Is the New York Times biased?
A recent article by the paper’s Public Editor suggests that it is. Or, at least, that the public perceives it to be a daily version of The New Republic.
Public Editor Liz Spayd suggests, first, that the perception is so ingrained that the paper’s editors and reports do not see it. And second, that it is costing the paper its readers, its revenue and its position as the paper of record.
In fact, other great national papers, like the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post are doing a better job at presenting the news fairly and objectively. As Noam Chomsky once said, at least with the Wall Street Journal you can trust the facts.
Presenting the facts is a newspaper’s primary purpose. Get it wrong and you are headed toward irrelevance. So, Spayd is quite right to raise the alarm… though she is hardly the first.
Spayd begins her article with some letters to the editors:
It comes via the inbox to the public editor, from people like Gary Taustine of Manhattan, who writes: “The NY Times is alienating its independent and open-minded readers, and in doing so, limiting the reach of their message and its possible influence.”
One reader from California who asked not to be named believes Times reporters and editors are trying to sway public opinion toward their own beliefs. “I never thought I’d see the day when I, as a liberal, would start getting so frustrated with the one-sided reporting that I would start hopping over to the Fox News webpage to read an article and get the rest of the story that the NYT refused to publish,” she says.
As it happens, editors have seen so many of these letters that they have become numbed to them:
Emails like these stream into this office every day. A perception that The Times is biased prompts some of the most frequent complaints from readers. Only they arrive so frequently, and have for so long, that the objections no longer land with much heft.
Like the tiresome bore at a party, I went around asking several journalists in the newsroom about these claims that The Times sways to the left. Mostly I was met with a roll of the eyes. All sides hate us, they said. We’re tough on everyone. That’s nothing new here.
That response may be tempting, but unless the strategy is to become The New Republic gone daily, this perception by many readers strikes me as poison. A paper whose journalism appeals to only half the country has a dangerously severed public mission. And a news organization trying to survive off revenue from readers shouldn’t erase American conservatives from its list of prospects.
Fair enough, Spayd does not address the substance of the criticism: Is the paper really biased? She addresses the perception of bias, leaving the larger issue for another day.
She examines reader comments, most of which are written by liberals. In truth, the Times makes an effort to highlight some conservative comments, but there are precious few of them. This tells us that the paper has lost conservative and even independent readers. This is, of course, bad for business:
How about all the reader comments attached to political articles? On most days, conservatives occupy just a few back-row seats in this giant liberal echo chamber, not because Republicans are screened out by editors but because they don’t show up in the first place. Bassey Etim, who oversees the comments forum, makes a point of salting conservative voices into the week’s list of top commenters. “It just makes the conversation more dynamic and interesting,” he says.
For whatever reason most Times readers are liberal. They view a liberal slant as objective reporting. One notes that those who seek out more objective reporting normally gravitate to the business press.
Among the most egregious instances of political bias was the placement of an editorial on gun control on the paper’s front page after the San Bernardino terrorist attack. True enough, the article was clearly labelled an editorial, but most readers believe that such commentary has no place on the front page of a newspaper. It was the first such editorial in nearly a century.
At a time when gun control is an important political issue, when the president and the new Democratic presidential nominee have been using it to deflect attention away from their own responsibility for counterterrorism strategy and their own failure to rally the nation against Islamist terrorism, the Times looked like it was promoting Democratic Party propaganda. And that it was taking advantage of its readers normal tendency to see front page articles as news reporting.
For some print readers, the placement of an editorial calling for gun control on the front page last December, which garnered a record number of comments, was shrill proof of the kind of Times bias they expect. There was a torrent of debate over the appropriateness of its placement.