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The “Extraordinary” Election of The New York Times

Only Donald Trump could linguistically confound the oldest institution in American journalism

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2016 election has put certain terms back into circulation: stamina, false equivalence, crooked. Let’s add another: extraordinary. The word wasn’t just floated by Dr. Harold Bornstein in a letter attesting to Donald Trump’s vigorous health. It has appeared in The New York Times’ stories and columns more than 50 times since the beginning of the year. To recount the Times’ “extraordinarys” is to read a potted history of the ’16 campaign and see a newspaper trying to figure out how to cover a candidate unlike any it had covered before.

Here are some things the Times found extraordinary: Trump urging Russian hackers to hack Hillary Clinton (July 28). The confessions of the Trumpite who plagiarized Michelle Obama in Melania Trump’s convention speech (July 20). Team Clinton’s confidence that Hillary would win the general election in a walk (October 17 — whoops!). Clinton’s hacked emails, which offered an “extraordinary look at the soap opera” in Clintonland (October 26).

But it was Trump’s feuds with other Republicans that delivered the most extraordinary moments. Trump drew an “extraordinary show of defiance” from Senator Ben Sasse (March 1); an “extraordinary rebuke” from John McCain and Mitt Romney (March 3); a second “extraordinary rebuke” from Paul Ryan (May 5); and, finally, had an “extraordinary series of acrid exchanges” with Republicans during a Capitol Hill schmooze session (July 7).

As a result, Trump was cast into an “extraordinary isolation within the party” (July 12). Moreover, when one GOP congressman went rogue and endorsed Clinton, the Times cited it as evidence of “extraordinary dissatisfaction within the Republican Party’s elected ranks” (August 2). Occasionally, the intraparty struggles went Trump’s way. When Ted Cruz refused to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention, two mega-donors issued yet another “extraordinary rebuke” (August 18) — but this time of Cruz.

Some things are pretty extraordinary, like Trump’s bear hugs of Vladimir Putin (September 8) and Julian Assange (October 12); Trump’s attempt to usher women who’d accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault into the VIP box at a debate (October 10); and the tax benefits Trump enjoyed after declaring a $916 million loss in 1995 (October 1). (Such a loss, said a second article two days later, “is so extraordinary that it caused several accountants and lawyers consulted by the Times to blanch.”)

Occasionally, the Times delivered an extraordinary twofer. After the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Trump’s speech — which condemned Muslims at home and abroad — represented “an extraordinary break from the longstanding rhetorical norms of American presidential nominees” (July 13). The next day, Barack Obama delivered “an extraordinary condemnation by a sitting president of a man who is to be the opposing party’s nominee for the White House” (July 14).

In June, Trump called Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was presiding over the Trump University lawsuit, biased against him because of his “Mexican heritage.” (Curiel was born in Indiana.) Trump’s efforts to find Republicans to back him up were “extraordinary,” per the Times (June 6), as was the “extraordinary indictment” (June 7) that Ryan delivered of Trump the next day.

Trump commits so many affronts that each new one makes the previous ones less outrageous by comparison. You can see this in the Times coverage, too. Before the New Hampshire primary, it was deemed “extraordinary” that Trump attacked The Union Leader, a Manchester newspaper that declined to endorse him (January 29). But that was before Trump feuded with The Washington Post and “failing” media entities everywhere. Then the feud with The Union Leader seemed unextraordinary.

Nothing illustrates the newspaper’s extraordinary fetish like the release of the Access Hollywood tape that caught Trump bragging about sexual predations. The paper called Trump’s language “extraordinarily vulgar” (October 7); reported on an “extraordinary backlash” from members of both parties (October 8); and then observed that the sight of Republicans climbing over each other to unendorse Trump was as “extraordinary” as the candidate’s original sin (ditto).

The Times also made the decision to print one of Trump’s extraordinary vulgarities, “pussy,” in its own news pages. Three days later, the paper’s public editor, Liz Spayd, considered the decorum of such a decision. “It should be the extraordinary case when such words are used by the Times,” she wrote, “but this is one of those cases.”

Why does the Times use “extraordinary” in cases both extraordinary and pedestrian? A Times spokeswoman didn’t return an email, so let’s speculate. First, sometimes the e-word is the mark of a deadline writer who is fresh out of adjectives. Did Megyn Kelly and Sean Hannity really engage in an “extraordinary public display of rancor” (October 6)? Or did they have a tête-à-tête that offered — to use another go-to term of newspapers — a rare window on the state of the Roger Ailes–less Fox News? That’s why you see extraordinarys in stories from the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, and other outlets covering the campaign.

Second, every campaign journalist wants to witness a truly important moment in the history of politics rather than a banal one. Events that are notable or unusual get an upgrade to extraordinary. NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben noted that nearly every twist in the ’16 campaign, going back to its gestational, pre-Trump stage, has been deemed “unprecedented.”

Mostly, though, extraordinary is a term of strained politeness, an attempt to capture an outré candidate in newspaperese. As Daniel Okrent, the Times’ first public editor, told me, “How do you say ‘unfuckingbelievable’ without saying ‘unfuckingbelievable?’”

What if the Times had reported — on the occasion of a spat between the Trump and John Kasich camps — that it was “the latest unfuckingbelievable turn in a campaign that has veered sharply away from political precedent” (July 18)? Or that Trump’s win in the Florida primary and sacking of native son Marco Rubio “was the latest twist in an unfuckingbelievable campaign” (March 15)?

CNN — another outlet that prides itself on neutrality — has pursued a kind of bogus propriety by hiring an ex-Trumpite and other hacks to undermine the factual assertions its own hosts are making. The Times, by contrast, has tried to prevent Trump from using the paper’s neutrality against it. In September, the paper called Trump’s birtherism a “lie” on Page A1. “I don’t think we’ve ever had somebody who, in my time as a journalist, so openly lies,” executive editor Dean Baquet told Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, “and that was a word that we struggled to actually utter.” The enlivening of the language of the Times has been afoot throughout the Baquet era, according to Okrent; Trump was merely an accelerant. “It’s almost like a jailbreak,” Okrent said. “For years we’ve not been able to say what we think, and now we’re able to say what we think.”

But the Times isn’t (thank God) going to become Talking Points Memo, or even Vox. The paper will field dress Donald Trump while straining to contain its disbelief. When you read that an event is “extraordinary,” you are seeing the Times’ new vigor mixing with its old grayness. As Okrent put it, “Maybe the best word to describe this is that they’re speechless.”