The New NY Times Public Editor Goes There: 'Why Readers See The Times as Liberal'

Liberal journalists may be spending the weekend between conventions gnashing their teeth over the New York Times Public Editor’s promise to analyze why people think the paper has a liberal bias.

The Public Editor position was created by the Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism and fake-story scandal to explain the paper’s motivations to readers, and to criticize the paper when they feel a line of ethics, professionalism, or balance has been crossed.

Some P.E.’s have been harder on the paper than others. The first one, Daniel Okrent, was perhaps the most consistently critical, notably his 2004 entry, “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper? Of course it is.”

Liz Spayd recently became the paper’s sixth Public Editor, and she may be on the critical end of the spectrum. She quickly got provocative in her second column for the Sunday Review: “Why Readers See The Times as Liberal.” The text box provided the flavor: “The danger of bias. Or even just its appearance.”

Spayd, who previously held a managing editor position at the Washington Post, addressed the elephant (so to speak) in the room: Does the New York Times have a liberal bias against conservatives and Republicans?

I have been here less than a month, but already I’ve discovered something that surely must be bad for business if your business is running The New York Times. It comes via the inbox to the public editor, from people like Gary Taustine of Manhattan, who writes: “The NY Times is alienating its independent and open-minded readers, and in doing so, limiting the reach of their message and its possible influence.”

One reader from California who asked not to be named believes Times reporters and editors are trying to sway public opinion toward their own beliefs. “I never thought I’d see the day when I, as a liberal, would start getting so frustrated with the one-sided reporting that I would start hopping over to the Fox News webpage to read an article and get the rest of the story that the NYT refused to publish,” she says.

....

Emails like these stream into this office every day. A perception that The Times is biased prompts some of the most frequent complaints from readers. Only they arrive so frequently, and have for so long, that the objections no longer land with much heft.

Spayd did the newsroom rounds and found exasperation and disbelief at the very idea that the paper has a liberal slant.

Like the tiresome bore at a party, I went around asking several journalists in the newsroom about these claims that The Times sways to the left. Mostly I was met with a roll of the eyes. All sides hate us, they said. We’re tough on everyone. That’s nothing new here.

Spayd came down pretty hard on that indifference to appearances.

That response may be tempting, but unless the strategy is to become The New Republic gone daily, this perception by many readers strikes me as poison. A paper whose journalism appeals to only half the country has a dangerously severed public mission. And a news organization trying to survive off revenue from readers shouldn’t erase American conservatives from its list of prospects.

While noting that in this column she would only examine the perception of bias, and leave the content analysis for a later date, Spayd came up with some telling details involving the layout and ad choice on the home page:

....Because while one might debate the substance of the claims, the building blocks that created them are in plain sight.

The home page is a good place to start. Anchoring its top right corner is the Opinion section, which promotes the columns and editorials of its mostly liberal writers. “Readers know the difference between opinion and news,” you’ll often hear. I’m not so sure all do, especially when the website makes neighbors of the two and social platforms make them nearly impossible to tease apart.

Maybe we’re well past worrying about that. So turn to the drumbeat of Hillary Clinton campaign ads on the website. Even for me, who fully knows an ad from a news story, seeing Clinton’s smiling face when I’ve come to read the news can be rather jarring.

Spayd also pointed out how that in the nytimes.com comments sections, “conservatives occupy just a few back-row seats in this giant liberal echo chamber, not because Republicans are screened out by editors but because they don’t show up in the first place.”

For some print readers, the placement of an editorial calling for gun control on the front page last December, which garnered a record number of comments, was shrill proof of the kind of Times bias they expect...

Spayd’s advice? “....it’s not hard to imagine some small steps on a longer journey -- leaving editorials on the editorial page, banning campaign ads from the home page, or building a better mix of values into the ranks of the newsroom’s urban progressives.

She concluded with a warning and the hope that it wasn’t too late to swing perceptions around.

Imagine what would be missed by journalists who felt no pressing need to see the world through others’ eyes. Imagine the stories they might miss, like the groundswell of isolation that propelled a candidate like Donald Trump to his party’s nomination. Imagine a country where the greatest, most powerful newsroom in the free world was viewed not as a voice that speaks to all but as one that has taken sides.

Or has that already happened?

Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.