Who Says The New York Times Is Biased?

Public editor Liz Spayd's inaugural column misses the mark by not explaining how the media really works — and offers little proof that the paper's critics can support their perceptions with evidence.

Who Says The New York Times Is Biased?

The New York Times does not need is to apologize for being the best newspaper in the world, writes Todd Gitlin. (Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images)

Liz Spayd’s launch column as The New York Times’ newest public editor is depressingly muddled. Her going-in premise is that the Times is alienating conservative “and even many moderate” readers, and her second is that this alienation is bad news for the Times as a business.

Unfortunately, Spayd “set aside for now the core of their criticism” — namely, “that the coverage is in fact biased.” If the perception of liberal bias were wildly wrong, it would seem necessary to establish it first. But Spayd promises to look into the question later, as “I settle in the job. My focus here is only on the perceptions.”

Except that, later on, she goes on to suggest that Times reporters and editors, trapped in a political and cultural bubble and having decided to “write off conservatives and make a hard play for the left and perhaps center left,” will miss big stories because they’ll feel “no pressing need to see the world through others’ eyes.” Such bias, she writes, might have caused them to miss “the groundswell of isolation that propelled a candidate like Donald Trump to his party’s nomination.”

I’m not sure what she means by a “groundswell of isolation,” but if she means the mélange of nativism, racial and sex resentment that fueled — and continues to fuel — the Trump campaign, surely many observers did miss it. Although the fact that Republicans other than Trump failed to put up a convincing alternative and stepped on each other’s appeals also had a good deal to do with Trump’s ascendancy, if that is the right word, to the Republican nomination.

Spayd quotes a Times reader named Gary Taustine: “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.” But what is Taustine’s evidence that The Times is “alienating independent and open-minded readers?” And what is Spayd’s view of that evidence? Is it plausible evidence? If alienation is taking place, is it because the Times is doing something wrong — “your relentless bias against Trump,” as another reader puts it — or is it because Donald Trump is characteristically and characterologically so inaccurate, so mendacious, so deceptive, that failure to count the ways would constitute journalistic malpractice?

It’s always worth exploring what’s covered and not covered. But it has to be carefully done. If the Times missed the groundswell for Trump — and I’m not convinced it did — it wasn’t because reporters or editors had personal left-wing preferences, it’s because they weren’t good enough reporters. Even good political scientists missed it. Perhaps they, OR WE, do indeed live in an enclosed Times Square bubble, a bubble of quasi-cosmopolitan snobbery, which needs to be punctured.

It might well be that a self-perpetuating bias of class and culture limits journalists’ vision — their recognition of what constitutes a story and the sources they approach for evidence and expertise. More than 30 years ago, in Deciding What’s News sociologist Herbert J. Gans made a convincing case that this sort of bias, not a conscious or willful political slant, operates in news organizations.

But Spayd prefers a Fox News-like view that mainstream media are liberal and unfair by policy. This ratifies the prejudices of some readers. If they think that the Times has a liberal bias because they see Hillary Clinton ads all over the website, or because they once saw a front-page editorial (for gun control), Spayd might straightforwardly alert those readers to how capitalism works; namely, that wealthy organizations — corporations and political campaigns — buy ad space in order to rivet readers’ eyeballs. This is how the Times gathers revenue. If some readers are so ill-informed as not to understand this, she might help explain it to them.

Of course, if the perceptions of some readers are skewed, evidence-free, ill-informed and otherwise ungrounded, then the business problem may remain, but then what we have is not a problem of the Times’ poor approach to truth-telling but of the paper’s poor business or public relations strategy.

Some readers who submitted comments to Spayd’s column offered their own versions of things to be alienated about. For example, Mark Mallarde begins with a broadside: “As a non-liberal, I can no longer read the NYTimes. It’s like reading Pravda except the deceptive omissions and phrases are the choices of politically minded reporters and editors rather than the government.”

It’s a nice distinction — between government control and personal bad faith. But never mind. Mallarde now gets down to brass tacks: “Things like the real unemployment rate, the problems from immigration, etc., do not exist in the NYTimes’ imaginary world.”

By “the real unemployment rate,” I assume Mallarde refers to Trump’s repeated claim that the US government either cooks or conceals the data. (Trump, being Trump, doesn’t have to clarify what he means.) Barry Ritholtz at Bloomberg News does a clear-headed job reviewing Trump’s claims, to wit, that “the jobless rate is close to 20 percent and not the roughly 5 percent reported by the Labor Department,” and that “anyone who buys the 5 percent figure is a ‘dummy.’” As for the charge that the Labor Department is faking the data, Ritholtz adds: “The funny thing is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics actually does exactly what Trump wants it to do: It reports the real unemployment rate, including all the people he thinks are not being counted… the data is already there and is widely reported. [Trump] could, as someone once said, look it up.”

As for “the problems from immigration,” Mallarde does not say what he means, but if he means disproportionate crime committed by immigrants (as Trump claims), he’s wrong, and if he means that immigration depresses wages, that may sometimes be true and surely deserves open discussion. Too bad he’s more concerned with getting off a talking point than clarifying the world.

Spayd worries that “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.” The question of journalism’s “appeal” is not so easily answered, nor should appeal be the whole mission of the profession. I know of no evidence that the Times is “erasing” American conservatives from its wish list of readers. This sounds like the kind of unsupported lamentation that heats up right- and left-wing attacks on universities.

If the Times is to continue to be an indispensable newspaper, it needs, in Walter Lippmann’s words, “to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other and make a picture of reality on which men can act.” Today we call this “connecting the dots.” What the Times does not need is to apologize for being the best newspaper in the world.

Previous Times public editors Daniel Okrent and Margaret Sullivan wrestled with evidence and gave reasons for their conclusions. Spayd has those shoes to fill. She should get busy.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.