The Panama Papers: The New York Times finds itself on the outside looking in
Public Editor Margaret Sullivan asks why the paper appears to be downplaying such a huge story, deputy executive editor Matt Purdy asks for patience as the paper learns more about the contents of some 11.5M leaked documents
The Panama Papers, as the document dump involving over 11 million leaked papers of the Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca is known, has so far been mostly a European affair. Caught up in the growing scandal are government leaders such as Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin; the brother-in-law of China’s President Xi Jinping; Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko; Argentina President Mauricio Macri; the late father of UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Iceland’s Prime Minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson. At issue is the use of the Panama firm Mossack Fonseca to set up dummy companies with the intent to hide money from the tax man.
So far, at least, the names of Americans have been mostly missing from the revelations, but the consortium of 109 news organizations combing through the documents have hardly scratched the surface of what they will find. But the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung has said one can expect many more names to be exposed as doing business with Mossack Fonseca.
Described as a document leak that dwarfs anything WikiLeaks has been involved with, one might have expected The New York Times to be at the center of the coverage. Instead, it has been noticeably a minor player. So noticeable that the paper’s Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, soon to depart to The Washington Post, wrote a blog post yesterday afternoon wondering why the Times seems to be playing down the story.
“The “Panama Papers” are being called the largest ever leak of secret data, and articles about the offshore bank accounts of bigwigs worldwide — developed by a global consortium of journalists — began appearing Sunday afternoon. They burst into the Sunday afternoon news lull, getting huge play in media outlets around the world and in the United States,” Sullivan wrote.
“By Monday, I had heard from many Times readers who wanted to know why The Times didn’t seem to be giving the news a big ride.”
Sullivan then goes on to repeat some of the letters she has received from readers disappointed with the Times coverage so far. She then asked deputy executive editor Matt Purdy for a response.
He told me by phone that The Times is very interested in the data leak, and the articles produced from it. But he said Times editors believe that they owe it to their readers to do their own evaluation of the material. And that, he said, is happening now.
Because The Times was not a part of the global consortium and was not aware that the story was coming, it needed some time to get its own story going. “We didn’t know these documents were out there and being worked on,” he said.
“We didn’t have access to the documents, and that is a very big issue,” he said. But Mr. Purdy said he hoped, and had good reason to believe, that that would change soon.
Sullivan does not guess whether there is some other reason why the Times might be hesitate to lead with the story, but by opening up the subject she is allowing readers to wonder in the comments about possibly explanations. For instance, why is the Times not part of the consortium of organizations involved with the documents? Is this an effort to shield the financial community? or, as a supporter of Hillary Clinton, is this a subject too close to home for the paper? Finally, is there now a level of distrust of the NYT as the paper is too often seen tied to those in power and far to willing to play stenographer whenever government officials have an axe to grind?
(It should be noted that Monday was a huge news day domestically: the NCAA finals were played, the Supreme Court handed down rulings, the Wisconsin primary was a day away, and for many baseball teams it was Opening Day.)
Sullivan did update her post soon after it appeared as the paper published a story regarding the growing pressure on Iceland’s President to resign.
The prime minister, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, insisted he would not resign after documents revealed that he and his wealthy partner, now wife, had set up a company in 2007 in the British Virgin Islands through the law firm. The documents also suggest that he sold his half of the company to her, for $1, on the last day of 2009, just before a new law took effect that would have required him as a member of Parliament to declare his ownership as a conflict of interest.
— Jóhannes Kr. Kristjá (@JohannesKrKrist) April 5, 2016
But readers are definitely noting the lack of coverage for “The Panama Papers” and how other media outlets are playing the document leak:
— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) April 5, 2016