Back to the 'Is the Times liberal?' debate

There he goes again. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller is alive and well and is continuing to address a question that should be of great interest to all news consumers: Has the world's most powerful newspaper evolved into a partisan, advocacy news organization?

His answer is "no" -- sort of.

The newspaper is not an advocacy publication, except for a few strategic subjects. This is GetReligion territory for a simple reason, but we'll get to that shortly.

On Oct. 6th, Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith conducted an interview with the current Times columnist and gadfly during an event at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum called, logically enough, "An Evening With Bill Keller."

To understand Keller's remarks in Austin -- the subject of a report in The Huffington Post -- it helps to back up to a Times essay the then editor wrote in March, under the headline, "Traditional News Outlets -- Living Among the Guerrillas." At one point, Keller flashes back to an earlier national debate about the status of the Times and its commitment to journalistic balance, fairness, accuracy, etc. Keller writes:

Back in 2004, Daniel Okrent, the first ombudsman at The Times, wrote a column under the headline, “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” The sly first sentence of his essay was: “Of course it is.” Nobody seems to remember what came after. Okrent went on to explain that The Times’s outlook, steeped in the mores of a big, rambunctious city, tends to be culturally liberal: open-minded, skeptical of dogma, secular, cosmopolitan. We publish news of gay unions on the wedding pages. We have a science section that does not feel obliged to give equal time to creationists when it writes about evolution. Okrent rightly scolded us for sometimes seeming to look down our urban noses at the churchgoing, the gun-owning and the unlettered. Respect is a prerequisite for understanding. But he did not mean that we subscribe to any political doctrine or are foot soldiers in any cause. (Anyone who thinks we go easy on liberals should ask Eliot Spitzer or David Paterson or Charles Rangel or. ...)

Note that, when challenged on how the Times deals with issues of religion and culture, Keller notes that his newspaper has, at times, been tough on political liberals.

After the 2004 Okrent column, I noted that he quickly backtracked to say that the Times is not always liberal, although it is consistently liberal on certain kinds of subjects. He said the newspaper is:

... merely liberal on “certain issues, social issues. ... It is a product of its place and of its people, and I think it’s really important for the paper to recognize that and recognize how it is perceived.”

In other words, the New York Times is only liberal on issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, Hollywood, euthanasia, gay rights, public education, cloning and loads of other issues linked to faith and public life.

That’s all. But that’s enough.

In Austin, Keller walked the same path. Once again, he backed Okrent's approach, saying that the paper is liberal on social and moral issues and, well, that's just fine.

Keller essentially agreed with this. He said, "we are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes -- and did even before New York had a gay marriage law -- included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense. Socially liberal."

For me, this leads to a simple question. Is the former Times editor essentially saying that his newspaper is committed to doing fair, accurate, critically balanced coverage of all kinds of issues -- except for those that are touched by the uniquely dangerous, judgmental and irrational reality that is religious faith and practice? In other words, it is acceptable for Times journalists to produce advocacy journalism on a list of approved religious, moral, cultural and social issues. So there.

That's really bad news for people, like me, who keep trying to defend the New York Times. This would certainly, for example, clash with GetReligion's conviction that -- whether journalists are believers or nonbelievers, we don't care -- they need to realize that it's impossible to understand how real events occur in the real world without understanding that religion is often a real and powerful force in human affairs.

Also note that, once again, Keller's words clash with his own promises at the end of his famous "Assuring Our Credibility (.pdf)" essay in 2005, in response to a report addressing many of his newspaper's struggles and failures. in that essay, Keller stressed that that it was crucial for Times staff to make:

... a concerted effort ... to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. ... This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.

Which Keller is the real Keller? Which man speaks for the Times, when it comes to covering hot-button religious, moral and cultural issues?

Meanwhile, the newspaper's new executive editor has offered her own point of view on this overarching subject. In a recent interview with Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane, executive editor Jill Abramson noted:

I sometimes try not only to remind myself but my colleagues that the way we view an issue in New York is not necessarily the way it is viewed in the rest of America. And I am pretty scrupulous about when we apply our investigative firepower to politicians that we not do it in a way that favors one way of thinking or one party over the other. I think the mandate is to keep the paper straight. ...

Once again, note the emphasis on balance and fairness when covering politicians. You know -- real people who work in the real world. As opposed to, well, you know.

Stay tuned.

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