'Frustrated' By Separation of News and Opinion, NYT Entwines Them in New 'Sunday Review'

June 20th, 2011 4:36 PM

I've written a number of times that objectivity in political reporting is unattainable. I think that the American people realize that fact as well. The growing mistrust of the news media stems from the recognition that only the very rare reporter is a truly neutral arbiter. Those who have opinions will invariably give their reporting a point of view.

But despite this seemingly self-evident fact, most major news outlets still claim to be truly objective observers. The New York Times, being as it is an institution of old school journalism, is usually right out front making these claims. But in a letter published in the paper Sunday, its editors made explicit what has been an ongoing trend at the Times for a while: the paper is not really a fan of the supposedly inviolable line between news and opinion content.

The letter, from the Times's editors, introduced the paper's new Sunday Review section (a revamp of its Week in Review). It read, in part:

Why, you ask, change something that is part of our history? We, too, are attached to the Week in Review. But we were frustrated by the simple geographic division between the news analysis pieces in the front and the opinion pieces in the back. We thought readers would find it more useful to have the stories, photographs and charts offered in an integrated way.

The new section will feature the best of what both the Times newsroom and the opinion pages have to offer, along with provocative and, we hope, entertaining voices from outside the paper. At times, these analysis articles and opinion articles may be presented with each other in themed packages, but they will always be clearly labeled so you can distinguish them.

"In other words," wrote Joshua Benton at Neiman Journalism Lab, "the Times feels that the ancient division between opinion and news…doesn't always serve its readers best."

In fact, that "ancient division" is tantamount to a lie. One can separate news and opinion all one wants. The opinions of those reporting the news can't be removed from that reporting. So yes, the Times's readers are better served by a model that is honest with them - that is up front about the inevitability of reporters' biases coloring even the paper's news content.

The letter insisted that opinion would be clearly presented as such. But clear labeling notwithstanding, the placement of opinion content on pages separate from a paper's news content is meant to underscore the total division between those two operations. Removing that "georgraphical division," as the Times put it, is at the very least a symbolic rejection of a basic tenet of that division. It also represents the recognition that opinion and news sometimes do belong in the same place - that effective reporting and political opinion are not incompatible.

The blurring of Benton's "ancient division" (the phrase is a good one) had pervaded discussion of the new Sunday Review section even before its launch. Michael Calderone had this to say when the Times made its initial announcement - which revealed that editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal will play a larger role in the new Sunday Review:

The "Week in Review" has traditionally included work from both the news and editorial section of the paper. Such collaboration has continued over the past few months, with staffers from each side hashing out ideas at meetings. But with an uptick of opinion in the section, it's clear the editorial side will exert more control. Indeed, op-ed editor Trish Hall is heading up the project and reports to Rosenthal.

Times watchers see the new section as an opportunity for Rosenthal to assume a bigger role within the paper. Rosenthal, a favorite of Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., is on the shortlist -- along with managing editor Jill Abramson and Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet -– to succeed executive editor Bill Keller when he hits mandatory retirement age in about three years.

Sunday Review is only the latest development in what has been a trend for more than a decade towards a more opinion-centric reporting model at the Times. When publisher Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr. promoted Howell Raines form editorial page editor to executive editor in 2001, Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson had this to say:

[Raines's editorial page] was pro-choice, pro-gun control and pro-campaign finance "reform." Last year, it endorsed Al Gore. In general, it has been critical of President Bush, especially his tax cut.

Does anyone believe that, in his new job, Raines will instantly purge himself of these and other views? And because they are so public, Raines's positions compromise the Times' ability to act and appear fair-minded. Many critics already believe that the news columns of the Times are animated -- and distorted -- by the same values as its editorials. Making the chief of the editorial page the chief of the news columns will not quiet those suspicions.

This is all to say that this has been a trend at the Times for quite a while. And not just at the Times, either; a model of journalism that maintains a strong and clear perspective or political view seems to be emerging as one of the few viable models in the digital age. Benton touched on that fact. The Times's vision for Sunday Review, he wrote,

mirrors, in a way, how the Internet has changed news navigation. When Google News groups stories into clusters, opinion and straight news can sit side by side. When you click a link on Twitter or Facebook, there are often no immediate cues for which journalistic bucket the story you’re about to read fits into. And, in general, online news readers don’t flow straight from section to demarcated section, the way a print reader might when running through the paper, where it’s visually clear where the news is supposed to stop and the opinions are supposed to begin.

While that is an unresolved question, one fact is clear: to the extent that political bias makes its way into reporting among Old Media's largest and most established news outlets, the resulting skew of the news will be to the left, simply due to the fact that journalists generally have liberal views.

The Times is notorious for the liberalism that pervades its newsroom. And yet, despite these overt steps to obscure the line between news and opinion content, it cannot bring itself to admit that it is not simply an impartial observer.