have 10,000 people tested until March 15.”

He went on to lambast the “incompetent leadership” at the CDC and called for its dirhead ector Dr. Robert Redfield to “resign.”  He also attacked President Trump as “the same guy who said inject yourself with disinfectant” and that his “grasp of the science” isn’t even “at a third-grade level.”

In a more serious charge, he claimed “suppression from the top- I mean, the real coverup was the person in this country who was saying, you know, ‘This is not an important virus, the flu is worse, it’s all going to go away, it’s nothing,. And that encouraged everybody around him to say, ‘It’s nothing, it’s nothing, it’s nothing.’”

The Times issued a statement that

“In an interview with Christiane Amanpour today, Donald McNeil, Jr. went too far in expressing his personal views. His editors have discussed the issue with him to reiterate that his job is to report the facts and not to offer his own opinions. We are confident that his reporting on science and medicine for The Times has been scrupulously fair and accurate.”

What is interesting is that Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple criticized McNeil’s comments as outside of the parameters for such interviews, saying “Such activism, after all, is extreme even for a veteran newsman exercising his analytical muscles in a freewheeling cable-news interview,”

However, Wemple then later added his own freewheeling dig at the Administration, attacking Trump’s “unfathomable pronouncements of incompetence, indifference and cluelessness from the president in public appearance after public appearance. What’s an experienced health reporter to say?”  The later addendum certainly assuaged those who were upset with the Post for chastising a Trump critic.

If this was a matter of journalistic ethics, why was it necessary to add an effective “well Trump had it coming” statement?

If McNeil strayed outside of the ethical parameters, it does not matter how you view Trump. 

The issue is the judgment of the journalist, not the reputation of the President.  Wemple’s “justified cause” addendum bulldozed the high ground by taking his own dig at the President. It is like saying that a police officer used excessive force but the suspect was a bad one so “what’s an experienced police officer to do?”

The controversy reflects a frustration that I have expressed over legal analysis. I have been a columnist and legal analyst for decades.  Generally, while there were unfortunate outliers, legal analysts tended to be closely tied to legal authority and less partisan. That tradition has been lost in the age of echo-journalism where the ability to appear on many media outlets depends on your willingness to declare Trump or his associates guilty of an ever expanding array of crimes.  Legal analysts often feed an insatiable appetite for attacks disguised as analysis under the same relativistic view of “what is an experienced legal analysis to do?”