The New York Times shut down their Public Editor position last May. The position, an outsider to monitor the paper’s integrity and respond to readers’ complaints, was established in 2003 in the wake of the mortifying scandal involving reporter Jayson Blair, whose string of phony stories and bylines pointed to lax supervision and editorial standards at the paper. Andy Robinson talked to all six former Public Editors of the New York Times for the Columbia Journalism Review, in a long piece posted on Thursday. Among the questions about anonymous sourcing and testy newsroom relations, Robinson re-surfaced one that conservatives have a ready answer for: “Is the Times a liberal newspaper?”
Here’s the story of the Times public editor, as told by the six men and women who held one of the most challenging jobs in American journalism...
Robinson cited a Gallup poll showing “trust in the news media has fallen to a new low, with about 32 percent of Americans saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust. President Trump, of course, has ridden and fanned the wave of anti-media sentiment.”
Robinson confronted each of the former public editors with the question from the best-known column by Daniel Okrent, the paper’s first public editor. In 2004, Okrent penned “Is the Times a Liberal Newspaper?” His opening line: “Of course it is.”
Okrent seems to regret his headline now, telling CJR “....I regret I handed a weapon to people who use it unfairly. I mean, it’s been used over and over and over again without the I believe, if not subtlety, complexity of the point that I was making.”
Meanwhile, Arthur Brisbane sidled around the issue of reporter bias, chalking any slant up to city living: “It’s a staff of New Yorkers. These are people who mostly live in the New York metropolitan area. They are highly educated, and most of them are eastern seaboard products from a kind of worldview and life experience point-of-view and come from the world Donald Trump just kicked in the butt. And they were not conscious themselves of this fact because people like you don’t get it -- how the world sees you. You get what you see and it looks correct to you.”
Robinson quoted Okrent, who had a similar observation:
I began to realize that, you know, this is a cultural issue. What’s normative to a possibly Ivy League educated, New York dwelling, upper middle income journalist? What’s normative to that person is not normative to an air-conditioner repairman in Topeka. It’s a cultural matter more than a political matter. Got an amazing response to that, ferociously negative response, but also very gratifying positive response, from the most gratifying positive response was from people on the left, from Democrats. Including one member of the US Senate, who said if I ever quoted him, he would deny it.
The fifth Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, wondered what was up with the “Hillary Clinton” beat, established all the way back in 2013:
I did think that it was somewhat inappropriate to have someone reporting on Hillary Clinton as a beat. It was supposed to be about the Clintons, but it really was about Hillary Clinton, well before she had even entered the race. As I think I said in the piece, the word “coronation” starts to come to mind. Not to say that the coverage was all positive, but to some extent, it was giving her tremendous amounts of attention, and it also sent the message that the Times had already decided that she would be the Democratic nominee. Then, when Sanders’ campaign comes along and the Times was, especially at first, not taking it very seriously, and in fact in some cases, writing about it rather disparagingly, that combined with the fact that Hillary Clinton had been getting this coverage all along.
Newsbusters documented that "Beat It, Bernie!" treatment of Sanders at the time.
Okrent later defended the paper from accusations of a purposeful liberal agenda: “The biggest misconception is the belief that there is an agenda. There isn’t. It’s so hard to have an agenda at a newspaper. A newspaper comes out by accident almost. The belief that there are orders being given, that are being followed, that the editorial position as expressed on the editorial page is determinative for what kind of coverage is in the newspaper -- that is all wrong. It’s simply untrue. And I without being there now, I’m sure it is as untrue today as it was then. Having said all that, I wish they didn’t have an editorial page.”
The paper’s last public editor, Liz Spayd, was ferociously criticized after bursting through the liberal bubble and appearing on Tucker Carlson’s program on Fox News. Robinson wrote:
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Tucker Carlson, host of the Fox News prime-time news talk show Tucker Carlson Tonight, typically brings someone on the program that he can clash with. Spayd decided to go on the network, much to the surprise of viewers who later went to Twitter to voice their outrage. Their qualms included questions like, “why would a Times journalist go on Fox News, of all places?” “How could she agree with Tucker Carlson on anything?” In the interview, Carlson raises the issue of Times reporters claiming objectivity in their hard news reporting and then on Twitter making anti-Trump statements. She agreed with Carlson. The Times had sent memos to staff regarding Twitter behavior in the past, saying that, “You are a Times journalist, and your online behavior should be appropriate for a Times journalist.”
Robinson quoted Spayd on her Tucker experience:
I am completely comfortable with my decision to go on Tucker Carlson. I know who Tucker Carlson is. I didn’t just sort of wander out there without knowing. I decided to go on because it does matter to me to get outside the liberal echo chamber. I know who his audience is, and I wanted to speak to that audience about The New York Times....
After the election, Spayd noted reader complaints from liberals about the paper's reassuring liberal bubble: “....I think that there may be some who misconstrue that these were conservatives writing and complaining. These were mostly Clinton backers writing in to complain that the Times did not prepare them for the day that they woke up to [Donald Trump as president]. And also a lot of complaints that people felt like they were not really sufficiently shown the world outside the Acela corridor. Which I completely understand. It felt like they are accurate on that.”