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The Gray Lady Goes Dumpster Diving

What would you think if, in the process of considering someone for a high-level position, I went to the local courthouse and asked a judge to let me look at sealed files from that person’s divorce a quarter-century ago?

You might wonder what I possibly hoped to find that could be relevant to that individual’s future job performance. You might laugh, especially if you have ever been involved in a divorce case, at my naivete in imagining that I could even rely on the assertions that a soon-to-be-ex spouse might have placed in the court files. You might just think that I was sticking my nose in a place that was none of my business.

Or you might work for The New York Times and think my approach is perfectly reasonable, if the job candidate in question is named Donald Trump.

The Times, joined by the Gannett newspaper chain, asked a state court judge to unseal the records of Trump’s 1990 divorce from his first wife, Ivana. Information in the court files could be of great significance to voters who are considering Trump’s suitability to become president of the United States, and this great need on the part of voters for the details of Trump’s long-ago marital breakdown trumps Trump’s privacy interests in this situation, the journalists’ counsel asserted. Trump opposed the motion, as did his ex-wife.

State Supreme Court Justice Frank Nervo concluded that he lacked both the power and any good reason to grant the news organizations’ request. In his ruling, Nervo observed that “The court’s role in the electoral process is strictly limited to determining whether a candidate complies with the Election Law.” Making confidential records available to journalists, in Nervo’s view, would clearly step over the line.

Servo also agreed with both ex-spouses’ assertions that New York’s lawmakers have generally made divorce files private – in contrast, we might observe, to the records of a public official such as a former secretary of state, whose emails and other correspondence are generally subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Even if he had found that Donald Trump’s candidacy could make the divorce records suitable for disclosure absent other considerations, Nervo further noted that Ivana Trump (who continued to use her ex-husband’s name after their divorce) is not and never has been a candidate for public office. She is entitled to her privacy as well.

Not that there is much that is private about this particular divorce. The Trumps were splashed across New York gossip columns on a near-daily basis in the late 1980s. The entire world was aware of Donald Trump’s relationship with actress Marla Maples, who became Mrs. Trump Number Two shortly after her future husband’s divorce with Ivana became final.

Gannett papers are not known for committing much in the way of resources to newsgathering; new material from a decades-old Trump divorce would have just been a cheap way to attract eyeballs. The Times, however, maintains high editorial objectives – and one of those objectives has patently been to make certain that readers know The Times does not consider Trump fit for the presidency.

This is not the forum for a full deconstruction of the Times’ coverage of this campaign, but it’s instructive to consider the last time the newspaper specifically tried to probe Trump’s purported disrespect of women. It came in May, when The Times published what it said was its exhaustive analysis of Trump’s history with the opposite sex, leading with an anecdote about an encounter decades ago between Trump and then-model Rowanne Brewer Lane. They had just met, the paper reported, when Trump invited Brewer Lane to get out of her clothes. He then displayed her bikini-clad form to other guests at his Palm Beach mansion and announced that she was another “stunning Trump girl.”

Brewer Lane reacted to the Times expose quickly and angrily. The event was a pool party; she came from a photo shoot and had not brought a swimsuit, so Trump offered to let her wear one that was kept at his home. She felt neither demeaned nor offended, something she said she told the Times reporters. Yet they described the incident as “a debasing face-to-face encounter between Mr. Trump and a young woman he hardly knew.”

Another part of the same article described the Miss USA beauty pageant (a Trump-sponsored event) in 2009, quoting an excerpt from a book by Carrie Prejean, who competed as Miss California. The book mentioned a pre-pageant event in which Trump met the contestants onstage, dividing them into groups according to whether he found them personally attractive and leaving some of them in tears. Prejean, too, soon went public after the article, noting that the exercise was connected to a beauty pageant – an event explicitly about ranking women’s attractiveness by its nature – and that she had declined to grant the newspaper an interview because she had nothing negative to say about Trump. Times reporters ignored complimentary references to him in her book, she added.

So what we have in the case of the Trump divorce documents is a newspaper, which was once at least arguably the country’s most respected, looking for new material to push forward an already-questioned storyline about Trump’s relationships to and with women. To be sure, Trump has demonstrably criticized the appearances of Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina during the course of his campaign – but he also criticized Marco Rubio and Rand Paul on similar grounds. And while Brewer Lane and Prejean’s objections to the Times coverage may or may not represent the views of the other 50 or so women the Times interviewed, several of Trump’s female employees are just as eager to step forward to defend him in The Washington Post (a publication that is no friend to the Trump campaign either).

Was there anything useful to be gained in the Times’ courthouse gossip-mongering? You have already judged for yourself from the questions at the top of this column. Did the New York tabloids somehow overlook some important and salacious piece of scandal when Donald and Ivana Trump were in the news on a near-daily basis? If you think so, you probably did not grow up reading New York tabloids the way I did. (My father brought the Daily News home every night from his job as a grocery clerk.)

Forget “All the news that’s fit to print.” For a new motto, I suggest “If it’s news, it’s news to us.”

I’ll muster just a little charity for The New York Times here. We live today in a world of Breitbart and Daily Kos and Facebook as a “news” source, not to mention the three big cable news outlets. The paper, whose physical circulation is steadily declining, must compete for eyeballs with all those sites and many, many more. Its approach to journalism is no worse than theirs. But it isn’t any better, either.

My elementary school teachers, unlike my father, went to college and didn’t try to hide their view that this proved they were smarter and better than people who had not. The Gray Lady, the newspaper these teachers told me to read – in fact, the paper to which they had our entire class subscribe – has now been reduced to dumpster diving. The people who work there clearly fail to realize how bad their work has gotten. Judges should not have a better sense than journalists of what is news and what is not. The modern Times staff’s lack of stewardship used to make me angry; now it just makes me sad.

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