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Bleeding Times

I know that this item has already been bouncing around the blogosphere, but somehow I feel that I should be the one to take note here of New York Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane's final column, with the following rather bald judgment on Timesgeist:When Brisbane took up his invitation to be public editor two years ago, he declared in advance that, unlike many Times critics, he did not imaginesome Wizard of Oz dictating a standard Times party line throughout the paper's "vast and complex" output."I still believe that," he writes now, "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," he continues, "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 word -- thatthis 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."That's a pretty strong judgment, and because the Times, in my opinion and experience, is an irreplaceable national resource I would like to think that its editors and publisher would be worried by it.When I started at the paper in 1988 it was in the midst of a very conscious and sometimes painful effort to diversify its newsroom personnel with reporters and editors from racial and ethnic minorities. It was consciously and increasingly moving women, who had always been there, into decision making positions -- and not just the few stars. The paper was immeasurablybetter for this.How could the paper similarly break the stifling hold of that "political and cultural progressivism"? How could it go about enriching itselfideologically and culturally (and culturally, I think, is the stickler) without just recreating Beltway-stylestandoff or new versions of the culture wars? I hope the new public editor, Margaret Sullivan, gives this some thoughtful attention.


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I think it likely doesn't matter much, Peter. The Times seems to have chosen to go down with the ship. Like the New Yorker, they've narrowed themselves to their preferred crowd. Nothing wrong with that, of course, from the point of view of the crowd. The more the merrier. But the rest of us have lost a touchstone - and a reliable reference.I don't see them reforming themselves out of a comfortable parochialism. They're much smaller, now, than they were, say, thirty years ago, and much less ambitious. The philosophy has set in that objectivity doesn't exist, so there's no point in expending limited resources trying to achieve it. They're dumbed down and fluffed up and pleasing to many paying subscribers. I doubt, though, that those subscribers will remain loyal enough to keep the paper afloat for long. There's far too much competition abroad in the land. Even their own writers have become free agents.For a long time, the Times was too big and comprehensive to be read in its entirety. Now, it's too small.

Recognizing and, more importantly, voicing the problem is at least a start. But the paper has already become just one voice among many because its causes infect all its reporting.

It will not break new ground if I mention that there is no space for objectivity in fact (rare) or in aspiration (formerly the mark of first-class media) in this country today. In our state, the Republican controlled Legislature is as opposed to the League of Women Voters as it is to Planned Parenthood. In fact, I believe it has passed more laws against the League's bipartisanship than against PP's abortions.I agree that The Times reflects the cultural progressivism (for lack of a better word) of part of our society, but in what it chooses to highlight more than in how it covers things. That's still better than making it up as some of our cultural neanderthals do for their causes. But if The Times were to somehow find a better balance, a more open understanding of the less progressive citizenry, would a) anyone notice or b) anyone care? Like the League of Women Voters, The Times has always stood, mutatis mutandis, for good government. Good government, today, is just another opinion, and one with a liberal bias. Don't we all know that?

I think there's something to be said for Michael Tomasky's take on this question:"You know what, people? Most journalists are liberal! Young people who are interested in going into journalism tend to be liberal. They don't care about making money. They want to take on authority and comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and all that hoo-ha.In other words, journalism attracts liberal-minded people. So what? It's just the nature of the way things are. Conservatives need to deal with it. It ain't gonna change any more than MBA programs are suddenly going to be full of leftists and fashion institutes are going to be overrun by football players. I wish liberals didn't wring their hands over this so much.Liberal bias exists mostly in presumptions about story selection, and mostly off the capital-P Political beat. But when it comes to those Big-P Political stories, reporters and editors at the Times and NPR and other places that are culturally liberal institutions do try hard to be balanced. Too hard in my view, since they end up giving equal time and seriousness to representatives of a political party that's gone way off the deep end."

Jim Naurekas at the FAIR blog had a response to this column of Brisbane's that made what seemed to me a fair point: If NYT 'Overloved' Occupy, It Had a Funny Way of Showing It. I didn't closely track their coverage of OWS, but my casual impression was that they didn't prioritize it as a story until the police started getting undeniably brutal in their dealings with protesters, and then only because it was a "story" elsewhere on the internet and they had to catch up.

I've become an ink-stained wretch, not because I'm a journalist but because of my poor posture in reading the news at my desk. My elbows are blackened.I've also become pessimistic about the likelihood of any change toward greater objectivity in newsrooms. Purported moves in that direction often amount only to cosmetic change such as greater reliance on supposedly expert opinion provided by think tanks. But close observation shows that news outlets differ dramatically in the think tanks they cite. I believe the phenomenon of selective citation of "objective" sources occurs just as often on web sites (present company excluded, of course).The difficulty of change has been emphasized by two recent reviews of the problem. Here's Tim Groseclose, author of a major academic study:"The main reason why bias exists, I believe, is simply that newsrooms are filled overwhelmingly with liberals. Heres the most important fact to know, if you want to understand media bias: If you poll Washington correspondents and ask 'Whod you vote for last election?', about 93% will say the Democrat."Why are newsrooms so liberal? I dont know, except that I suspect that its mainly self-selection. I believe that there is something in the DNA of liberals that makes them want to pursue careers like journalism, academia, and the arts."A manager or owner of a media outlet could try to counteract this by trying to hire more conservatives, but he will have a hard time trying to find conservatives who want to be journalists. Hell either have to pay conservative journalists more or be willing to hire conservative journalists who are not as good at reporting as liberal journalists. Its a hard problem for a news-outlet manager to solve. I basically believe were in an equilibrium that liberal bias is basically here to stay." here is the late James Q. Wilson, also emphasizing the difficulty of making any substantial change:"One of my closest friends, who ran a large media company for many years, complained steadily that changing the politics of what reporters covered required a huge investment of time, resources, and good will that made it almost a waste of time to try. Katharine Graham, the late publisher of the Washington Post, made the same observation." believe that consevatives are more and more coming to the conclusin that their limited resources are better spent on projects other than trying to change the political composition of media personnel.

In my conveniently timed re-reading of Norman Mailer's reporting on the 1968 conventions ("Miami and the Siege of Chicago," New York Review Books), I came on this account of a Richard Nixon press conference. In Mailer's telling, Nixon had a plan to counter the political composition of the media -- schedule the press conference early in the morning: "[Nixon] stepped up on the dais diffidently, not certain whether applause would be coming. There was none. He stood there, looked quietly and warily at the audience, and then said he was ready for questions."This would be his sole press conference before the nomination. He was of course famous for his lack of sparkling good relation with the Press. ..."To the extent that the Press was not Republican, and certainly more than half, privately, were not, he would have few friends and more than a few determined enemies. Even among the Republicans he could expect a better share of the Press to go to Rockefeller. ..."Probably Nixon had agreed to this conference only to avoid the excess of bad feeling which no meeting with the Press would be likely to cause. Still, this was an operation where his best hope was to minimize the loss. So he had taken the wise step of scheduling the conference at 8:15 in the morning, a time when his worst enemies, presumably the heavy drinkers, free lovers, and free spenders on the Reagan Right and Far Left of the press corps, would probably be asleep in bed or here asleep on their feet."

In the heyday of newspapers, which I imagine would have been during the Ben Hecht era, how many news reporters had Ivy League degrees, or college degrees of any kind? My guess would be, a markedly smaller percentage than is the case today on major metropolitan newspapers.While tracking down a Clarence Page column to link to on dotCom yesterday, I scrolled through the roster of columnists on the Chicago Tribune website. Each columnist's name was accompanied by a headshot. No doubt they had all visited the salon prior to having their photos taken, but my impression was that they were a particularly blow-dried bunch. Some of that, I'd imagine, is their socio-economic background, and a big part of it, I'd think, is that most of them are involved in cross-media enterprises of various sorts that require them to look spiffy for the webcam or the television camera. But the undeniable impression is that they are a gaggle of yuppies. Perhaps the Chicago Tribune, which though no doubt smitten by a raging case of NYT Envy, is enough of a high-class joint that it attracts upper-middle-class graduates of premier j schools. But I wonder if there is something to the notion that a different *class* of people is going into journalism than was the case a couple or three generations ago. The preponderance of working class people probably tend to be progressive, too, but I think it would be a different brand of progressive. It would be more of a non-elite progressive. I don't know if non-elite progressivism would wash down the gullets of conservatives any more smoothly than whatever the NYT churns out, but I suspect it might.I guess the short form of this long-winded answer would be, Figure out a way to recruit more people of working class background to major metropolitan news outlets.

Jim Pauwels: The Ben Hecht era. "Journalists! Peeking through keyholes! Running after fire engines like a lot of coach dogs! Waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them what they think of campanionate marriage. Stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that get raped in Oak Park. A lot of lousy, daffy buttinskis, swelling around with holes in their pants, borrowing nickels from office boys! And for what? So a million hired girls and motormen's wives'll know what's going on.... And if you want to know something, you'll all end up on the copydesk -- gray-haired, humpbacked slobs, dodging garnishees when you're ninety." -- Hildy Johnson in The Front Page by Hecht and Charles MacArthur

I can't imagine that the ideological predispositions of NYT journalists couldn't are more uniformly culturally progressive than those of academic social psychologists. We would do well to consider Jon Haidt's warnings to his own profession: There are dangers when a tribal moral community forms. See:'m perplexed by Luke's The Daily Beast citation. Luke and Tomasky may be sanguine about the underrepresentation of cultural conservatives in journalism and cite comparable underrepresentation of progressives in MBA programs as a sort of moral equivalent. But are they *really* sanguine about such progressive underrepresentation in business? It is healthy for critical institutions to tend toward ideological uniformity? What issues get missed in journalism and in business when one worldview is firmly ascendent?I work in business. I would welcome more progressive into this domain. I would welcome greater willingness to be 'out' among business progressives who too often lay low in deference to the dominant culture. It seems to me that business *and* journalism would be better off with greater diversity. Yet our embrace of diversity seems rarely to extend to *moral* diversity. It is facile to exclude the possibility of structural and hostile environment barriers out of hand and expect the underrepresented group to simply 'deal with it.'

Everybody's right, as usual. Most journalists vote Democratic. Most are probably drawn to journalism because they are liberal -- in the sense of suspecting that established powers probably are hiding some skeletons and shouldn't be immune to scrutiny and in the sense of identifying with underdogs and wanting to tell the world about their hardships. Most today are no longer from working class backgrounds or, even when they are, have managed to get a solid college, sometimes an Ivy League, education. I also agree that The Times was not especially quick on Occupy Wall Street -- and the business pages never gave it a pass -- but that at some point (guiltily playing catch-up?) it went overboard. Less debatable is the fact that The Times has taken up same-sex marriage as the civil rights cause of the 21st century. But back to the ingrained tendencies of journalists. None of that convinces me that The Times could not do better -- if it were open to recognizing the problem. I've seen, for example, fiercely liberal or fervently pro-choice reporters write remarkably smart and balanced stories about political scandals involving conservatives or court decisions involving abortion. Their professional standards overrode their biases. How and to what extent those standards operate has a lot to do with the journalistic environment the paper creates and just how monochrome is what Brisbane calls a "culture of like minds."

Peter, Brisbane even said that "lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so." Since the NYT limited my on-line access unless and until I pay for services I can't use, I am a little out of this (although I have a source for printed material straight from NYC). But it is not unlike NPR, which is still accessible. Nobody in this country was as interested in same-sex marriage as NPR (unless it was the Catholic bishops), and they beat that story to death seven ways to Oregon. The NYT sort of does the same thing. But you still have to look real hard for bias within the story. The problem is that suddenly the marriage of John and Bruce has overshadowed the problems of Syrians, Haitians, laid off Americans with no job prospects and a whole lot of other people who do not have lawyers and PR men promoting their cause.

Tom, your last statement is kind of bonkers--do you really think that the NYT gives more coverage to gay marriage than to things like Syria and the economy? It doesn't help charges of bias when the charge is so obviously overblown.By the way, the Times doesn't limit your on-line access. Just stop the page from loading before it's completely finished, or just install NYTClean (or whatever it's called now)--nothing on is behind a real paywall.

Abe, you are right to a point. I was just saying the Times covers things beyond the point that the red state folks are interested in them. Now, the up side of that is, if you want to figure out what the Higgs Bosun is about, there is only one general news place to go. But if you want to find out what the Dodd-Frank reporting requirements are going to do to small, local banks, you will have to be patient and keep digging in the NYT because all their reporters have a friend at the Chase.

Peter, if the Times were to recognize their cultural homogeneity as a problem and not an asset and then make a good-faith effort to bring the listing ship back into balance, they'd likely lose enough subscribers to considerably worsen their already precarious financial health. What they have now, they certainly see as much closer to success than to failure.

Abe (6:19), normal people aren't going to stand on their hands and walk backwards to defeat a flawed paywall. Former readers - like me - who've been scared off are almost certainly gone forever. There are plenty of other reliable fish in that sea, including some, like the Christian Science Monitor, that still aim for objectivity.Of course, you can argue that normal people pay a thousand dollars a year for the trash that runs downhill through their television cable, but that's ignoring the psychology of the thing. And, anyway, people have begun to wake up to that waste and, with the help of Roku and Apple, are starting to cut their cables. Also, paying through the nose for cable is an entrenched habit, as paying for the Times online never was.

Dude, all you do is stop the page from fully loading--I think that anyone who finds that tricky can safely be labeled sub-normal. I don't pay for anything online, but I especially don't pay for things that are, you know, free.

I wonder if part of the problem might be the notion that there is, or should be, a firewall between reporting and editorial opinion. (The WSJ is often held up as an example, with its fiercely right-wing editorial stances and its generally objective news reporting. Or so I'm told. I don't actually read the paper, since am unwilling to pay for it).Can you really divorce reporting from editorial opinion? As some above has noted, a journal has to choose what to cover, and after making that choice, has to choose from an enormous number of facts (all of them accurate, let's say) which ones to pick, which to ignore, which to praise, by giving them space and credibility, and which to condemn, by linking them to unattractive aspects, and so on. Perhaps a recognition of the impossibility of genuinely objective reporting would help.It's not just stories, either, but photographs. I would imagine that an editor has an enormous number of photos to choose from after a press conference by someone important. You can always find one that will make Obama look like a fool, and Romney like an angel of God. Or. just as easily, the other way round. Gov. Christie, admittedly, does not have the trim build of Roger Federer, but the photo posted by NPR after his speech seemed to accentuate the obesity element. I remember a photo in the NYT some years back, accompanying a story of a papal Youth Day somewhere. A little girl had brought him a bouquet of flowers, but the photo made her look absolutely terrified as she left the stage, while JP II appeared to be ready to grope her as she fled. Surely some editorial choice was exercised there. Not all cartoons are drawn by cartoonists.

Nicholas, I agree with your comment. I just want to say of Governor Christie that there is no disguising his obesity. His health has got to be seriously at risk. I wish someone would help him get on the road to better health.

Nicholas (10:02), the possibility of impartiality is greater, I'd think, where the writer sticks to facts and doesn't wander away into color and controversy. Also, Times news articles tend to be deeply padded with quotes, and that certainly opens a door to bias. And if editors believe that mere facts aren't entertaining enough - that all stories, not just news stories, must entertain and not just inform - then, I'd think, personal biases are almost unavoidable.

Tom - that's a *great* quote! Even better when one imagines Rosalind Russell saying it, although I'm not sure if that line made it into the film.

We all have biases. Perfect impartiality is impossible. But striving for impartiality is nonetheless a good idea, as is the firewall between the editorial pages and the news departments, which is very real at The Times. Sticking to facts and eliminating color and controversy is an unreal notion. Color and controversy are facts. Does a story about a hurricane only include the wind speed? Does it include "color" about the people affected or controversy about what's the best thing to do to minimize the danger? it is only because of controversy that people care about many stories. Should The Times or the WSJ only publish the stock market results and quarterly earnings without any of probing and contradictory opinions on what's going on behind them? The challenge is to get the important points of the controversy -- not all of them, since space and time (of reader, reporter, and material resources) don't allow that -- conveyed as accurately as possible. All of this is really tough. It's a vocation, in fact. And some journalists, maybe with a taste for danger, actually risk their lives to fulfill it. None of this sways me from my original conviction that The Times -- I say nothing about other news sources, with less dedication to journalistic excellence -- could do better with more diversity of outlook. But I correct myself. It's a mistake to frame this simply as a matter of "balance." It's really a matter of truth and scope. Less homogeneity in the many sections of the paper (and the place really is like a series of kingdoms) would make it more likely to recognize and explore stories that otherwise would not come to the reporters' or news editors' attention. Making sure that the newsroom had a greater presence of women and minority journalists did not just achieve "balance" between, say, Caucasians and African-Americans or Latino or males and females. It meant opening up new stories, otherwise apt to be missed. It meant using those typically liberal traits of journalists in new ways: examining different skeletons in different elite closets or getting new perspectives on underdogs.

@Mike McG. (8/29, 5:27 pm) Thanks for your thoughtful and informed comment.Obviously I can't speak for Michael Tomasky, but I wouldn't characterize myself as "sanguine" about the over-representation of liberals in journalism or of conservatives in business. It's more a matter of recognizing that different fields have differing dominant cultures. There was a fascinating (though somewhat overlong) conversation on The Daily Show between John Stewart and Bain Capital's Edward Conard about risk, entrepreneurship and incentives. (Starts here one point Conard was basically arguing for the importance of financial incentives to motivate "risk-takers". Stewart didn't come right out and say it, but basically pointed to his show, and his crew, as being full of "risk-takers" for whom money was not the primary incentive in their lives.That said, I find myself increasingly grateful these days for the "loyal opposition" in varying fields: conservative investigative reporters, liberal business executives, etc.

It seems to me that one of the main reasons for bias in all of us is that we have different interests, and these lead us to ask certain questions and not ask others. This isn't a matter of dishonesty but of limited curiosity. We also have strong unconscious capacities to block out what is too painful to admit.

"At one point Conard was basically arguing for the importance of financial incentives to motivate risk-takers. Stewart didnt come right out and say it, but basically pointed to his show, and his crew, as being full of risk-takers for whom money was not the primary incentive in their lives."Just as an aside - this is a great illustration of the economic concept of utility - the things that motivate economic behavior.

Does a story about a hurricane only include the wind speed? Does it include color about the people affected or controversy about whats the best thing to do to minimize the danger?

It ought to include a portrait of the people, but it ought not to choose the "best" solution to minimize the danger. The first's journalism; the second's opinion.

But striving for impartiality is nonetheless a good idea, as is the firewall between the editorial pages and the news departments, which is very real at The Times.

Brisbane doesn't use the term "firewall": fact, the thrust of his column seems to be that impartiality at the Times is at best a sometime thing:

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 papers 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.


About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.