October 12, 2004,
Three months ago New York Times “public editor” Dan Okrent addressed the question, “Is The Times a liberal newspaper?” His answer: “Of course it is.” Remarkably, on Sunday he took on the question, “Is The Times systematically biased toward either candidate?” His answer: “No.”
This answer begs one more question: “Has the Times’s ‘public editor’ lost his mind?”
Do I even need to bother to cite examples of favorably slanted stories about John Kerry and the relentless undermining of George W. Bush in the pages of the Times? There are hundreds of examples. I’m sure every reader has his own favorite some especially egregious story that sticks in his craw. But Okrent has an answer for that: It’s you who have lost your mind. The Times isn’t biased: You are.
Okrent went on at length in his column to cite examples of “campaign coverage” stories, favorable and unfavorable to both candidates, that he has studied. He tried to prove that while there are individual instances of favoritism, it all balances out in the end that there is no net favoritism. But diverse instances of favoritism are not the point. What matters is the relative frequency of one type of favoritism over another. Okrent doesn’t even begin to quantify this.
Nor does he define what he means by “campaign coverage.” In a presidential election year, any mention of the administration or its policies, or the opponent and his policies, in or out of the news pages and regardless of whether the coverage is explicitly about the “campaign” is an implicit or explicit comment about the election.
For example, when the Sunday Times Magazine covers healthcare, it does so with an article by Hillary Clinton. When it covers the phenomenon of political blogging, all the featured bloggers are liberals, and most of them Bush-loathers. Sunday’s style section even did a “What I’m Wearing Now” feature on John Edwards’s daughter (seemingly without irony, she is pictured wearing flip-flops). On this, Okrent cannot escape what he said three months ago: The Times is a liberal newspaper.
How about war and economic coverage? Even when the names of the candidates are not mentioned, the Times’s negatively-spun stories are inevitably a slap at Bush and a boost to Kerry.
And Okrent gives nary a mention of the Times’s editorial positions. Sure, William Safire and David Brooks labor mightily on the op-ed pages as token conservatives. But all the other op-ed columnists are liberal, some like Paul Krugman rabidly so. And the daily house editorials, almost without exception, promote Kerry and Democratic/liberal causes. Even the Times’s arts and entertainment opinion coverage is liberally biased: Not a Sunday goes by when Frank Rich’s column doesn’t find some way to use themes from movies, television, or the stage to bash Bush.
Yet Okrent dismisses all this, and blames the public the same public for whom he is “public editor” for feeling any differently about the Times’s bias. He quotes reader e-mails complaining about bias in both partisan directions and dismisses them as the products of “passion,” which is “a distorting lens that makes it hard to perceive the shape of things.”
But Okrent’s lens is distorted in its own way, too. He wrote, “I will stipulate here that I’ll be voting for John Kerry next month,” as though by declaring such he can rule out his own “passion.” Yet the conclusion Okrent has come to about the Times’s campaign coverage is precisely the one you’d expect from a Kerry voter: The Times’s massively pro-Kerry and anti-Bush stance is simply “neutral,” because it perfectly maps to one’s own prejudices.
And then there’s the simple fact that Okrent works for the Times. It’s evident in a thousand ways from his columns and his public statements that he loves the Times and thinks it’s way cool to be its first “public editor.” If readers are disqualified from having an opinion about the Times because of their political passions, then why is Okrent any less disqualified because of his passion for the Times? For Okrent, it’s all about rocking the boat just enough to stay credible, but not so much as to not be reasonably liked around the water coolers of W. 43rd Street.
Sunday’s column picked a variety of nits, but it essentially gave the Times a pass. While Okrent quoted many examples of reader complaints from partisans on both sides, he didn’t explore the distorting implications of something he has told me directly that the overwhelming number of complaints come from the Times’s overwhelmingly liberal readership. That means that while a small number of conservatives complain that the Times is too liberal, a large number of liberals complain not that it’s too liberal, but that it’s not liberal enough. This, too, contributes to Okrent’s perception that the Times’s systematic liberal bias is “neutral” that the paper is somehow virtuous in being less liberal than the majority of its vocal readers wish.
Apparently it’s not just the volume of reader complaints Okrent recieves, but the relative intensity of the letters and e-mails as well. In Sunday’s column, Okrent reprinted a line from a piece of liberal hate-mail received by one Times political reporter, and noted “how debased the level of discourse has become”:
As nasty as critics on the right can get (plenty nasty), the left seems to be winning the vileness derby this year. Maybe the bloggers who encourage their readers to send this sort of thing to The Times might want to ask them instead to say it in public. I don’t think they’d dare.
Bravo to Okrent for acknowledging the hatefulness of liberal fanatics egged on by the very blogs that the Times Magazine celebrated two weeks ago. Yet Okrent is seemingly blind to the power of liberal hatefulness to shift the definition of “neutral” leftward (by redefining the left-most boundary of discourse). Sure compared to ultraleftist blogs and the hate-mail they spawn, the Times is the model of nonpartisanship. Or is it?
In his piece, Okrent failed to acknowledge that the Times itself has played a role in the debasement of the level of discourse, and the shift of its center toward the left. How can Okrent overlook the way Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, and Frank Rich have used the pages of the Times to attack an incumbent president with a ferocity and relentlessness never before witnessed in mainstream journalism? And how can Okrent fail to see that these columnists have validated the rumors and lies that emanate from the very blogs he disdains by reprinting their talking points in the Times?
After reaching the bland conclusion that the Times’s campaign coverage is not systematically biased a finding controversial only in the utter falseness of its claim that there is no controversy Okrent stated, “This piece turned out to be more of a rant than I intended.” Sadly, Okrent has turned out to be more of a fig-leaf for the Times than we had hoped.