New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan on Sunday defended the paper against conservative criticism that it has favored Obama in its sparse Libya coverage "Connecting the Dots in Libya," and elicited this from Managing Editor Susan Chira (pictured): "We're aware that people see us as tilting liberal." But Chira also said she and her colleagues "can't be guided by that." Sullivan wrote:
When I wrote on my blog recently about The Times’s decision not to give front-page coverage to a Congressional hearing on the consulate attack in Libya, hundreds of e-mails and comments poured in.
While it is hard to summarize that much correspondence, the gist of it was this: The Times is ignoring the Libya story, and trying to protect the Obama administration, because of its liberal bent.
Conservative news outlets pointed to my post as evidence that The Times favored President Obama in its coverage.
The amount and vehemence of the reader response struck me as important. So I took two days this past week to reread all of The Times’s Libya coverage since Sept. 12, the day after the attack.
I drew a couple of conclusions.
First, it is utterly wrong to say that The Times has ignored or buried the Libya story. As of Friday, editors had placed it on the front page on 18 days out of 38, sometimes with news, sometimes with analysis.
The coverage has been extensive, aggressive and sweeping. And I see no evidence that The Times is pushing the Obama agenda, overtly or otherwise. Many readers believe that it is, so I read with particular care on this subject.
Second, to be more critical, the Libya coverage has not consistently and effectively helped readers make sense of what is happening. The Times has not effectively connected the dots in a murky, fast-moving and difficult-to-report story.
Times Watch reported on Managing Editor Dean Baquet's revealing answer to Sullivan October 11, after she had criticized her paper for not following other papers in putting the congressional hearings on Libya on the front page: “There were six better stories." Sullivan goes on in her Sunday column:
The editors said that The Times’s efforts were concentrated on two questions: 1) Was there a significant security failure at the consulate in Benghazi? 2) Did the Obama administration have much cleaner, clearer intelligence than it told the American people?
“What did they know and when did they know it?” [Assistant Managing Editor Susan] Chira said. “I’m obsessed with that -- we all are. It’s hard to get.”
Sullivan revealed that the paper's top editors are well aware of the paper's liberal reputation, but rose above the criticism:
Readers also are frustrated by “false balance” in reporting, in which one side says one thing and the other side counters. They want declarative statements when there is an established truth. A reader, Steve Bowen, picked out this passage from an article by David Kirkpatrick last Tuesday:
“Libyan guards at the Benghazi compound and other witnesses told journalists working for The New York Times as early as Sept. 12 that the streets outside the mission were quiet in the moments before the attack had begun, without any prior protests.”
Mr. Bowen wrote to me: “Yet for two weeks The New York Times repeatedly reported the administration’s false assertions of a protest there without once noting the newspaper had direct and convincing evidence to the contrary. How is that possible for a newspaper that consistently denies it has a partisan bias?”
The editors said that such decisions were not that simple -- deciding what constituted a protest in that environment, and which sources to give credence to, was complicated.
I asked Mr. Baquet and Ms. Chira how much they were affected by outside criticism.
“We’re aware that people see us as tilting liberal,” Ms. Chira said, “so we scrutinize ourselves. But you can’t be guided by that. If you are, you’re into a kind of defensive editing that ultimately doesn’t serve the reader.”