Opinion: Media Mangle

NY Times ‘Trust’ Report a Roadmap to Bias

Newspaper says main aim is to correct only "impression" of bias

A line from The New York Times’ “Preserving our Readers’ Trust” report made me do a spit-take while drinking my coffee: “Critics, competitors and partisans can too easily caricature who we are and what we do.” This is rich, almost Frank Rich. This worldwide publishing empire, the chief caricaturer of conservatives, Republicans and all things not left-wing, is claiming victimhood.

While avoiding the term bias and never admitting anything, this report nevertheless is a roadmap that shows how bias creeps into a newspaper via news analyses, interpretive reporting and monotone coverage of events.

The “Preserving our Readers’ Trust” report submitted to Executive Editor Bill Keller on Monday was the product of “19 highly experienced news people” from The Times who “met for extensive discussion 10 times since mid-November.” The Times’ biggest problem, the committee seems to feel, is that it, like the Democratic Party, just can’t get its story out.

The report says The Times must begin “explaining ourselves actively and earnestly to our various publics.” Ideas suggested include creating a “robust speakers bureau,” improving “our interaction with television and radio programs,” or possibly “creating a Times blog that promotes give-and-take with readers.”

One ironic suggestion is that Times reporters be required to get permission in advance from their supervisors before making television appearances. How many mid-level bureaucrats has The Times pilloried for declining to comment until clearing any statement with higher ups?

“On occasion, our reporters have been lured into offering opinions or making statements that went beyond reporting and their expertise,” the committee said (emphasis added). The poor Times reporters, they feel, are simply no match for the average TV news host. The solution to this, they conclude, “lies in new training, new internal checks and closer coordination between the newsroom and our corporate communications department.” This is what the media usually call “information management” when someone else does it.

It’s apparently OK to get lured into expressing opinion in the news columns of The Times, however. The Times, like most newspapers, allows reporters to write “news analyses.” These are, in the words of the Times committee, “reportorial pieces that are authorized to convey voice and viewpoint.” They also call them “interpretive” or “analytical” reporting. Readers call it bias and agenda-pushing.

Most newspaper readers wonder why any reporter needs to convey voice or viewpoint in a news story. News consumers see this as simply a vehicle to “frame” or “spin” the story, to push readers toward a viewpoint rather than letting them decide for themselves.

The committee report recommends procedures “for systematically watching the cumulative impact of continuing stories that risk conveying an impression of one-sidedness.” It urges editors to “monitor the overall tone of high-profile coverage” so as to “avoid appearing one-sided but also to find ways to present more contrarian and unexpected viewpoints in our news pages.” That “appearing one-sided” horse has long left the barn, but it’s heartening that The Times acknowledges its failure to include viewpoints that might conflict with the Times worldview.

Cumulative coverage can lead to another problem, the committee found. “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 report states. “As a result, despite the strict divide between editorial pages and news pages, The Times can come across as an advocate.” To readers, this is not so false an impression. One suspects the committee feels that way too, considering the number of corrective measures they recommend.

The committee pointed out that this monotone in The Times’ coverage of the gay marriage issue “approaches cheerleading,” to use the words of The Times’ own public editor. The Times’ crusade to get women admitted to the Augusta National Golf Club three years ago also comes to mind as a story that approached cheerleading.

Under the heading of “Diversifying Our Vantage Point,” the committee writes: “Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them.” This is what Times critics, and critics of the MSM in general, have been saying for years. It’s nice to see that view validated. The report states that words like moderate and centrist “inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme.” Again, where were the members of this committee when media critics were saying these things over the past decade?

The good news is that The Times clearly understands there is a problem. After the travails of the paper over the past four or five years, it would be astounding if they didn’t. But they couch their recommendations in terms of preserving, consolidating and cementing the loyalty of their readers. Critics might use the terms salvaging, reclaiming and rebuilding.

Jon Ham is vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.