'Good for one fare' in Times land

The other day, Sarah Pulliam Bailey walked GetReligion readers through an essential piece for all who are interested in the immediate future of The New York Times. I am referring to the New Yorker profile of Jill Abramson, the new editor of the great Gray Lady. It says something about The New Yorker and, probably, Abramson that this long and very interesting piece includes several other pieces of information that would be of interest to GetReligion readers.

The general thrust of the piece is that Abramson is precisely the kind of person that supporters and critics of the Times would expect to become its editors. She is, in other words, a New Yorker's New Yorker. All of the stereotypes are there. Go through the piece and check them off for yourselves. Pay special attention to the few references to religion, or the lack thereof.

In an earlier piece, The Jewish Journal addresses this terrain with an urbane wink:

... (The) New York Times announced that Jill Abramson will take over as the newspaper’s new editor from Bill Keller, who will become a writer for the paper. This makes Abramson the first woman to lead the paper in its history. We have it from reliable sources that Jill Abramson is Jewish -- though she’s been quoted saying that in her childhood home, the family religion was the New York Times.

Does any of this offer concrete information about the content of Abramson's beliefs? Not really. Nevertheless, at the end of The New Yorker piece there is this intriguing tidbit -- which must be important because it is the closing image of this lengthy piece. The context is crucial. Here goes:

An editorial voice in news stories adds credence to the frequent charge that the Times’ news reporting often displays a liberal bias -- a critique that will not be lessened by the elevation of a woman brought up in a liberal-Democratic household on the West Side of Manhattan who worked for liberal Southern Democrats and wrote a book asserting that Clarence Thomas probably lied.

Abramson, asked whether the Times has a liberal bias, says, “I think we try hard not to” be biased, but she adds that the Times, as its public editor argued in a column seven years ago, has an insular urban bias that is sometimes apparent in social stories. She fervently believes that the Times is an equal-opportunity prober of Democrats as well as of Republicans. Asked about her own upbringing, she responds, “I’m often the one who raises the point in page-one meetings that our mix of stories is too urban in outlook, too parochial. All my years in Washington, and in some ways being attacked by conservatives, made me more conscious of how a story might be seen in the rest of America.”

All of which leads to this symbolic detail:

In the meantime, she flaunts just how much of a New Yorker she is. To celebrate her return to the city, in 2003, Abramson got a small tattoo on her right shoulder that replicates an old subway token. It was intended, she says, as a tribute to the subway system, which she rides and which she associates with her home town, and as a declaration that she had “come back to New York, likely for good.” The slogan on the coin, she said, was also meant as a reflection of her philosophy that life is not a dress rehearsal for anything: “Good for one fare.” It’s also, though, an implicit reminder of the challenge Abramson faces as she seeks to transform her newspaper. The days of a young girl’s family receiving two printed copies of the New York Times and calling it “our religion” are long gone —- as are the days when you dropped a coin into a slot before pushing through a subway turnstile.

Once again, we see the crucial formula. The leaders of the Times insist that they strive for political neutrality, while critics will continue to snicker at that thought.

But when it comes to journalism and religion? To moral issues? To culture? To ultimate issues? Well, life is not a dress rehearsal for anything else.

You take one trip and that's that.

This is a worldview, however. Does it have journalistic content or consequences?

The other day I wrote a quick piece about Keller's recent appearance in Austin, Texas, at the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidential library. Several days later, while working on a Scripps Howard column on this event, I finally had a chance to transcribe some of Keller's remarks for myself.

As it turns out, his words were even more specific, and relevant to GetReligion issues, than what was originally posted at The Huffington Post.

Here is how I summarized Keller's viewpoint on the Times and the coverage of religious and moral issues:

“We’re liberal in the sense that ... liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. ... “We’re an urban newspaper. ... We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.”

Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: “You may not be in the right state for that.”

Keller continued: “We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of 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 of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

Thus, once again, we see that journalists are supposed to strive for balance and fairness when covering politics.

However, this non-advocacy approach to journalism is not required when journalists deal with hot-button "social issues," such as, well, sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion.

Why the bright line between politics and "moral" and "social" issues? Why are these topics linked to religion second-class subjects?

Maybe it has something to do with metaphysics of that subway token.

Just saying.

IMAGE: The top combination of stock photos appeared in The Jewish Journal.

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