Readers must be wondering because it happens so frequently in contexts where it is clearly inappropriate. The latest example is in an article about the state of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination following the second round of debates.
The piece told readers:
"After a few candidates used the Detroit debate to demand that Mr. Biden account for Mr. Obama’s record on issues such as deportations and free trade, Mr. Biden was joined by some of the former president’s advisers, who chastised the critics for committing political malpractice."
The word "free" in this context adds nothing and is in fact wrong. The Obama administration did virtually nothing to promote free trade in highly paid professional services, like physicians' services, which would have reduced inequality. It only wanted to reduce barriers that protected less-educated workers, like barriers to trade in manufactured goods.
And, it actively worked to increase patent and copyright protections, which are the complete opposite of free trade. These protections also have the effect of increasing inequality.
Given the reality of trade policy under President Obama, it is difficult to understand why the New York Times felt the need to modify "trade" with the adjective "free." Maybe it needs to get this editing program fixed.