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May 11, 2005

NY Times Admits Bias...Page E27

Last July, NY Times public editor Daniel Okrent surprised the half-vast editorial staff a bit with a little piece called "Is The NY Times A Liberal Newspaper?" It wasn't a bad piece, as far as it went. Okrent even admitted that on social issues, the Times deals from a stacked deck:

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.

His boss was quick to correct the wayward editor. The Times wasn't liberal: it merely reflects a flexible urban viewpoint.

Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. doesn't think this walk through The Times is a tour of liberalism. He prefers to call the paper's viewpoint "urban." He says that the tumultuous, polyglot metropolitan environment The Times occupies means "We're less easily shocked," and that the paper reflects "a value system that recognizes the power of flexibility."

Okrent must have forgotten to place his Moose on the table:

... adults no longer run the Times. To me the most interesting revelation of l’affair Blair hasn’t been the way a rising star was coddled and cosseted; it’s the Moose. The Beanbag Moose. As I understand the story, some of the Timespersons were on a retreat in a rural conference center. During one of the meetings, a moose wandered into the grounds, and everyone watched him out the window - but no one mentioned him, because it wasn’t germane to the subject of the meeting. This story has become Legend, and has taken on the form of a Beanie Baby, come to enlighten those of us who see the Moose but dare not speak His name. It’s a metaphor, you see. A metaphor for unnoticed mooses. (Anyone who's ever been on one of these retreats knows exactly what would have happened if you'd interrupted a meeting on synergistic strategies to say "hey, how come no one's talking about that big moose out there?" Four words: Monday morning drug test.) Now at the Times if you wish you cut to the quick, you place on the table your company-issued beanbag herbivore to symbolize your desire to speak freely.

But in the fullness of time, even unnoticed Mooses have a way of coming back to haunt us all. In the wake of Jayson Blair, al Qaqaa, and a plethora of other stories in which the Times' flexible urban viewpoint regarding the facts figured prominently, the Gray Lady was brought to her knees. During a recent review, the Times' Credibility Group concluded that the paper's viewpoint was a bit too flexible, concluding (among other things) that:

As examples, the report cited limiting anonymous sources, reducing factual errors and making a clearer distinction between news and opinion. It also said The Times should make the paper's operations and decisions more transparent to readers through methods like making transcripts of interviews available on its Web site. The report also said The Times should make it easier for readers to send e-mail to reporters and editors. "The Times makes it harder than any other major American newspaper for readers to reach a responsible human being," the report said.

Ace looked at the original report and found that its contents had been heavily redacted for public consumption. Apparently the Times can't even report on its own bias without slanting the story. The piece leaned prominently on the Times' recommendations for increasing its credibility and minimized any mention of the practices that cause readers to lose faith in its veracity. The following quotes stood out particularly:

Though we have our lapses, individual news stories on emotional topics like abortion, gun control, the death penalty and gay marriage are reported and edited with great care, to avoid any impression of bias. Nonetheless, 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.

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. We particularly slip into these traps in feature stories when reporters and editors think they are merely presenting an interesting slice of life, with little awareness of the power of labels. We need to be more vigilant about the choice of language not only in the text but also in headlines, captions and display type.

The Times plainly finds it hard to curtail its dependence on anonymous sources. Much work remains to be done within our walls — and between reporters and their sources — before our handling of anonymous sources fulfills the ambitious goals outlined in the newsroom policy. Dan Okrent, the public editor, told the committee that when readers complain to him, anonymous sourcing is the No. 1 killer of our credibility. We cannot afford to ignore that finding.

I found it very interesting that this little recommendation did not make the Times' piece:

Corrections should be posted as promptly as possible, even before they appear in the paper. A correction should appear in the text of the online article, with a note appended to inform readers of the change. Nytimes.com should stop its current practice of keeping outdated and possibly inaccurate multiple versions of news reports posted for several days. The final New York print version, when it becomes available, should supersede all others.

Back in July Daniel Okrent cited the paper's open advocacy of gay marriage as an instance of bias. But he blamed the problem, not on any intentional policy of misleading its readership, but on writers who are unable to set aside their personal beliefs in the interest of objectivity:

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.

At the time, I wondered why the Times' "value system" did not include a commitment to presenting both sides of an issue and reporting all the news, even that which conflicted with their ideology. For a professional journalist, it should not require a "great deal of self-questioning" to include other points of view, nor to extend the courtesy of avoiding perjorative labels from terrorists to law-abiding Americans who happen to believe in God, nor to avoid censoring out inconvenient facts. These things should be taken for granted: included in the definition of objective reporting.

Thanks to Masked Menace for the tip.

Posted by Cassandra at May 11, 2005 06:08 AM

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Comments

Of course, we'll see how honest they'll be about presenting the other side if they ever actually get around to doing it. Will those against gay marriage just be presented as only those people who find it "disturbing" (read: homophobia) without any legitimate intellectual or philosophical objections? The report itself seems to support the former over the latter.

Posted by: Masked Menace [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 11, 2005 12:22 PM

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