During the four long years of Donald Trump’s presidency, many Canadians looked to the New York Times as an important beacon of reason and decency. Now that Canada is having its own Trump-esque moment, one that’s been amplified by the Trumpist instruments of Fox News and Facebook, the Times appears to have abandoned its post. Instead of serving as a crucial bulwark against the spread of misinformation and populist fear-mongering, it’s now unintentionally aiding and abetting it.
On two separate occasions, the Times made fundamental errors of fact that skewed the way millions of people saw what was unfolding in Ottawa. First, they claimed in a tweet that the invocation of the Emergencies Act was a de facto suspension of civil liberties, one that it eventually walked back after nearly every constitutional expert in Canada pointed out its mistake.
Then on Saturday, as police were clearing out the remaining protesters, it ran a headline suggesting “police arrested demonstrators at gunpoint” despite that happening only once when police suspected explosives were inside a vehicle. The Times eventually softened the headline, but the damage was already done, and the story itself remained conspicuously biased towards the perspective of the protesters.
But the recent episode on the events in Ottawa of its widely followed The Daily podcast might have been the biggest problem of all. To add insult to injury, it was a Canadian — Catherine Porter, the New York Times’ Canadian bureau chief — at the heart of it.
This is not the first time Porter has painted a picture of Canada for her American audience that many people found at odds with reality. On Oct. 17, 2018, when cannabis became legal across the country, she wrote: “Canadians are calling it C-Day.” That was, as the kids say, not a thing, and much Twitter mockery ensued.
But her depiction of the Ottawa encampment is no laughing matter. The podcast is marbled with language that seems conspicuously complimentary towards the people who assembled illegally near Parliament Hill holding the city hostage for weeks. She described the trucks that were gumming up the city’s traffic as “brilliant protest machines” and suggested the protests had the feel of a “huge tailgate party” or “festival.”
Porter paid brief lip service to the existence of a “menacing element” that was “telling Trudeau where to go” (she declined to tell listeners they were telling him to go fuck himself), but she didn’t spend much time on it. Instead, she talked to a 24-year-old beekeeper who said he was there to “spread love and peace,” a truck driver from northern Ontario, and a former yoga studio owner who she apparently heard yelling on the street and decided to interview. “There was some real healing going on there,” Porter said.
Portraying the protest as an act of collective grieving rather than a bacchanal of vandalism and constitutional hooliganism was a choice. So too was the willingness to employ the same framing some of the convoy organizers were presenting, that the more radical elements associated with the protests had “latched on” to the plight of the truckers. As Justin Ling tweeted, “This is just wrong. It's entirely backwards.”
She wasn’t the only Times journalist to present an incomplete version of what was happening in Ottawa. In their coverage of the police crackdown on the remaining occupiers, reporters Natalie Kitroeff and Sarah Maslin Nir described Pat King as a “prominent online champion of the protests,” which is a bit like referring to Steve Bannon as a “free speech enthusiast.” In reality, King is a known white supremacist who made racist comments about NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh just last week.
All of this calls into question the newspaper’s basic competence in accurately reporting information about the U.S.’s closest neighbour and ally. If they can’t get it right about Canada, a country with which they share a language and the world’s longest undefended border, why should anyone trust the Times’ reporting from anywhere else in the world?
Opinion: "All the cancelled subscriptions in the world won’t repair the damage the New York Times did with its coverage of Canada last week," columnist @maxfawcett writes for @natobserver. #nyt #OttawaOccupation #cdnpoli
Canadians certainly don’t seem inclined to trust the Times as much as they did before it botched its coverage of the occupation of Ottawa. Many of them, including plenty of high-profile ones, publicly cancelled their subscriptions last week. The hashtag “#NYTunsubscribe” was even trending in Canada on Saturday.
But all the cancelled subscriptions in the world won’t repair the damage the New York Times did with its coverage of Canada last week. It validated a narrative of the protest that its organizers desperately wanted to telegraph, one in which they were fighting for freedom and resisting government oppression rather than agitating for the removal of a democratically elected government and the imprisonment — or worse — of the prime minister.
At a time when misinformation is poisoning our democratic discourse and being weaponized by those who want to undermine it, the self-anointed “newspaper of record” has to do better than this.