Human Exceptionalism

Bill Keller Cooks in a Crock Pot About NYT Objectivity

I was sipping a glass of red wine, just now–reading the NYT Sunday Magazine. I almost choked.  After fighting for two weeks with Arianna Huffington over the role of news aggregation sites–and I sure have no dog in that fight!–editor Bill Keller this week took computer chip in hand to seriously tell readers that his wildly biased newspaper is objective. From his column:

Being right is necessary but not sufficient. We also strive to be impartial. We are agnostic as to where a story may lead; we do not go into a story with a preconceived notion. We do not manipulate or hide facts to advance an agenda. We strive to preserve our independence from political and economic interests, including our own advertisers and including our own government. (NPR, whose news coverage I admire, must surely be wondering whether a federal subsidy is worth its vulnerability to the riptides of Congressional politics.)

I have first hand involvement in several national stories the Times has covered, and Keller is cooking in a crock pot about the Time’s objectivity, at least on stories involving social issues.

Prime Example: Terri Schiavo. The NYT didn’t cover the story at all for the longest time. But when Randall Terry–the free-booting would-be theocrat–went to Florida and get his name in the paper, the Times was more than happy to oblige since (I believe) that allowed them to present the Schindler side of the story in the most negative light possible.  Then, the Terri Schiavo case was suddenly on the front page–and the main theme was Terry and how the case could help the religious right.

And story the Times told was not the one really being played out in Florida. Missing, for example, were the disability rights activists who rallied to the cause of saving Terri’s life.  At the same time, as I reported in the Daily Standard at the time, Michael Schiavo was merely referred to as Terri’s “husband”–which was true technically, but also substantially false because it more than implied he was a loyal husband. In its big front page assault and thereafter, somehow the fact that Michael had been living with his “fiance” (his term) for years and fathered two children with her, and that he stood to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars by her death–surely germane points to judging his suitability as guardian and decision maker–weren’t deemed worthy of more than occasional bare mentions deep in the story–if that.

I could go on and on.  The facts about Jack Kevorkian unreported by the Times.  Its use of language to describe the abortion issue that favors one side over the other.  Etc. etc. ad nauseum.

Media often have a story they want to tell, and don’t let facts get in the way.  And one of the great tools used is to not report inconvenient facts.  Another is to find the worst possible person to represent the side the reporter doesn’t like.  In these tactics, the Times is among the worst.

Ironically, the former approach can be found in Keller’s own column!  Keller points to a report by the paper’s first ombudsman as proof of his thesis that the Times is objective.  Here’s  what Keller writes:

Back in 2004, Daniel Okrent, the first ombudsman at The Times, wrote a column under the headline, “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” The sly first sentence of his essay was: “Of course it is.” Nobody seems to remember what came after. Okrent went on to explain that The Times’s outlook, steeped in the mores of a big, rambunctious city, tends to be culturally liberal: open-minded, skeptical of dogma, secular, cosmopolitan. We publish news of gay unions on the wedding pages. We have a science section that does not feel obliged to give equal time to creationists when it writes about evolution. Okrent rightly scolded us for sometimes seeming to look down our urban noses at the churchgoing, the gun-owning and the unlettered.

There he goes again–leaving out germane facts.  The Ombudsman actually stated that on social issues, the Times too often advocates rather than reports–pointing to the same sex marriage issue as a specific example. From “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?”

But it’s one thing to make the paper’s pages a congenial home for editorial polemicists, conceptual artists, the fashion-forward or other like-minded souls (European papers, aligned with specific political parties, have been doing it for centuries), and quite another to tell only the side of the story your co-religionists wish to hear. I don’t think it’s intentional when The Times does this. But negligence doesn’t have to be intentional.

The gay marriage issue provides a perfect example. Set aside the editorial page, the columnists or the lengthy article in the magazine (”Toward a More Perfect Union,” by David J. Garrow, May 9) that compared the lawyers who won the Massachusetts same-sex marriage lawsuit to Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King. That’s all fine, especially for those of us who believe that homosexual couples should have precisely the same civil rights as heterosexuals.

But for those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it’s disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheer leading…

Funny how Keller left that part out–and in fact misstated what the Ombudsman actually wrote–again by omission.

Bill Keller is either clueless or devious about the Times’ biases in the way it covers the news on culture war topics.  Which it is, I can’t say.  But it doesn’t really matter.  Until the paper’s leadership sees the paper for what it truly is–and works to reform its current bias–it will continue its slow motion self destruction by alienating 40% of its potential readers.

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