Politics & Policy

Just Say It, Dan Okrent

The New York Times cannot be both liberal and the newspaper of record.

Is the New York Times a liberal newspaper? Of course it is.

Dan Okrent, “public editor” for the Times, used that question as the title of his column Sunday. And that answer was the column’s first sentence: “Of course it is.”

But contain your enthusiasm. No, the paper’s hand-picked in-house watchdog hasn’t blown the whistle on the Times’s liberal bias. Indeed, his column continues a great liberal tradition. When Okrent says “Of course it is,” it turns out that it all depends on what the meaning of “is” is.

That’s right — Okrent’s column superficially fesses up to the Times’s liberal bias, but he trivializes the definition of “liberal” to the point where it scarcely matters. The column is exclusively concerned with the paper’s treatment of so-called “social issues,” what Okrent calls “the flammable stuff that ignites the right.”

Among “social issues,” Okrent confines his examples to the Times’s use of anorexic fashion models and its tolerant stance toward gay rights. With the paper’s liberal bias squeezed into such a tiny and trivial conceptual box, Okrent approvingly quotes publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who waives the whole issue of liberalism: “He prefers to call the paper’s viewpoint ‘urban.’”

Poof! Liberal bias all gone, redefined as “urban” bias. And who can blame the Times for that? After all, New York is an urb!

But it’s not only models and gays that “excites the right.” The heart of darkness on W. 43rd Street that Okrent will not explore is the bias in news coverage of the presidency, politics, the war, and the economy. If there’s a word for that bias other than “liberal,” it wouldn’t be “urban” — it would be “Democratic.” But on these matters Okrent only says, “I’ll get to the politics-and-policy issues this fall (I want to watch the campaign coverage before I conclude anything).”

Huh? After almost eight months on the job as “public editor,” it simply defies credulity that Okrent cannot easily “conclude” that the Times’s coverage of “politics-and-policy issues” is liberally biased. I know it is. You know it is. Any being with the sentience of more than a thumb-tack who has ever looked at a copy of the Times knows it is.

Where do I begin? The infinitude of examples pour out of the Times’s pages. How about the paper’s coverage of the war in Iraq? Last year the Times declared a “quagmire” practically before the first bullet was fired. More recently, it lavished attention on every lascivious detail of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, but its front page coverage of the death of Nicholas Berg was so delicate it did not even directly state that he was beheaded.

Just last week, the Times tilted leftward for its coverage of Clinton administration security advisor Sandy Berger’s theft of classified documents from the National Archives. The affair only made the front page when the story was about Democratic accusations of Bush administration leaks.

I could go on and on. But Okrent can’t even get started. Every time he deals at all with the Times’s liberal bias, he either cops out like he did in his most recent column, or outright lets the paper off the hook.

For instance, there was the June 17 Times headline about the 9-11 Commission, “Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie.” Truth be told, the panel only said there was no tie with respect to attacks on U.S. soil. Vice President Dick Cheney found the headline “outrageous,” and he was right. But Okrent ruled that it was a mere “misstep,” and not a “willful distortion.”

Whom does he think he’s fooling? When someone makes the same “misstep” every single day, a reasonable person concludes that it’s on purpose. Just check the Times’s correction page on the web every day, like I do. Hardly a day goes by when there’s not a correction on the page of some factual error which, in its original presentation, was unflattering to the Bush administration.

But Okrent didn’t hesitate to excoriate the Times for its stories in advance of the war that supported the belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction — the one single tiny element of the Times’s Iraq coverage in which the paper agreed with the Bush administration.

It’s important that Okrent step up to the plate and pronounce his judgment confirming the obvious — that the Times is liberally biased. Okrent’s judgment would be a confession, made by a Times employee on the paper’s own pages.

It would be even more than a confession — it would be an “outing.” In public forums Times staffers consistently deny that the paper has a liberal bias. Thus they perpetuate a fraud designed to sway public opinion to the left by maintaining the fiction that their slanted coverage is, in fact, objective truth recorded in “the newspaper of record.”

Okrent will not acknowledge that the Times has a special duty to be objective, given its reputation for authoritativeness. He pooh-poohed the notion that the Times is perceived as the newspaper of record, using the same “meaning of ‘is’” trick that he used this week when ducking the question of liberal bias. He defined a “paper of record” not as one that is scrupulously objective and accurate, but one that dutifully records such quotidian trivia as “the appointment of two vice presidents at an auto parts company.”

What makes Okrent so unwilling to acknowledge the Times’s special position in the world, and its abuse of that position for the sake of a liberal agenda? Why can’t he say “Of course it is” and mean it? I’ve gotten to know Okrent fairly well since he arrived at the Times in December. (I worked with him to put in place a corrections policy for the paper’s columnists.) I think I have a pretty good idea of where he’s coming from.

For one thing, Okrent is under tremendous personal pressure every day. He is feared and despised by his colleagues on W. 43rd Street. With any number of reporters and editors just waiting for him to screw up, Okrent spends every day in a professional minefield — so he has to move slowly and carefully.

Also, Okrent is acutely aware of who the “public editor’s” public is. It’s not you — the reader of my blog or of National Review Online. Okrent’s public is the reader of the New York Times, where Okrent’s columns are published. Okrent knows that Times readers must like the Times — liberal bias and all — or they wouldn’t read it. A column that took too hard a line bashing the Times every other Sunday would lose its credibility and its readership. So Okrent has to pick his fights.

Finally, Okrent’s perceptions and judgments are shaped by the correspondence he gets from readers, mostly in the form of e-mails. He tells me that complaints from conservatives are far outnumbered by laments from liberals that the Times isn’t even more liberal. If the distribution of his e-mails determines the norms by which he understands what it means to be conservatively or liberally biased, then perhaps in his mind the Times isn’t as far to the left as the rest of us might think.

But that’s enough sympathy for the devil. Okrent may have his reasons and his rationales, but the plain fact remains that when the Times says “all the news that’s fit to print,” it really means “all the news that fits our liberal agenda.” With this week marking one year since Bill Keller replaced Howell Raines as executive editor of the Times (after Raines was forced out in disgrace in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal), it’s high time for Okrent to help restore the Times’s lost honor by coming clean on the matter of liberal bias.

I say to Dan: Just do it. It’s okay for the Times to have a liberal agenda. But it’s not okay for the Times to pretend that it doesn’t and pose as “the newspaper of record.” And it’s especially not okay for the “public editor” to aid and abet the pretense.

This emperor has no clothes. Say it, Dan — and stop acting as the emperor’s fig leaf.

– Donald Luskin is chief investment officer of Trend Macrolytics LLC, an independent economics and investment-research firm. He welcomes your comments at don@trendmacro.com.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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