(Not) preaching to the New York Times choir

As you might expect, I have been getting quite a bit of email about the recent column by Daniel Okrent titled "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" The "public editor" at the Gray Lady stirred up the milk real good and then immediately went on vacation. He answers his own question with the simple lead: "Of course it is."

The column did not directly address the issue of religion coverage. It also did not openly address the wider issue of news coverage of religious people, which is not quite the same thing.

But with a fascinating series of wink-wink comments, Okrent made it clear -- I think -- that he knows where the biggest chasm exists between the deep-blue world of the Times and the lives of people out in flyover country.

For example, note this passage at the beginning:

(Readers) who attack The Times from the left -- and there are plenty -- generally confine their complaints to the paper's coverage of electoral politics and foreign policy. I'll get to the politics-and-policy issues this fall (I want to watch the campaign coverage before I conclude anything), but for now my concern is the flammable stuff that ignites the right. These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others. And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed.

But if you're examining the paper's coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn't wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you're traveling in a strange and forbidding world.

Gun control might stir up legions of conservative New York Times readers, but I doubt that is the heart of the matter. I wonder why he did not mention evangelical Christians?

It seems to me that Okrent was struggling to find some issues to mention that are not directly attached to the big two -- sex and salvation. He talks about the thick folder of complaints on his desk. It would have been interesting to do a quick blitz through that folder and give his readers some indication of what percentage of the letters were rooted in religious and moral issues. I would have been stunned by any figure under 50 percent.

Okrent is close to the mark when he notes that the op-ed pages do a pretty good job of offering a wide range of views from outsiders. But the columnists? Only two of the seven are conservatives and those two, he admits, are of the "conservative subspecies" that is liberal on social issues such as gay rights and abortion. In other words, the big issues that dominate the contents of his folder full of letters. How about arts and culture?

In the Sunday magazine, the culture-wars applause-o-meter chronically points left. On the Arts & Leisure front page every week, columnist Frank Rich slices up President Bush, Mel Gibson, John Ashcroft and other paladins of the right in prose as uncompromising as Paul Krugman's or Maureen Dowd's. The culture pages often feature forms of art, dance or theater that may pass for normal (or at least tolerable) in New York but might be pretty shocking in other places. Same goes for fashion coverage, particularly in the Sunday magazine, where I've encountered models who look like they're preparing to murder (or be murdered), and others arrayed in a mode you could call dominatrix chic.

Hinting again at the religious nature of the gap, Okrent notes that "creationists" will not feel at home in the pages of Science Times. Of course, one person's "creationist" is another person's rebel scientist, but that is kind of the point.

While the Times has demonstrated fits of balance and fairness on science issues -- supporters of Intelligent Design theory have actually cheered some of the coverage of their research -- anyone who reads these pages consistently knows who the Times considers smart and who it considers dumb. As Okrent puts it, millions of people read these stories and think: "This does not represent me or my interests. In fact, it represents my enemy."

And finally, he ventures into the issue -- gay rights -- that is defining current debates about media bias. This requires a lengthy quote, in order to be fair to his perspective.

(For) those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it's disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading. So far this year, front-page headlines have told me that "For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy," (March 19, 2004); that the family of "Two Fathers, With One Happy to Stay at Home," (Jan. 12, 2004) is a new archetype; and that "Gay Couples Seek Unions in God's Eyes," (Jan. 30, 2004). I've learned where gay couples go to celebrate their marriages; I've met gay couples picking out bridal dresses; I've been introduced to couples who have been together for decades and have now sanctified their vows in Canada, couples who have successfully integrated the world of competitive ballroom dancing, couples whose lives are the platonic model of suburban stability.

Every one of these articles was perfectly legitimate. Cumulatively, though, they would make a very effective ad campaign for the gay marriage cause. You wouldn't even need the articles: run the headlines over the invariably sunny pictures of invariably happy people that ran with most of these pieces, and you'd have the makings of a life insurance commercial.

This implicit advocacy is underscored by what hasn't appeared. Apart from one excursion into the legal ramifications of custody battles ("Split Gay Couples Face Custody Hurdles," by Adam Liptak and Pam Belluck, March 24), potentially nettlesome effects of gay marriage have been virtually absent from The Times since the issue exploded last winter.

The bottom line: If The New York Times is going to serve as a national institution, the bible of the journalistic elites that guide coverage in mainstream media from coast to coast, then Okrent believes that it is crucial that its editors manage to escape the zip codes of their own spiritual and intellectual biases often enough to at least accurately cover the lives and beliefs of those who differ with them on the hottest news issues of the day.

In other words: It's journalism, stupid.

I sent a copy of the column to one veteran conservative critic, former New York Daily News reporter William Proctor. He's a Harvard-trained lawyer and the author of The Gospel According to the New York Times. Proctor said he suspects Okrent knew that he could not directly address religion issues because he "could have ended up touching a philosophical third rail." Proctor continues:

I have argued that the Times' pervasive anti-Christian propaganda and its promotion of such issues as gay and transgender rights and unrestricted abortion have resulted in a phenomenon I call 'Culture Creep' . . . or the process of spreading the paper's 'gospel' or comprehensive worldview to an unsuspecting public. I could hardly have asked for a better way to make my case than Daniel Okrent's mea culpa on behalf of his paper.

The key, said Proctor, is that Okrent

. . . (May) have decided that the only acceptable and effective way to deal in his venue with moral issues such as gay marriage was to focus on journalistic and rationalistic arguments. Yet by employing religious language to describe the Times, he could subtly suggest -- as I did less subtly in THE GOSPEL -- that the Times is enmeshed in promoting a coherent worldview that runs counter to traditional morality and religious faith. ...

If he is religious or sympathetic to traditional values, he may have assumed that dealing with such issues from a Biblical or traditional moral perspective would have fallen on deaf ears with the Times' audience.

In other words, Okrent may have found a way not to preach to the choir. Of course, I realize that "preaching to the choir" is a phrase from Southern Protestantism, so I am not sure that many defenders of The New York Times will understand its meaning. Oh well, whatever, never mind.

Please respect our Commenting Policy