Liberal journalism and the New York Times

On Sunday, the New York Times’s dry-as-dust "Week in Review" section

fronted a big

article by David Rosenbaum headlined "Bush May Have Exaggerated, but

Did He Lie?". The story looked at false statements by George W Bush, such

as "my jobs and growth plan would reduce tax rates for everyone who pays

income tax," or "intelligence gathered by this and other governments

leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of

the most lethal weapons ever devised."

Rosenbaum concluded, however, that " In fact, a review of the president’s

public statements found little that could lead to a conclusion that the president

actually lied on either subject." It’s hard to see how Rosenbaum managed

to draw this conclusion, unless you take the stance that (a) you have to know

you’re lying for an untruth to be a lie; and (b) Bush is ignorant, and therefore

can’t be expected to know when he’s lying.

Tim Noah, in Slate, convincingly

argues that (a) Rosenbaum didn’t choose the most damaging statements from

Bush; and that (b) Bush should be held accountable for his statements anyway:

It’s often said that Bush has the virtue of self-awareness, that he knows

what he doesn’t know. That’s probably true. But if it is true, then Bush really

oughtn’t to go around making sweeping statements that he hasn’t made any effort

to verify. When these statements turn out to be untrue, Bush’s feigned certainty

alone justifies calling these statements lies. They may not be the sort of

lies a clever person (say, Bill Clinton) would tell. But there’s no reason

Bush can’t be thought of as both stupid and a liar.

There’s a meta-story here, though, as well, which Noah touches upon when he

says that "David Rosenbaum examined this question with a surfeit of post-Howell-Raines

fair-mindedness." Raines, the New York Times editor who resigned in the

wake of the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg scandals, made enemies both in and out

of the newsroom by going on liberal crusades, such as running dozens of articles

on the fight to admit women into the golf club which hosts the US Masters. Raines

took the top job after running the New York Times’s op-ed page, a position which

naturally increased the attention paid to his political views.

Since Raines’s departure, it would seem, the Times has bent over backwards

to be seen to be impartial, objective, and in general the opposite of a crusading

newspaper. So when David Cay Johnston appeared on the front page of the paper

this morning with a story headlined "Very Richest’s Share of Income Grew

Even Bigger, Data Show", he made sure to include this bizarre sentence:

"Those numbers can be read to show that the wealthiest, as a group, carried

a disproportionate share of the overall tax burden — 1.6 percent of all

taxes, versus just 1.1 percent of all income — evidence that all sides

in the tax debate will be able to find ammunition in the data."

Johnston was looking at the amount of tax paid by the top 400 taxpayers in

2000, before any of the Bush tax cuts were enacted, and still he wrote something

that he surely does not believe, just to keep up the appearance of balanced

reportage. Even the most diehard conservative would probably find it hard to

assert that the very richest Americans were being disproportionately taxed if

they paid 1.6% of all taxes on 1.1% of all income. After all, these people made

an average of $174 million each in 2000, yet their overall income tax rate was

a very reasonable – if not astonishingly low – 22.3%. That’s much

less than many middle-class taxpayers have to shell out every year, and that

was under Clinton! Under Bush, the average tax bill for the top 400 earners

would be more than 20% lower still.

But obviously, the New York Times is no longer the place to look for campaigning

journalism, if it ever was. Its grand old franchise has been damaged, and it’ll

probably be a while before it once again allows itself to speak out on the news

pages when it sees injustice. The idea that journalism should comfort the afflicted

and afflict the comfortable has no place on 43rd Street right now.

Seth Mnookin of Newsweek explained in an

article yesterday that the Times cannot afford to go down that road:

When Raines pushed the paper to take a more activist stance on stories like

the exclusionary membership practices of the Augusta National golf club and

the march to war in Iraq, the outcry wasn’t just because a respected

newspaper was seen as tilting its news coverage. Reporters felt their paper

was being devalued. Readers felt their paper was deserting its objectivity.

Not all newspaper readers are media sophisticates, of course, so maybe it’s

understandable that some of them think that (a) there is such a thing as "objectivity"

in journalism; and that (b) the New York Times was doing the wrong thing by

deserting it. If such sentiments became widespread, then journalists could feel

that their paper was being devalued in the eyes of its readers.

But Mnookin goes further:

There are places in which it’s appropriate for a newspaper (even the

Times) to take an activist stand that has a real impact in the world. One

of those places is the Op-Ed page, where opinion columnists are given wide

latitude and leeway to obsess about and harp on whatever interests them that

day, week, month or year. Over the past year, one of the Times’ least-well

known Op-Ed writers has been on a crusade, and this month it resulted in an

extraordinary correction to a horrible miscarriage of justice.

Mnookin is referring here to Bob Herbert, who played a major role in reversing

a racially-motivated set of jailings in Tulia, Texas. What Herbert did was wonderful,

and admirable – but why should such activity be confined to the op-ed

page? Tulia was Herbert’s story: he broke it in the national press, and hounded

it incessantly until the falsely-jailed residents of that town were freed. But

other reporters come across such stories too: should the fact that they write

for the news pages rather than the op-ed section mean that their stories never

get the same treatment? Why should only columnists be able to crusade? After

all, as Mnookin notes:

Bob Herbert has been a Times columnist for a decade. He’s the only

African-American writer on the paper’s Op-Ed page, and he’s charged

with writing about politics, urban affairs and social trends. Unlike lightening

rods such as William Safire, Maureen Dowd or Paul Krugman, Herbert doesn’t

often engender virulent chat-room debates. And unlike Nicholas Kristof and

Thomas Friedman, Herbert isn’t flying to war zones and focusing on foreign


In other words, if you want an op-ed columnist to pick up your cause, you don’t

have many people to choose from: Thomas Friedman certainly isn’t going to do

it. Or, to put it another way, Bob Herbert is the one-man liberal crusader on

the New York Times. If he ain’t on it, it ain’t a crusade.

Actually, there are other crusading columnists on the Times: I approvingly

blogged one such piece by Michael Winerip, who has the education beat, only

a few weeks ago. But the broader point remains: columnists will badger their

own pet stories, but they can’t be expected to pick up someone else’s scoop

from the news pages. If the newsroom breaks something worth "flooding the

zone" on, to use Raines’s discredited concept, then the newsroom should

at the very least be allowed to keep the pressure on. (That’s something Raines

was bad at, actually: he spiked some investigative stories on the subject of

then-New Jersey senator Robert Torricelli, because he felt that the Times had

gone far enough already. It was other news organisations who ultimately claimed

Torricelli’s scalp.)

The departure of Raines is not necessarily a bad thing. But it would certainly

bode ill for American journalism if the new New York Times were to become an

anodyne repository of blandly "objective" reporting. The Republican

party has made a whole strategy out of spouting complete garbage with such volume

and conviction that the news media feel compelled to report

it as though it makes sense. Let us hope that the New York Times doesn’t

lose its respect for the facts along with its appetite for controversy.

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5 Responses to Liberal journalism and the New York Times

  1. Stefan says:

    Nice piece. Andrew Sullivan says of the NYT, “It’s better,” and then finds another long lists of criticisms, so the pressure has not been let up.

    I wonder why there is no organized liberal campaign to get the conserative media to become “objective”; because Fox News is a hopeless cause? Liberal bloggers in general do not bother poring over every hackneyed jingoist phrase, not nearly as much as conservative bloggers harass crusading journalism. Why is that?

  2. Felix says:

    The reason the liberals aren’t campaigning much against non-objective right-wing journalism is because they realise that “objective journalism” doesn’t exist. The conventional wisdom on the left isn’t “gee, isn’t Fox News a dereliction of journalistic morals” so much as it is “gee, why can’t we have a cable channel like it?”. If I had a nickel for every time somebody held up the Guardian as a good example of a respectable newspaper with unapologetic left-wing views…

  3. Stefan says:

    isn’t that the European model of journalism, while the US model has been the chinese wall between news and op-ed?

    I think there reason liberals don’t take the fairness war to Fox News is that they still labor under the impression that “the masses” will know good objective reporting when they see it, whereas the conservatives think in more evangelical terms, where it’s all about getting as many people as possible to agree with you, and if that means beating the liberal media into a cowering pulp, so be it. In strictly memetic terms, the conservatives (and the Europeans) have the most succesful strategy.

  4. Jimmy Doyle says:

    Felix: You wrote

    “It’s hard to see how Rosenbaum managed to draw this conclusion [that Bush didn’t lie], unless you take the stance that (a) you have to know you’re lying for an untruth to be a lie; and (b) Bush is ignorant, and therefore can’t be expected to know when he’s lying.”

    But surely (a) is just uncontroversial. If you don’t know that what you’re saying isn’t true, then you’re not lying. (b) is misstated; given (a), it makes no sense to speak of Bush (or anyone else) “not knowing when they’re lying.” None of this is to say that you’re not open to criticism for not making sufficiently sure that what you’re saying isn’t true; it’s just that the relevant accusation isn’t one of lying.

  5. Randal Davis says:

    This Salmon guy is an idiot. His views are exactly 180 degrees wrong. No, not simply different than mine, but wrong. He is part of the problem.

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