Arthur Brisbane Jr., outgoing public editor of the New York Times, had a few things to say in his final column about groupthink in the newsroom.
I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, 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, 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 term — that this 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.
Stepping back, I can see that as the digital transformation proceeds, as The Times disaggregates and as an empowered staff finds new ways to express itself, a kind of Times Nation has formed around the paper’s political-cultural worldview, an audience unbound by geography (as distinct from the old days of print) and one that self-selects in digital space.
It’s a huge success story — it is hard to argue with the enormous size of Times Nation — but one that carries risk as well. A just-released Pew Research Center survey found that The Times’s “believability rating” had dropped drastically among Republicans compared with Democrats, and was an almost-perfect mirror opposite of Fox News’s rating. Can that be good?
I think the question is more, Is that inevitable?
Another question to ask is this: Does a certain proportion of news-consuming Americans only believe the news if it fits with their pre-existing worldview? What happens if the Times’s version of the news is well researched, factually accurate and in context — yet is still rejected by conservative readers?
For background, read this Aug. 27, 2010 post: A house united in ignorance cannot stand.
More background can be found by reviewing the Aug. 16 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press’s news release on the poll Brisbane cited: Further Decline in Credibility Ratings for Most News Organizations. Here is what it says about the effect of partisanship:
The believability ratings for individual news organizations – like views of the news media generally – have long been divided along partisan lines. But partisan differences have grown as Republicans’ views of the credibility of news outlets have continued to erode. Today, there are only two news organizations – Fox News and local TV news – that receive positive believability ratings from at least two-thirds of Republicans. A decade ago, there were only two news organizations that did not get positive ratings from at least two-thirds of Republicans.
If you look at the divide along partisan lines:
The partisan divide in views of the New York Times’ believability also is substantial; 65% of Democrats, but just 37% of Republicans, rate the believability of the Times at 3 or 4.
Thirty-seven per cent of Democrats view Fox News as believable, compared to 67 per cent of Republicans who rate the channel as a 3 or 4.
Both the Times and Fox have seen declines in believability, even among their home teams. From 201o to 2012, Fox’s believability ranking among Republicans dropped 10 percentage points. The Times dropped nine points among Democrats in that two-year stretch.
But the believability decline is a broad-based, long-term problem. From my perch north of the border, that seems tied up in disagreements over what the facts are with respects to some key wedge issues. For example, is being gay a “lifestyle choice” — as the Bible Belt would have it — or is it something you are born into, as is the consensus with more cosmopolitan individuals?
I would guess that in New York City, public opinion polling would find that most people believe that being gay is a sexual orientation that one is born with. Furthermore, I’m guessing that in New York, San Francisco and other liberal American cities, gay marriage is not a big deal.
If you’re a religious conservative in rural Mississippi who believes God himself is against gay marriage, it is a big deal.
I would guess that the worldviews of New York Times editors and reporters will be influenced by the fact they live in a largely small-l liberal, urbane, cosmopolitan city.
Journalism professor Jay Rosen noted in a Facebook posting that Daniel Okrent, the Times’ first public editor, attacked the bias question directly – Is the New York Times a liberal newspaper? (“Of course it is,” was Okrent’s first sentence).
Personally, I have no idea what a perfectly balanced, objective newspaper or newscast would look like. I do ask that news reports be accurate and in context, and that opinion content be intellectually honest.
But Brisbane didn’t tackle the difficult question of what happens if you meet those tests, and you’re still not believed. If that has happened, then what is the value of believability as a measurement of anything except bias confirmation?
Remember too that former NYT editor Howell Raines decided to adopt the Bush administration’s position that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, largely because he didn’t want the paper to look like it had a liberal bias on the issue. That decision turned out to be catastrophic for both the Times and the world.*
* In a new book, former Bush White House press secretary Scott McLellan referred to the U.S. news media as “complicit enablers” during the leadup to the Iraq War.
I look forward to reading the thoughts of incoming NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan on this difficult, thorny issue.