Trump indictment and the problem with journalists writing for the history books

The NYT front page on the morning after Donald Trump's indictment. Peter Baker's story is just under the lead, to the right of the page

Journalists can be acerbic about each other’s work, sometimes with reason.

So to Jonathan M Katz’s tweet about the lead para of The New York Times’ story (paywall) below the lead on Donald Trump’s indictment. He calls it “a dogshit lede”.

In a separate tweet, Jonathan hones in on his point: “Among other things, he says he’s going to repeat the sentence. Then not only does he not do that but he introduces a new error (Trump isn’t “an American president” anymore. There’s only one of those at a time.)”

It’s hard to disagree even though Peter Baker, the journalist whose writing is under the microscope, is a distinguished veteran, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, and someone who could churn out multiple leads for multiple lead stories while standing on his head.

But it is true that the opening of Mr Baker’s contextualising piece – companion to the news report on Mr Trump’s indictment – is not one for the history books. Is that because he thought he was writing for the history books? It feels self-conscious, as if Mr Baker feels the hand of history on his shoulder (to quote Tony Blair). And that’s always a dangerous mindset for a journalist.

Here, for those who do not have access to the NYT story, are the first few paras:

A Nation Finds Itself on a Path Never Traveled

By Peter Baker

Peter Baker has covered the last five presidents. He reported from Washington.

For the first time in American history, a former president of the United States has been indicted on criminal charges. It is worth pausing to repeat that: An American president has been indicted for a crime for the first time in history.

So many unthinkable firsts have occurred since Donald J. Trump was elected to the White House in 2016, so many inviolable lines have been crossed, so many unimaginable events have shocked the world that it is easy to lose sight of just how astonishing this particular moment really is.

For all of the focus on the tawdry details of the case or its novel legal theory or its political impact, the larger story is of a country heading down a road it has never traveled before, one fraught with profound consequences for the health of the world’s oldest democracy. For more than two centuries, presidents have been held on a pedestal, even the ones swathed in scandal, declared immune from prosecution while in office and, effectively, even afterward.