I was somewhat surprised to see my concerns echoed this morning in a piece by Arthur Brisbane, the Public Editor (i. e. ombudsperson) at the Times. To be sure, his critique is cautiously expressed, and “balanced” by words of praise. After all he is writing pro domo.
Here are the relevant excerpts:
“Two years ago, when I wrote my “why on earth” column, I suggested that the pace of change [at the paper] called for a re-emphasis on “transparency, accountability, humility.” Looking back now, I think The Times could do better with these.
“The Times is hardly transparent. A reader still has to work very hard to find any Times policies online (though some are tucked away there), and there is still no place where Times editors speak on the issues. As for humility, well, The Times is Lake Wobegon on steroids (everybody’s way above average). I don’t remember many autopsies in which, as we assembled over the body, anyone conceded that maybe this could have been done differently. , , ,
“I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds — a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.
“When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times. . . .
“Stepping back, I can see that as the digital transformation proceeds, as The Times disaggregates and as an empowered staff finds new ways to express itself, a kind of Times Nation has formed around the paper’s political-cultural worldview, an audience unbound by geography (as distinct from the old days of print) and one that self-selects in digital space.
“It’s a huge success story — it is hard to argue with the enormous size of Times Nation — but one that carries risk as well. A just-released Pew Research Center survey found that The Times’s “believability rating” had dropped drastically among Republicans compared with Democrats, and was an almost-perfect mirror opposite of Fox News’s rating. Can that be good?”
END OF BRISBANE EXCERPTS.
The Times as the mirror opposite of Fox News? No, that cannot be good. The existence of a vast claque known as Times Nation virtually guarantees the prevalence of confirmation bias, a loop in which the paper caters to the proclivities of its fans, who in turn shower uncritical support.
In my youth, aeons ago, daily newspapers were careful to maintain a fire wall between the editorial page and the news pages. The biases and concerns of the first sphere were not allowed to seep over into the second. Yet this seepage--what Brisbane calls “bleeding through the fabric”--has been going on for years at the New York Times, affecting both the stories that are chosen for inclusion and the spin that is given to the information provided therein. Sometimes these articles are labeled “New Analysis,” warning the reader that the article is not just the facts, but facts-cum-interpretation. All too often, however, these hybrid pieces come with no warning label. Collectively, they reflect the pervasiveness of the "culture of like minds."