Once more unto the breach, dear friends: 'Why Readers See The Times As Liberal'

Here is the understatement of the year: Yes, a few GetReligion readers noticed that the new Public Editor (think readers' representative or ombudsman) at The New York Times published an essay entitled "Why Readers See The Times as Liberal."

Actually, it seems like someone representing the great Gray Lady writes an essay on this basic topic every five years or so. I know, because I have been collecting these pieces for a decade-plus to use in the classroom, as part of a New York Journalism Semester lecture entitled "The Spiritual Crisis at The New York Times." In this case, "spiritual" refers to the religion of journalism itself, as in the classic 2004 PressThink essay by Jay Rosen of New York University entitled "Journalism Is Itself a Religion."

You see, many journalists see what they do as a vocation that verges on being a calling, in part because of classic American Model of the Press doctrines about accuracy, fairness, balance and truth telling. The issue is whether the doctrines of the journalism faith are changing, often because of struggles among journalism elites to do old-school journalism when covering hot-button issues linked to (wait for it) religion, morality and culture.

The surprising thing, this time around, is that the essay by Public Editor Liz Spayd talks about differences between left and right, but does not seem to be aware of the role that religious and cultural issues (as opposed to arguments about Donald Trump) have played in previous debates about this topic at The Times. Can you say "Bill Keller"?

So should we discuss all of this again? Yes, dear friends, once more unto the breach. This is why we are here, as in our Year 10 refresh.

The starting point for Spayd is the same as always, as in complaints from readers. Here is a sample:

One reader from California who asked not to be named believes Times reporters and editors are trying to sway public opinion toward their own beliefs. “I never thought I’d see the day when I, as a liberal, would start getting so frustrated with the one-sided reporting that I would start hopping over to the Fox News webpage to read an article and get the rest of the story that the NYT refused to publish,” she says. ...
Emails like these stream into this office every day. A perception that The Times is biased prompts some of the most frequent complaints from readers. Only they arrive so frequently, and have for so long, that the objections no longer land with much heft.
Like the tiresome bore at a party, I went around asking several journalists in the newsroom about these claims that The Times sways to the left. Mostly I was met with a roll of the eyes. All sides hate us, they said. We’re tough on everyone.

The real question, she states, is whether the newspaper's actual strategy -- as a business and as a news provider -- is to "become The New Republic gone daily." She thinks that would be "poison," because a "paper whose journalism appeals to only half the country has a dangerously severed public mission. And a news organization trying to survive off revenue from readers shouldn’t erase American conservatives from its list of prospects."

While no one wants to talk about the facts, there are people in the Times hierarchy, she reports, who are worried that their product is skewed away from millions of readers.

Why would people think the Gray Lady is true blue, when it comes to worldview? Well there's the editorial page, the ads for liberal candidates, the barrage of comments from liberal readers and, yes, issues with coverage (which she said she will deal with in future columns).

The executive editor, Dean Baquet, says things are fine in the newsroom.

 “We have to be really careful that people feel like they can see themselves in The New York Times,” he said. “I want us to be perceived as fair and honest to the world, not just a segment of it. It’s a really difficult goal. Do we pull it off all the time? No.”

All of this is about the rise of what your GetReligionistas have called the new old New Journalism, as in the growing power of advocacy, European Model, analysis-driven journalism that resembles the 1960s "New Journalism" movement.

What's amazing is that Spayd never gets to the obvious point, which is that the Times struggles with accuracy, balance and fairness or certain types of stories more than others. This leads us to the most famous Public Editor piece on this subject, the 2004 classic by Daniel Okrent that ran with this headline: "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?"

Okrent's column then started like this:

OF course it is.
The fattest file on my hard drive is jammed with letters from the disappointed, the dismayed and the irate who find in this newspaper a liberal bias that infects not just political coverage but a range of issues from abortion to zoology to the appointment of an admitted Democrat to be its watchdog. (That would be me.) By contrast, 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.

Wait, there's more:

... 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.

You need to read it all, if you never have. Toward the end there are these famous words:

... It's one thing to make the paper's pages a congenial home for editorial polemicists, conceptual artists, the fashion-forward or other like-minded souls (European papers, aligned with specific political parties, have been doing it for centuries), and quite another to tell only the side of the story your co-religionists wish to hear. I don't think it's intentional when The Times does this. But negligence doesn't have to be intentional.

And then:

... 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); that the family of ''Two Fathers, With One Happy to Stay at Home'' (Jan. 12) is a new archetype; and that ''Gay Couples Seek Unions in God's Eyes'' (Jan. 30). 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.

Do I need to go on? Yes, I do.

Note the stress -- accurate -- on the fact that all of these stories were legitimate. The problem is that the Gray Lady is ignoring stories that show the complex impact of this topic -- and others -- on the nation as a whole. The big journalism problem is that the newspaper of record is ignoring about half of America, as in the Americans whose views do not deserve to be covered accurately or with any kind of respect.

Okrent concludes -- more than a decade ago -- that:

On a topic that has produced one of the defining debates of our time, Times editors have failed to provide the three-dimensional perspective balanced journalism requires. This has not occurred because of management fiat, but because getting outside one's own value system takes a great deal of self-questioning.

Does that part about needing a broader "value system" sound familiar?

About that time, after an ethics scandal that rocked The Times, the newspaper's leaders appointed an independent panel to produce a research report that was released with this title: "Preserving Our Readers' Trust."

This document has been quoted many times here at GetReligion. It is worth reading again, because it is a strong defense of the old-school American Model of the Press, which now seems to be collapsing. Note some of the issues that the panel said are at the heart of this crisis of trust -- issues such as "abortion, gun control, the death penalty and gay marriage."

... When numerous articles use the same assumption as a point of departure, that monotone can leave the false impression that the paper has chosen sides. ... The public editor found that the overall tone of our coverage of gay marriage, as one example, "approaches cheerleading." By consistently framing the issue as a civil rights matter -- gays fighting for the right to be treated like everyone else -- we failed to convey how disturbing the issue is in many corners of American social, cultural and religious life.

Religious issues keep coming up in this report, over and over. A few lines later there is this:

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist "inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme." We often apply "religious fundamentalists," another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

What's the solution? Simply stated, the newsroom needs more intellectual and cultural diversity. A few paragraphs later, the self-study committee stated:

Nothing we recommend should be seen as endorsing a retreat from tough-minded reporting of abuses of power by public or private institutions. In part because the Times's editorial page is clearly liberal, the news pages do need to make more effort not to seem monolithic. Both inside and outside the paper, some people feel that we are missing stories because our staff lacks diversity in viewpoints, intellectual grounding and individual backgrounds. We should look for all manner of diversity. We should seek talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faiths.

The executive editor at that time was Bill Keller and he responded to that report with a letter (.pdf document here) called "Assuring Our Credibility."

On the crucial issue of hiring and newsroom diversity, Keller affirmed the self-study language -- sort of. Note, in this passage, how he says "yes" and then "not really" in the space of two sentences.

... 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. ...
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.

One can only say "amen" to that intention, while noting that -- once again -- Keller is basically saying that things are fine the way they are, when it comes to newsroom diversity. The folks at The Times will simply do better. We promise.

Or maybe not. Six years later, just after Keller stepped down as editor, he sat for that famous interview at the LBJ presidential library in Austin, Texas.

This is familiar territory for many GetReligion readers, I know. But it's important once again, because of the giant religion-shaped hole in the new Spayd essay at The Times, back at the start of this long post.

In a lengthy discussion that included references to the Okrent piece, Keller was asked -- once again -- if his newsroom slanted coverage to the left. Once again, is The Times a "liberal" newspaper.

Keller said "no," it is not.

Well, maybe, sort of. Actually, that would be -- "yes."

"We're liberal in the sense that ... liberal arts schools are liberal," Keller noted. ... "We're an urban newspaper." ...
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."

The crucial words, of course, are "aside from."

As Okrent noted, the issues at the heart of debates about The Times are those rooted in issues of culture, morality and religion. And as I have asked in the past:

... What are America's hot-button social issues? Any list would include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion. That's all.

So stay tuned. I would imagine that Spayd will be running into those same issues. Let's see what shows up in the next essay in this neverending series.

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