Meltdown update: Does the New York Times want to cover America's heart and soul?

The leaders of the New York Times have, for more than a decade, known that many of their critics -- loving critics and otherwise -- believe that the world's most powerful newsroom lacks intellectual, cultural and religious diversity.

After all, that was one of the main conclusions in the visionary "Preserving Our Readers' Trust" document (.pdf here) released in 2005 after a sweeping self-study of ethics issues in the newsroom (to state things mildly).

Anyone who wants to understand the back story to the current Times meltdown over Donald Trump and the lives of many Americans who voted for him must read that document. Yes, that document also meshes nicely with the latest pro-journalism sermon ("Want to Know What America’s Thinking? Try Asking") from Liz Spayd, the public editor at the Times. Hold that thought.

After the release of the 2005 self study, then editor Bill Keller released his formal response, "Assuring Our Credibility (.pdf here)." Like the self study, this document was haunted by issues linked to coverage of religious and cultural issues. One more time, let's look at Keller's conclusion:

First and foremost we hire the best reporters, editors, photographers and artists in the business. But we will make an extra effort to focus on diversity of religious upbringing and military experience, of region and class.
Of course, diversifying the range of viewpoints reported -- and understood -- in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation.

See the connections to the current debates? #DUH

And finally:

I also endorse the committee's recommendation that we cover religion more extensively, but I think the key to that is not to add more reporters who will write about religion as a beat. I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live. 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.

Amen. However, note that Keller -- for some reason -- feared that hiring more professionals with training or experience in religion-news coverage might be seen as appeasing "believers" or pandering to "conservatives." That's one way to read that paragraph.

Let's move on. In my earlier piece -- "Meltdown flashback: Once more into the New York Times 'spiritual crisis' breach" -- I noted that this topic has never really gone away, in part because of columns by various public editors at the newspaper. I also stressed that I am using the word "spiritual" in the same way that journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University used religious language in his classic 2004 PressThink essay, "Journalism Is Itself a Religion."

This brings us to the latest piece by Spayd, which opens with a blunt summary of just how certain the Times team was that Hillary Clinton would be the nation's next president.

The picture was of a juggernaut of blue state invincibility that mostly dismissed the likelihood of a Trump White House.
But sometime Tuesday night, that 84-percent Clinton win Upshot figure flipped. Suddenly it was 95 percent -- for Donald Trump. And when readers woke up Wednesday, they learned that the second forecast, at least, was on target.
Readers are sending letters of complaint at a rapid rate. Here’s one that summed up the feelings succinctly, from Kathleen Casey of Houston: “Now, that the world has been upended and you are all, to a person, in a state of surprise and shock, you may want to consider whether you should change your focus from telling the reader what and how to think, and instead devote yourselves to finding out what the reader (and nonreaders) actually think.”
Another letter, from Nick Crawford of Plymouth, Mich., made a similar point. “Perhaps the election result would not be such a surprise if your reporting had acknowledged what ordinary Americans care about, rather than pushing the limited agenda of your editors,” he wrote. “Please come down from your New York City skyscraper and join the rest of us.”

The Times was not alone, of course. But the Times is what it is, the spoon that stirs the mainstream-media milk. Spayd hoped that this journalism train wreck would led to some reflection on life in the "half of America the paper too seldom covers."

Left unstated was the other side of this challenge: Do editors at the Times actually want to listen to the rest of America? What about the related issue of intellectual, cultural and religious diversity in their newsroom, as described in the 2005 self study?

Or do the leaders of the Times have other goals? That's the question raised by former Times reporter Michael Cieply in his essay called, "Stunned By Trump, The New York Times Finds Time For Some Soul-Searching."

Lots of people hate the Times and it is clear that Cieply is not one of them. However, the picture that he paints here is as brutal as the harshest criticisms ever made by the enemies of the great Gray Lady.

This is long, but essential:

Having left the Times on July 25, after almost 12 years as an editor and correspondent, I missed the main heat of the presidential campaign; so I can’t add a word to those self-assessments of the recent political coverage. But these recent mornings-after leave me with some hard-earned thoughts about the Times’ drift from its moorings in the nation at-large.
For starters, it’s important to accept that the New York Times has always -- or at least for many decades -- been a far more editor-driven, and self-conscious, publication than many of those with which it competes. Historically, the Los Angeles Times, where I worked twice, for instance, was a reporter-driven, bottom-up newspaper. Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?”
It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.”

Yes, that sounds rather like "template" driven advocacy journalism, with reporting crafted to fit the worldview of the editors on high. There's more.

... I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the Los Angeles bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: “My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?”
The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: “We set the agenda for the country in that room.”
Having lived at one time or another in small-town Pennsylvania, some lower-rung Detroit suburbs, San Francisco, Oakland, Tulsa and, now, Santa Monica, I could only think, well, “Wow.” ... To believe the national agenda was being set in a conference room in a headquarters on Manhattan’s Times Square required a very special mind-set indeed.

Read it all and ponder the implications.

Are there similar issues in other newsrooms? Of course there are. Are conservatives also partly to blame if they have consistently bashed journalism as a whole, rather than focusing on ways (I'm thinking journalism education) to contribute to diversity in the field? Would it help to criticize the mistakes in strategic newsrooms, while defending old-school journalism that strives to cover the lives of a wide range of Americans with accuracy, balance and respect?

Yes, but the Times is the Times. Many journalists look to its pages for guidance, seeking a map of where to go to be -- well, you know -- on the right side of history.

So, will the clergy of The New York Times allow some heretics -- old-school journalists with different DNA in their minds and hearts -- into their great sanctuary?

Does the nation's most powerful newspaper still want to cover all of America, or only (nod to Keller) its own neighborhood? Stay tuned.

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