The New York Times' outgoing public editor -- Arthur S. Brisbane -- wrote his final column this weekend. Most of it is outside the purview of this blog, which is discussion of media coverage of religion news. He talks a lot about how the Times has streamlined and responded to social media. But part of it was interesting enough to some readers to send it in for discussion. Here it is:
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.
It is to the New York Times' credit that it publishes critiques such as this.
You'll recall former public editor Daniel Okrent's column headlined "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" The first line of that piece was "Of course it is." It went on to mock anyone who thought the paper "plays it down the middle" on the issues of "gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others." Okrent said the newspaper's coverage of same-sex marriage resembled "cheerleading."
One of the things I find most astute is how Brisbane notes that it's easier to see the homogenous thinking on display across the paper's many departments from the outside. Almost as if to prove his point, Times' executive editor Jill Abramson said to Politico in response to the column:
"In our newsroom we are always conscious that the way we view an issue in New York is not necessarily the way it is viewed in the rest of the country or world. I disagree with Mr. Brisbane's sweeping conclusions," Abramson told POLITICO Saturday night.
It's interesting to read through some of the comments from readers, too. Ron from New York City says, "I'm all for gay marriage. But the obsession of The Times with gay marriage and all gay issues is beyond bizarre." Dave from Texas writes "Groupthink can be a very dangerous thing. So many at the Times think the same way that they literally cannot comprehend how any thinking person could hold an opposing viewpoint. Sadly that inability is costing the Times tens of millions of dollars a year because their thinking is so one-sided that half, yes half, their potential customers refuse to buy their product."
Media critics also responded to the piece. Jay Rosen says "Look: The New York Times would be better off if everyone knew where it was coming from." National Review’s Jay Nordlinger agrees, saying that the Times must abandon “the fiction that ‘We’re just reporting the news here.’” The Washington Post's Erik Wemple avoids the more interesting charges about same-sex marriage to criticize the public editor for failing to document bias covering Occupy Wall Street.
As for me, I'll only say that I think that the type of bias that the New York Times displays when it advocates for same-sex marriage is hurting our ability to be civil with each other. Even before the politically motivated shooting at the Family Research Center, I wrote about my concern that unbalanced and inaccurate media treatment of same-sex marriage battles was harmful to civil society. I mentioned a few recent incidents -- the reporter going off on a Chick-fil-A-related Facebook tirade, the same-sex marriage proponent losing his job after bullying a remarkably composed young Chick-fil-A drive-thru worker, a lesbian who said watching lines at Chick-fil-A made her feel like there were boots on her chest.
All of these stories made me sad, for one reason or another. Obviously something in civil society had broken down. As I wrote then:
If it is true that believing marriage is the conjugal union of one man and one wife is bigoted, the equivalent to the most vile racists of the past centuries, then it makes sense to react in the way the reporter, the recently fired corporate executive and the lesbian passer-by did.
If the idea that marriage is the conjugal union of man and wife is bigotry -- and the mainstream media and the cultural elite have pounded this view non-stop for years (here's the latest example of the accompanying holier-than-thou pietism with which the view is pushed) -- then you should respond by tormenting drive-thru workers who are part of the bigotry-industrial complex. You should speak ill of people who hold this view on Facebook. Often! You should feel like eating a chicken sandwich was about people putting their boot on your chest.
The thing is, though, that it's not...
When I first began covering this issue -- back when California was deciding Prop. 8 -- I was shocked to learn that what the media had told me was wrong. When I interviewed people who supported Prop. 8, I found that they were eminently calm and reasonable. Their arguments did take a while to learn, but they were able to be learned.
These people explained why marriage law exists and what it is designed to protect. They explained why they viewed a change to those laws as seriously misguided. They pointed out some of the logical conclusions to changing the definition of marriage.
Now, you may agree or disagree with what they have to say (and to learn more about what they say, I think this paper is easy to read and digest), but it's not bigotry. And it is a scurrilous indefensible charge to say otherwise.
If our country is to work through these debates about what marriage is and what it should be, we simply must devote ourselves to listening to arguments and thinking things through. It is impossible to do that when we dismiss supporters of traditional marriage as bigots.
Even more than the reflexive cheerleading for same-sex marriage that Brisbane refers to, it is the media's demonization of those who retain a traditional definition of marriage that concerns me. I am in no way blaming the media for recent violent attacks against people or businesses. Only the people who assault employees or their buildings are responsible for their actions. It's just past time to start talking about what marriage is without charging people with bigotry. Some people believe that marriage is the conjugal union of a man and woman who make permanent and exclusive commitment to each other, based on their gender differences and built around conjugal acts -- those acts that naturally lead to reproduction and unite them as a reproductive unit. Other people believe that marriage is the union of two (or some might say more) people of any sex who commit to romantically love and care for each other and share domestic burdens. These are different definitions that have consequences that are far-reaching.
We probably haven't even touched the surface of what those consequences might be. And we will never be able to think these things through rationally and calmly if we denounce one or the other view as unfit for public discussion. Heck, I'd say that most media outlets haven't even begun for a moment to think about any consequences for changing this definition -- apart from what you read about in terms of particular people who would be affected by the change.
This is one of the wonderful things about a mainstream press. It can help promote civil discourse, rational thinking and an improved society (I thought this recent debate led by a New York Times religion columnist was a good step in the right direction). When the paper of record becomes a particularly virulent propaganda arm for one side in the culture war, those things don't happen -- and I hope we can agree no matter which side we take on hot-button cultural issues.
(For what it's worth, I stole the headline from one of the commenters to the public editor's last column.)