The New York Times’ new publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, celebrated his first day on the job by vowing to hold the paper he inherited to “the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness.” He also promised that the Times will resist “polarization and groupthink.”
Boy, does he have his work cut out for him.
After a tumultuous period in which the Times newsroom got at least two of the world’s major stories dead wrong – the election of Donald Trump and Britain’s vote to exit the EU – it is not surprising that the fellow taking over the Grey Lady might feel the need to shake things up, and recommit to its historical quest for impartiality and honesty.
His predecessor (and father) Arthur Sulzberger, after all, wrote what many took as an embarrassed mea culpa after his paper on Election Night gave Hillary Clinton an 85 percent chance of winning, explaining that “her chance of losing is about the same as the probability that an N.F.L. kicker misses a 37-yard field goal.” Sulzberger wondered, five days later, whether “Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality [had] lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters?”
It is not surprising that the fellow taking over the Grey Lady might feel the need to shake things up, and recommit to its historical quest for impartiality and honesty.
A.G.’s challenge is that he, like his colleagues, may not understand how deep into liberal intellectual channels the Times has sailed, how narrow its chosen route and how impossible it may be to now change course.
The Times is so cocooned in its leftish ecosphere it doesn’t even recognize its own bias. That revelation comes from Liz Spayd, a veteran journalist who was hired as Public Editor in 2016. She set off on a quest to discover “Why Readers See the Times as Liberal”, responding to letters received from subscribers appalled at the paper’s Leftward lurch.
Among others, she asked Times’ executive editor about the “perception of liberal bias that hangs over [the] newsroom.” Dean Baquet told Spayd “he doesn’t believe that the coverage on most days has a liberal cast…” He wasn’t alone. In the newsroom Spayd mostly “met with a roll of the eyes. All sides hate us, they said. We’re tough on everyone.” The public editor concluded that the paper might consider “building a better mix of values into the ranks of the newsroom’s urban progressives.”
That’s a terrific idea, and if Sulzberger is serious about providing even-handed news coverage, he might start by hiring at least one reporter or columnist who voted for Donald Trump. The paper prides itself on having two conservatives writing for the Opinion Page – David Brooks and Bret Stephens. Both are dedicated never-Trumpers, and opine about the president in near-perfect harmony with their fellow columnists.
The Times publishes a one-note paper mainly because it cannot conceive that other opinions might have value. Margaret Sullivan, who was Spayd’s predecessor as Public Editor, wrote as she left office that she would not miss what she called the company’s “exceptionalism”, which she defined as “The idea that whatever The Times does is, by definition, the right thing.” She described the paper as “too often self-satisfied” and listed several instances when the Times, acting out of that supreme confidence, got the story wrong. Among other flawed decisions, wrote Sullivan – the decision to assign a full-time reporter to Hillary Clinton more than three years before the election.
Unlike many of her colleagues, Sullivan admitted the Times’ lack of neutrality; asked if the Times had a liberal bias by Joanne Lipman on CNN, Sullivan agreed that it did.
As she made her inquiries, Liz Spayd was not made privy to the political alignment of the paper’s readership. That information, she was told, was proprietary. She notes, however, that three years ago Pew Research found that 65 percent of Times’ readers had political values that were left of center. It’s easy to imagine, given the alienation of right-leaning and even centrist subscribers that Spayd gleans from readers’ letters, that the audience has become even more liberal over that time.
As she pointed out, shutting out a very large swath of the country is unhealthy for business. Unhappily for Spayd, pursuing this theme also turned out to be unhealthy for her. She was fired a mere year into the job, after coming under heavy fire from those indignant that anyone should challenge the politics of the Grey Lady.
The bias of the New York Times matters, though perhaps not as much as it once did. As it has struggled for audience in the new media landscape, it has bartered accuracy and reputation for clicks, a practice Sullivan highlighted as she exited the company: “In the push for digital traffic, The Times is now publishing articles it never would have touched before in order to stay a part of a conversation that’s taking place on social media and read on smartphones.”
The Internet era brings other challenges as well, including the algorithm-driven partnerships with new media giants like Facebook. Sullivan cautioned that editors “concerned about journalism” should drive what the paper publishes, “not business-driven formulas that may only reinforce prejudices.”
Let us hope that A.G. pushes for greater balance at the New York Times. On January 2, when he took office and laid out his ambitions, the Times published an article that was actually positive about President Trump’s efforts to roll back regulations and lower business taxes – a first. The piece noted that “a wave of optimism has swept over America’s business leaders, and it is beginning to translate into the sort of investment in new plants, equipment and factory upgrades that bolsters economic growth, spurs job creation – and may finally raise wages significantly.”
The positive glow was begrudging, and tempered by numerous negative or doubtful comments, but it did not deny that the Trump agenda is boosting growth. Was it a coincidence that this rare accolade accompanied A.G.’s promise of fairness? Time will tell, but we applaud this baby step.