Thursday, March 7, 2024

How the New York Times defines bias (sorry I took so long to get around to this one)

Former NYT editorial page editor James Bennet's book length op-ed is stunningly bad by every standard we would conventionally use to judging editorial. I sent a link to a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist I greatly respect (I quote him often enough you may be able to guess who). He summed it up as "complete horseshit."

Beyond its obscene length (around twenty-five pages), it is self-serving, structureless, tone deaf, misrepresentative, oblivious to what those on the other side were actually saying, petty, and so painfully smug you want to see someone punch him in the face. In this bloated account, all of the problems of the New York Times and the country as a whole come down to weak and short-sighted people not listening to brave figures like James Bennet.

For those, however, who have been studying the New York times, trying to understand the increasing dysfunction of the country's most influential newspaper, much of this is unintentionally useful. Not useful enough to read the whole goddamn thing, but it does provide some highly telling passages, such as...

But Sulzberger seems to underestimate the struggle he is in, that all journalism and indeed America itself is in. In describing the essential qualities of independent journalism in his essay, he unspooled a list of admirable traits – empathy, humility, curiosity and so forth. These qualities have for generations been helpful in contending with the Times’s familiar problem, which is liberal bias. I have no doubt Sulzberger believes in them. Years ago he demonstrated them himself as a reporter, covering the American Midwest as a real place full of three-dimensional people, and it would be nice if they were enough to deal with the challenge of this era, too. But, on their own, these qualities have no chance against the Times’s new, more dangerous problem, which is in crucial respects the opposite of the old one.

The Times’s problem has metastasised from liberal bias to illiberal bias, from an inclination to favour one side of the national debate to an impulse to shut debate down altogether. All the empathy and humility in the world will not mean much against the pressures of intolerance and tribalism without an invaluable quality that Sulzberger did not emphasise: courage.

You'll notice that liberal bias is not "one of the Times's familiar problems." The possibility of other prejudices and blind spots isn't acknowledged, other than becoming illiberal which in this tome basically boils down to taking liberal bias to the next level. Bennett has successfully tuned out decades of complaints about class bigotry, personal grudges, pro-establishment bias, provincialism, cowardice in the face of conservative criticism, and self-righteous ass covering.  The idea that the paper might have overcompensated in 2016 when it buried Trump scandals (compare the initial coverage of Pam Bondi before comparisons to the excellent reporting of the Washington Post became a source of embarrassment) and teamed with Steve Bannon to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton simply isn't there.

Bennet and Baquet have left the NYT, but the paper still operates very much under the same assumptions and worldview. Nobody learned anything over the past eight years/


  1. Mark:

    Setting aside the content here, I don't get why you say that 25 pages is an "obscene length." Lots of magazine articles are that long. It might be that this article doesn't have 25 pages worth of content, in the same way that typical airport-style nonfiction books don't have 200 pages of content, but I don't see the length being obscene.


    1. I wrote this from some rougher-than-I-realized notes around one in the morning on a workday. Obscenely was a poor choice of words. I should have gone with embarrassingly or self-indulgently. The lesson here is always give your rants a second read.