Ominous Liberal Signs From the New York Times' New Public Editor Margaret Sullivan

September 10th, 2012 4:28 PM

Uh-oh. Has the New York Times hired a new Public Editor that will spend her term criticizing the paper from the left? Less than a week after starting, Margaret Sullivan has already hailed the political wisdom of late left-wing author Gore Vidal while praising a Times "fact-checking" piece that excoriated Republicans. She has also expressed concern on the paper's lack of coverage of liberal fair-pay icon Lilly Ledbetter, while praising a writer for the left-wing online mag Salon. Finally, she discussed a complaint about Times's over-coverage of the latest lousy jobs report, inspired by a former Obama administration economist.

Sullivan, formerly editor for the Buffalo News, last week became the paper's fifth public editor, following Daniel Okrent (who began in October 2003), Byron Calame (May 23, 2005) Clark Hoyt (May 14, 2007), and Arthur Brisbane (August 2010). The Times's public editor position – an in-house newspaper critic who evaluates reader complaints and internal ethical issues – has its roots in the catastrophe of Jayson Blair, who published fake and plagiarized stories in the Times between October 2002 and April 2003.

Okrent famously posed this rhetorical question in a July 2004 column: "Is the Times a liberal newspaper? Of course it is." Okrent was a scourge compared to his successor, Barney Calame, an overly loyal corporate man. Editor #3, Clark Hoyt, only conceded the liberalism of the editorial page and columnists. He admitted the paper "shares the prevailing sensibilities of the city and region where it is published" but denied the Times was "the Fox News of the left."

Editor #4 Arthur Brisbane made waves in his last column August 26 when he lamented "the hive....of like minds" on 8th avenue in Manhattan. Though the paper's campaign coverage was generally fair and balanced," the "political and cultural progressivism" in other departments resulted in issues like the Occupy movement and gay marriage being "overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects."

So far Sullivan has voiced no such concerns. In fact, her criticisms so far have suggested the Times is not sufficiently diligent in covering the liberal angles. Sullivan made her print debut this Sunday, "My Turn in Between the Readers and the Writers," but her first contribution appeared online last Tuesday, a post defending the liberal media's new passion for "fact-checking," "Facts, Truth … and May the Best Man Win."

After a paucity of posts from the previous editors, it's refreshing to see the public editor actually contributing to the Public Editor blog. But it's an ominous sign when your opening appeal to authority honors the vulgar left-wing author Gore Vidal.

In “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man,” now in an enjoyable and timely revival on Broadway (extended but scheduled to end this week), the lead character – a candidate for president in 1960 – poses a rhetorical question:

“Since when has the truth been a deterrent at this convention?”

And at another juncture, that character, William Russell, observes to his opponent: “We’ve both gone beyond the truth now. We’re in dangerous country.”

It’s strange to think that the play was written more than half a century ago. But looking around corners was something at which Mr. Vidal, who died in late July, excelled. The Times’s Charles Isherwood, in his otherwise lukewarm review last April, gave Mr. Vidal props for just that: the playwright’s “undeniable prescience about future trends in American politicking.”

Questions of truth – in the particular guise of “fact-checking” – are front and center just now, both on the presidential campaign trail generally and, more specifically, at the political conventions.

Sullivan then praised a September 1 story by Michael Cooper that Times Watch panned as slanted.

The reporter Michael Cooper’s story in The Times last weekend was very much in the discussion, seen by some as a sign that the mainstream media is taking the whole matter of truth-telling, truth-stretching and the pesky matter of factuality with a new level of seriousness.

It was a strong piece. And more like it would be welcome.

Sullivan concluded with more praise for Vidal:

What is the role of the media if not to press for some semblance of reality amid the smoke and mirrors? Gore Vidal, I imagine, would agree.

Gore Vidal also thought America got what it deserved on 9-11.

In a Wednesday post Sullivan also leaned left, expressing concern about the paper's lack of coverage of liberal fair-pay icon Lilly Ledbetter, and praised a writer for the left-wing online mag Salon.

The stage at the Democratic National Convention was awash in women Tuesday night. And it’s no wonder, since President Obama needs women desperately to win in November. Female voters tend to like Mr. Obama more than Mitt Romney -- though Mr. Obama’s popularity among women has fallen sharply. So women were very much in the mix....Michelle Obama had everything (including, it must be said, a great dress, featuring what a friend of mine would call her Second Amendment look -- the right to bare arms). Smart female commentators like Rebecca Traister of Salon were impressed by the first lady’s speech and yet a bit regretful that it essentially blotted out this Ivy League-educated woman’s accomplishments beyond those of “Mom in Chief.” Alessandra Stanley ‘s TV Watch ably and entertainingly compared Ann Romney’s speech last week with Mrs. Obama’s.

Then, there was Lilly Ledbetter, the 74-year-old Alabama woman whose (unsuccessful) fair-pay suit became the basis of the first law that Mr. Obama signed as president, who spoke about pay equity.

One would think that this subject -- and those closely related -- would be a topic worth noting, given how it lives right at the nexus of all-important women and the all-important economy.

But that subject – not just pay equity but also gender-economic issues in general -- were all but ignored in press coverage of women’s night, at least in print. The Times gave Ms. Ledbetter a half-sentence in Wednesday’s print edition. The Wall Street Journal allotted not even that in its morning newspaper, although the Washington Wire on took up the subject the night before....

Sullivan kept busy, filing Friday afternoon on the paper's coverage of the politically sensitive jobs report, "The Trouble With Numbers: Complaints on a Much Anticipated Jobs Report." She led with a complaint that the paper overplaying the bad report inspired by Betsey Stevenson, a former Obama administration economist who this May accused Ann Romney of having "no empathy for people."