Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bias at the New York Times

It’s not a good sign when a newspaper hires a public editor to parry the constant criticism of its news coverage.

A normal paper, like a normal individual, would, upon discovering bias, try to correct the bias.

The Times, however, wants to continue its bias, but to make it part of an extended conversation where disgruntled readers would have the chance to vent.

It’s a perfect therapy-approved way to improve a relationship: keep doing what you are doing but have a conversation with your partner so your partner can learn not to be so judgmental.

Yesterday, the current New York Times public editor, Arthur Brisbane wrote his last column. It was the kind of column you can only write when you are out the door. Brisbane took the Times to task for contaminating its work with its progressive politics.

In Brisbane’s words:

I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds — a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.

When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

Take it point by point.

Brisbane dismisses the charge that the Times is run by a cabal that actively seeks to slant the news.

If he means t0 deny that a group gets together to decide how to slant the news, he is probably correct.

Yet, a culture of like minds does not just happen all by itself.

On university campuses, people who do not stick to the party line are subject to discrimination. Conservatives are most often disqualified from hiring and promotion.

Even tenured professors are subject to harassment when they take a position that is politically incorrect.

Witness the attacks on Mark Regnerus at the University of Texas. In a more recent case, a Berkeley professor named Brad DeLong recommended that Harvard fire Professor Niall Ferguson because Ferguson had had the temerity to argue in the pages of Newsweek that people should vote for Mitt Romney.

Regnerus is being harassed and bullied by people who claim to be opposed to harassment and bullying. Ferguson is immune from such sniping.

Yet, all other academics and aspiring academics cannot fail to have gotten the message: deviate from the party line and you will find yourself unemployed.

So, while it is no doubt true that the Times “beehive” contains people with like minds, you have to wonder whether there is something about the leadership that makes it impossible for a conservative to get hired.

If there is, the problem must lie with the owner, Pinch Sulzberger. Surely, Pinch has a right to his political views and he has every right to see them expressed in the paper’s editorials.

It is one thing to offer opinions. It is quite another to disbelieve in objective fact and to hire editors who do not believe in it either.

Aside from the fact that the Times is going broke, Sulzberger had turned the most influential newspaper in the world into a newspaper that fewer and fewer people trust.

As I argued yesterday, when you hire mediocre people you end up getting what you pay for: second-rate journalism written by second rate minds who know that they can succeed by sprinkling their personal opinions in their writing.

It’s very much like the American university system, STEM subjects excepted.

When Brisbane wrote that the progressive “worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times” he was laying down a marker.

He knew that phrase would be picked up and passed around as an indictment of the paper of record.

He was also suggesting that the Times is bleeding, that the current management is draining its lifeblood.

A newspaper that has fought the good fight against every kind of bias has been blind to its own intellectual bias. That fact is destroying it.

Brisbane calls out the paper for its coverage of the ill-fated and unserious Occupy movement.

Of course, the Occupy movement did not represent progressive or liberal thinking. It was a hard left radical movement.

The Times reported on it because it had been stung by the electoral successes of Tea Party Republicans in 2010 and was looking for a progressive counterweight.

It was also looking for a reprise of the 1960s counterculture, because obviously, the publisher’s brain had grown up (or down) on just such thinking.

The Times’ new editor Jill Abramson has taken exception, and I suspect that she has been trying to make political coverage more fair this year than it was in 2008.

Clearly, Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s excellent profile of Mitt Romney dealing with two personal crises is a far cry from the hit piece on John McCain that The Times published in 2008, accusing him of being an adulterer.

And yet, in the midst of Stolberg’s piece, we discover an instance of what Brisbane was talking about:

There are some reasons Mr. Romney may not want to talk to voters about the vulnerable moments in his life. Ann Romney, whose story has inspired patients all over the country, undoubtedly has access to the finest medical care, at a time when many Americans are struggling for lack of health insurance.

This gratuitous swipe furthers the Obama campaign election narrative. To the culture of like-minded people at The Times to be fair and balanced.

But if Stolberg does not detail the care Ann Romney received and whether or not it would have been available to an average citizen her remark is merely a bias that is so ingrained that it does not see itself as it is.

Besides, isn’t Obamacare the law? Won’t it give health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans?

A fair and balanced report would have noted that having health insurance is not the same thing as having health care.

Many have argued that the unintended consequences of Obamacare might make health care less, not more, available.

In blue Massachusetts, ironically, where Romneycare is the law of the commonwealth it take much longer to get an appointment with a physician that it does in many other states.


Sam L. said...

You are more generous to Jill Abramson than I would have been (not at all), but then I don't read the NYT and I don't run across the NYT in my daily life. Perhaps in a few years...

Stuart Schneiderman said...

To be honest, I don't read it either, with the exception of stories I run across. Since JA is new on the job I am holding out a last shred of hope that she might direct the paper in a more positive direction. Surely she will not listen to me or you, but maybe the bosses at the Times will recognize that the market's verdict is none too positive.

Renfield said...

Even for a life coach, denouncing a newspaper for its mediocrity without reading it lacks a certain credibiity.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

The remark was slightly tongue-in-cheek... sorry you missed the humor. Obviously, I read many articles from the NYT... I comment on them all the time here, but I, like many others, do not subscribe to the paper and do not read it through on a daily basis.