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Think Again: The Mistaken Bias of The New York Times’s Public Editor

Occupy Wall Street protesters

SOURCE: AP/John Minchillo

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators stand and cheer in front of the George Washington statue on Wall Street.

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Arthur Brisbane left his job as the public editor of The New York Times this past week, deciding before leaving to double the degree of damage he has done to that institution—and to the newspaper business itself, of which the Times is the unchallenged leader. In an attack on the newspaper’s alleged partisanship, he accused the Times of having a liberal bias by insisting that its many “departments 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.” Surprisingly, given the seriousness of this accusation, Brisbane offered up nothing—literally nothing—to support it.

The departing public editor opined that “developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in the Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.” Had Brisbane wished to prove his point rather than toss out a lazy and unsupported allegation resting on the weasel word “seem,” he could have provided examples of what he meant. But he didn’t.

One wonders if he would have been able to had he tried. For instance, Erik Wemple of the Washington Post notes that Brisbane should have looked a little more deeply into the specifics of the coverage he so recklessly termed a “crusade.” Wemple recalls a conversation on Current TV between Keith Olbermann and the Philadelphia Daily News’s Will Bunch in which the latter noted that even after the Occupy protest had been going on for four or five days, the Times had offered readers no news of it. As Bunch explained:

The New York Times, I mean, this is the hometown newspaper of Wall Street and there’s been no print articles in The New York Times to date, with these people kicking around down there for four of five days now …. newsrooms are not in touch with the pain and suffering in the country …. I thought it was funny that the biggest story in The New York Times during the five days of protest—the biggest local story—has been the demise of Ray’s Pizza.

Yes, the demise of Ray’s was big news—it is sorely missed. But so too was any respect accorded to the Occupy protests when they finally did make the news. For instance, Andrew Ross Sorkin, who regularly showers love on Wall Street bigwigs in his Dealbook blog, filed this report:

I had gone down to Zuccotti Park to see the activist movement firsthand after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank last week, before nearly 700 people were arrested over the weekend during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge. “Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?” the CEO asked me. I didn’t have an answer. “We’re trying to figure out how much we should be worried about all of this,” he continued, clearly concerned. “Is this going to turn into a personal safety problem?”

If that’s not enough “overlove” for you, how about by Ginia Bellafante’s no less condescending story on the protests from around the same time? The article was titled “Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim.”

Despite these two stories—which, coming so early in the days of the Occupy protests, are indicative of the true prejudices of the Times reporters—it may be possible that the newspaper’s coverage of the movement did eventually cross the line into advocacy once its main coverage got rolling. If this were so, however, we must surely have heard about it with some frequency from the public editor himself while it was taking place. Alas, this too is not the case. Indeed, when Brisbane did address the issue, he appeared entirely enthusiastic about the potential for extensive coverage, writing that:

While the Times seeks out a macro view of the issues and context, it should also find a creative way to capture the micro view. Publishing a daily blog about life at an Occupy camp is one good idea, suggested by Tom Fiedler, journalism dean at Boston University and former Miami Herald executive editor. Another good suggestion—in a blog post by Emily Bell, a former digital editor at the Guardian in Britain who now teaches digital journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism—called for a Times “air traffic controller,” someone like NPR’s Andy Carvin, who could use social media to aggregate Occupy developments worldwide every day.

Given that critique of the Times’s coverage of the protests, one suspects that Brisbane felt empowered to level his evidence-less accusation this past month not only because he had one foot out the door but also because it is so commonly repeated by right-wing partisans and gullible mainstream journalists that it does not even deserve proof. When the newspaper’s first public editor, Daniel Okrent, raised the question, “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper? in July 2004, his own answer—“OF course it is”—was true in the narrow sense he meant it, but not in the way it was largely understood (in part due to Okrent’s careless choice of words).

Yes, the Times reflects the views of most urban, educated elites—including those who produce and consume the paper—on “social issues, including gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation,” according to Okrent. No argument there. But there is more to liberalism than social issues.

Take issues of economics. In this arena, the Times is no more liberal than your average Wall Street banker. What’s more, as Dan Gilmore, writing in the Guardian, observes, “What bleeds through when I read the Times—with important exceptions that keep the Times at the top of my must-read list despite its failings—is a deep kinship with the people who pull the key levers in our government and economy. As one former Times journalist once told me, the paper is the “trade journal for the rich and powerful.”

This identification with power was evident in another recent scolding Brisbane gave the newspaper, when it was reported by Politico that Times reporter Mark Mazzetti offered the CIA an advanced look at a future column by op-ed commentator Maureen Dowd. The Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, Dean Baquet, compounded the problem by telling Politico to mind its own business.

“I know the circumstances, and if you knew everything that’s going on, you’d know it’s much ado about nothing,” Baquet said. “I can’t go into in detail. But I’m confident after talking to Mark that it’s much ado about nothing.” As the Times was later forced to admit, it was much ado about something and should never have happened. But obviously, it did not strike Baquet that way. One has to ask whether this is because the Times’s identification with official power is so strong that he really did not see the problem.

This is the second time in his two-year term as public editor that Brisbane demonstrated a fundamental failure to understand the institution whose arbiter he was supposed to be. The earlier failure was when he asked readers—no kidding—“Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” In other words, should reporters at The New York Times ”challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about?” The reaction was swift. What was the point of newspapers, after all, if not to ferret out the truth?

Brisbane seemed not to know. The very fact that he had to ask readers to contemplate just how corrupt the craft of journalism has become in light of the relentless attack on truth by the contemporary conservative movement answers this question for him.

Brisbane certainly provided those with contempt for the truth with a big favor by behaving as if the “truth” ought to be an open question in the nation’s most important newspaper. Now he has done them a second favor by playing to their prejudices about an alleged liberal bias, without bothering the check the facts—much less discern the truth.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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