Concerning the New York Times: 'Fake' news? No. 'Flawed' or 'flavored' news? From time to time ...

It's the question many journalists are hearing right now from family and online friends as discussions of "fake news" keep heating up: "OK, where am I supposed to go to find balanced, accurate reporting these days?"

As you would expect, when I hear that question there is often an editorial twist in it, something like this: "OK, where am I supposed to go to find balanced, accurate reporting on religion news these days?" That's the question that loomed in the background during the latest "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), as host Todd Wilken and I discussed the fact that GetReligion marked it's 13th birthday this week.

It's crucial, for starters, to recognize that there are online sources that seem to welcome fake news and then there are established media brands that seem, every now and then, to catch a fake-news virus that affects one or two stories or issues. You can see my colleague Paul Glader of The King's College (he also directs The Media Project that includes GetReligion) striving to make that distinction in his Forbes piece, "10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts."

Glader is absolutely right on this basic issue of ethics and quality. At the same time, the minute I read the headline on his piece I could hear the voices of skeptical online friends saying, "Is that '10 Journalism Brands Where You WILL Find Real Facts' or is it '10 Journalism Brands Where You CAN Find Real Facts'?"

As we have stressed many times here at GetReligion, the quality of mainstream media coverage of religion news is consistently inconsistent. There are professionals who do fantastic work and then, in the same newsroom, there are reporters and editors who -- when it comes to getting religion -- think up is down and down is up. They don't know what they don't know.

For example, contrast the informed and nuanced religion-beat coverage of issues linking politics and religion at The Washington Post with the tone-deaf material produced throughout 2016 by the political desk in that newsroom.

Meanwhile, what are we to make of The New York Times, which remains one of the world's top two news organizations (I put BBC in that mix, as well) in terms of its reach and ambitions?

Anyone who ignores the high quality of work done at The Times is, well, ignoring the facts.

Yet it is clear, as the newspaper's own editor has stated, that the great Gray Lady struggles when it comes to grasping many basic facts about life in ordinary America -- starting with the role of religious faith in the life of millions of ordinary people (including in New York City). People who love the Times, as well as those who hate the Times, have been saying this for many years (crucial 2005  Times self-study document here).

 

Based of years of awork here at GetReligion, it's also safe to say that former Times editor Bill Keller was being stunningly candid and truthful during his 2011 remarks at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, when he spoke the words (this is from one of my "On Religion" columns) that inspired this site's "Kellerism" label. Let's look at that confession once again:

When covering debates on politics, it’s crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it’s only natural for scribes in the world’s most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.
“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. …
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.”

Then there was that August 7 opinion piece that Times editors decided to run ON A1 that asked if it was possible to do objective, balanced coverage of a racist demagogue like Donald Trump. As a journalist -- even as one who has been #NeverTrump from Day 1 -- that sent a shiver down my spine.

At this point, I think that key Times leaders have done the public a service by openly debating whether or not they remain committed to issues of balance and fairness on some crucial issues in public life.

Let me stress once again: Anyone who wants to be informed has to pay attention to The New York Times. Yet the leaders of that great newsroom have given news consumers lots of warnings that they are struggling to mix basic, factual news coverage with their own impulses to serve as advocates for (What was that phrase again?) an "open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban" view of life and truth. Yes, the Times does a certain "socially liberal" flavor to it.

So it's essential to read the Times, but also to read those who critique and correct the Times.

In particular, it's getting harder and harder to tell when people and texts are being quoted accurately. The other day, during the #MuslimBan blitz, I asked, concerning some Times coverage:

... The crucial question is whether this statement -- "part of his order gives preferential treatment to Christians" -- is an accurate paraphrase of that key [executive order] passage. I refer to the statement that officials are to "prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality."
Thus, we have this key question: Do the editors of the Times know about the Yazidis, Alawites, Baha’is, Shia and others? Obviously they know, as GetReligion has stressed for years, that radicalized Muslim extremists focus their persecution on other Muslims -- those they consider apostates, especially -- just as much as Christians.

Now we have another troubling example of what happens when paraphrased quotes about complex religious issues do not appear to square up with the direct quotes on which they were based. Leaders at the Center for Security Policy are challenging -- with audio recordings -- the Times take on statements that its leader, Frank Gaffney, made about the beliefs and actions of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Times piece is here: "Trump Pushes Dark View of Islam to Center of U.S. Policy-Making."

The Center's response piece is here: "The New York Times’ Alternative Facts."

Here is the key Times passage that is being debated:

In an interview, he explained his view of Islam, which focuses less on the violent jihad of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State than on the quieter one he sees everywhere. By his account, potential enemies are hidden in plain sight -- praying in mosques, recruiting at Muslim student associations and organizing through mainstream Muslim rights groups -- and are engaged in “this stealthy, subversive kind of jihad.”

Let me stress that we are not debating, at this time, the work or reputation of the Center for Security Policy. I am asking a journalism question about the accuracy of a paraphrased quotation in an article published by the world's most influential newspaper.

The key is that, in the recordings, Gaffney discusses materials describing the tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood -- as opposed to the beliefs and practices of mainstream Muslims. The Center is challenging whether it was accurate for the Times to use the words "his view of Islam" to describe Gaffney's specific warnings about the Brotherhood, an organization that many see as advocating a radicalized form of Islam.

In other words, the Muslim Brotherhood does not equal Islam.

I would, in a similar spirit, urge many media-bashing conservatives to note that the New York Times does not equal the whole "news media." 

Picky? Yes, but accuracy is important. Is it accurate to call the entire New York Times biased and flawed? That statement is simplistic and simply not true. But is it accurate to say, that on certain kinds of stories and issues, the Times is struggling with issues of accuracy, balance and fairness? Yes, that's an accurate statement, according to key voices -- for several decades -- inside that great newsroom.

What does all of this have to do with religion-news coverage? Ah, that is what we have been discussing here for 13 years. So once again let me say

... We still believe that it's impossible to understand real events and trends in the lives of real people living in the real world without taking religion really seriously. We still believe that the more controversial the religion-news story, the more journalists should strive to accurately cover the crucial voices of believers and thinkers on both sides. The word "respect" is crucial in that equation. Ditto for "balance." We believe that doctrine and history matter. We believe that, when in doubt, you should report unto others as you would want others to report unto you. We remain committed to the old-school (as historians would put it) American model of the press.

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