US POLITICS

The New York Observer: Trump’s Friend, Family And Mouthpiece

As Donald Trump routinely scoffed at the "corrupt media" for attacking him, journalists have called into question the objectivity of a publication that is owned by his son-in-law

US POLITICS
Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
Nov 09, 2016 at 5:11 PM ET

On the day the now-infamous video was released of Donald Trump and Billy Bush yucking it up about the liberties their fame allows them to take with women, news websites across the country covered their homepages with stories about the damning tape, even as what was expected to be a behemoth hurricane barreled its way towards the U.S.

“Trump was recorded bragging about groping women in 2005,” was the headline at the top of the Washington Post’s homepage next to a story about Hurricane Matthew. The New York Times’ website had a similar headline at the top of its homepage. CNN went even further, with “Trump in the Gutter” in huge letters at the top of its page and a link to the video revealing Trump’s crude comments. Hurricane news had literally been pushed to the side, even as the cyclone was whirling its way into Florida. Even Breitbart, the longtime bastion of far-right conservative journalism, led with a story about the Trump tape.

Donald Trump’s self-described “locker-room talk” was the biggest news story in the country that Friday afternoon, and it dominated headlines for days after it was first revealed to the world by the Washington Post on October 7. But one publication steered noticeably clear of anything to do with Trump’s “gutter” talk: The New York Observer (now just the Observer as it attempts to become a national publication) which happens to be owned by Trump’s son-in-law and top campaign advisor, Jared Kushner, and whose editor-in-chief, Ken Kurson, helped the Trump campaign write a speech the candidate delivered to a pro-Israel lobbying group earlier this year, and also sat with the Trump family during the Republican National Convention.

Trump’s stunning victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race has left many Americans scratching their heads, and those in the press have for months questioned their part in swaying public opinion. But on the campaign trail, the now-president-elect routinely scoffed at the “corrupt media” for attacking him from every direction, and journalists— including some employed at the Observer — have called into question the objectivity of a publication that is owned by his son-in-law. In a July 2015 article written by Huffington Post reporter Michael Calderone, he cited an internal memo written by Kurson explaining the difficulty of covering Trump’s campaign given the publisher’s relationship to Trump. Kurson conceded that “there’s no good way to cover Trump’s candidacy from an opinion perspective.” Less than a year later, the Observer’s editorial board endorsed Trump in the New York GOP primary

“This year, more people have turned out to vote in Republican primaries than ever before in our history,” The Observer said in an editorial on April 12. “They have done so for a simple reason: They too believe that America can be great again. They have responded to Donald Trump’s singular message.”

By the time Americans went to the polls on Tuesday, Trump amassed a paltry two endorsements for the general election from the country’s top 100 major newspapers. One of them came from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a newspaper owned by casino mogul and Trump fanboy Sheldon Adelson. Another notable endorsement came from a faction of the Ku Klux Klan, which announced in its latest newsletter that Trump was the man for the Klan.

As the campaign waged on, the publication took cosmetic steps to feign objectivity in the race, like the endnote after nearly every story about Trump: Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media. Editors even vowed to not write opinion pieces about Trump — a decision they eventually abandoned. But it’s not necessarily what the Observer has written about Trump that benefits his campaign, it’s what they’ve ignored.

Vocativ compared the Observer’s coverage of this year’s election to that of other major news outlets, as well as other magazines and newspapers similar in size, audience, and resources. We used the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine to look at homepages of multiple news outlets on specific dates and times that corresponded with key moments of the campaign and events that were unfavorable to Trump. What we found is that the Observer routinely ignored or downplayed stories that the rest of the media was pouncing on if it they cast Trump in a particularly bad light.

Contacted by Vocativ for comment, editor Kurson said, “Nothing to say. Thanks.”

At its inception, the Observer served as a source of news for New York City’s culture, media and real estate industries. With editor Peter Kaplan at its helm for 15 years, he introduced to its readers to what the New York Times called a “delectable dose of snark,” and hired a little-known freelancer by the name of Candace Bushnell, who wrote the now-famous “Sex and the City” column from 1994 to 1996. Kaplan stuck around when the then 25-year-old Kushner took over in 2006. With a circulation of 50,000, and a revolving door newsroom that saw five editors come and go under Kushner’s leadership before landing on Kurson, the paper has struggled to find its footing amid the clutter of competition that reports on New York City media and culture, and as it attempts to become a player in the world of national media.

Ross Barkan, a former political reporter at the Observer, quit his job in April after learning about Kurson’s relationship with the Trump campaign and questioned whether the publication could maintain its credibility while covering the father-in-law of the guy who owned the paper. The day after the Observer endorsed Trump in the GOP primary, Barkan submitted his resignation.

“I don’t think Ken [Kurson] took Trump’s campaign very seriously initially,” Barkan told Vocativ. “It was like, ‘he’s going away so let’s just ride it out.’ But once the campaign became viable, he didn’t separate himself [from Trump]…he didn’t build that wall.”

Barkan said the Observer had no real plan in terms of how to cover Trump’s candidacy—and Kurson said as much in a July 2015 editorial, in which he wrote that the Observer’s editors would “continue to chew this over and discuss it internally” when it comes to the publication’s Trump coverage.

Of the Observer’s coverage plan, Barkan said, at first it was “don’t cover him at all.” As Trump became more of a credible candidate, that changed to “let’s cover him a little bit.” By the time Trump was the GOP front-runner, Barkan said, the idea was to cover him like any other candidate. But that didn’t happen.

A glaring example of this surfaced on the day that New York Times broke the story that Trump may not have paid federal income taxes for up to 18 years. The Times and the Washington Post, as well as The Atlantic, CNN, and the New Republic—and countless other publications across the country led with this story on October 2. Not a peep from the Observer—its only daily coverage of the campaign that day was a story with the headline “Clinton Unveils Contemptuous Plan For Basement-Dwelling Millennials,” a punchy take on comments Clinton made to a group of donors about young voters. The next day, the Observer acknowledged the story in a vertical that covers local New Jersey politics by including one paragraph about how Governor Chris Christie had responded to news that Trump skirted paying taxes by calling him a “genius.”

The Observer, our analysis found, doesn’t just ignore many of Trump’s most egregious campaign snafus, but it also highlights negative stories about Clinton that other publications wouldn’t give the time of day. Most recently, Kurson penned an article published on November 4 with the headline, “Hillary Clinton Lifts Line From Right-Wing Senate Candidate Craig James.” It’s about how Clinton used a line during a campaign speech that Kurson found to be similar to a line used on the campaign trail of a Texas Senate candidate who was a client of Kurson’s in 2012 when he was a political consultant. The story about this alleged act of plagiarism exists nowhere else on the Internet outside of www.observer.com. The allegedly plagiarized line: “America is great because Americans are good.” Kurson describes the line as “gold, baby,” and then compares it to something Clinton said on the campaign trail: “America is great because America is good.”

Kurson caveats his assertion that Clinton plagiarized a line she likely never heard with the following: “It’s not precisely the same line. And the truth is, there’s only so much crap you can say in a campaign before it all begins to sound the same, regardless of party or ideology.”

Shortly after the article was published suggesting plagiarism by a presidential candidate, Kurson updated the piece with a bit of information that doesn’t quite align with the sensational headline: “UPDATE: Readers have brought to the Observer’s attention that similar rhetoric has been used for years. In fact, the line “America is great because she is good” is often attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America but even that attribution is suspect. In other words, as is written above, there’s only so much crap you can say in a campaign before it all begins to sound the same.”

Barkan said that he never felt that there was a specific mandate coming from Kushner to cover his father-in-law in a way that absolved him of his many flaws. “I don’t think Jared cared enough” about the paper, he said. And the Observer has published some critical pieces on Trump, including one written by their entertainment reporter Dana Schwartz who slammed Kushner and Trump over the campaign’s use of anti-semitic imagery in one of Trump’s tweets — an article Kushner responded to with a lengthy defense of his father-in-law’s love for Jews. But to call the coverage of Trump and Clinton balanced is laughable. What’s worse is how the Observer is now attacking other publications for their coverage of the campaign.

In an article published on November 3, with the headline “Media Bites On Trump’s Kremlin Ties, But Clinton’s Are Long-Standing And Deep,” security expert John Schindler argues that Clinton’s ties to Russia are deeper than Trump’s—but, he explains, “the mainstream media won’t tell you about that.” The publication even picked up Evan Gahr, a well-known right-wing columnist, to pen a series of articles criticizing the media’s coverage of Trump with headlines like, “No Consequences From Media Peers for Reporters Caught Colluding With Hillary,” and “New York Times Barely Reported 2010 Al Gore Sex Assault Police Investigations.” That story was in response to Trump’s “pussy grabbing” comments, and adds that “random women with flimsy charges against Trump make the front page.” The difference, some might argue, is that Al Gore wasn’t running for president in 2010, so the newsworthiness of alleged misconduct doesn’t quite meet the bar for a front-page New York Times story.

Barkan acknowledged that he doesn’t believe the staff at the Observer is guided by any directive from Kushner or the Trump. However, he said, he got the impression — as did other staffers — that freelancers, like those who wrote the aforementioned articles, were recruited by the top-brass to “write hit pieces about Trump’s opponents,” and other pieces in defense of the publisher’s father-in-law—even if nobody else in the media reports it, the Trump campaign can point to those articles, supposedly objectively reported, and use them on the campaign trail.

Kushner’s Observer — as well as many other outlets — includes political coverage that harkens back to the old days of partisan journalism that defined the American media before the Civil War. After the war, the press generally abandoned party loyalties, at least publicly, and espoused neutrality, according to Todd Gitlin, a journalism and sociology professor at Columbia University. He calls it the “quality press,” which would present the facts and let the chips fall as they may. Kushner, Gitlin said, is taking the Observer in the opposite direction—and his father-in-law is reaping the benefits.

“In the 30s, the newspapers were partisan, and they were vehement, and destructive, and reckless,” he said. “Kushner’s acting like a mogul of the 1820s. It’s his paper. It’s his father-in-law. But it’s his conception of his paper that’s crusading. It’s not surprising that Kushner is more devoted to his father-in-law than he is journalism.”

That, former reporter Barkan said, is the impression he got while employed at the Observer — he said that he only met Kushner once, but it was clear that “Jared cares about Donald Trump and real estate first, and the Observer is not a priority.”

The Observer’s impact on the election is debatable — like many older publications, its influence has faded with the rise of the Internet and an endless galaxy of journalistic content that gets shared on social media, regardless of whether it’s true. But what once was a legitimate publication with thoughtful, diverse content is now carrying the water of the publisher’s father-in-law, and suffering from a case of Glass-House Syndrome that becomes more apparent with each jab at a media that’s not as sympathetic to Trump’s propensity for “pussy grabbing” as Kushner would prefer.

“Losing the idea of engaged journalism that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable is a grave loss,” said Gitlin. “And it only inflames the cynicism of readers who just want their prejudices pumped up.

“But it’s [Kushner’s] paper. And he’s gonna do with it what he wants. So that’s it.”

Note: James King has written for Observer Media Group.