Ghost appears (again) in the New York Times bias debate

Daniel_okrentOK, my column is out for this week and I am getting tired of reading Anglican stories. Speaking of which, have any of you out in GetReligion reader-land seen any Anglican stories that you want to nominate for special awards? Best? Worst? I realize that these designations may flip-flop, depending on one’s creedal affiliation. But give it a try.

Meanwhile, I have been mulling over the latest installment of Daniel Okrent’s attempt to hash out the political biases of the New York Times. He has been at this for some time now and he is stirring up some interesting debate. Next week: Thoughts from his readers.

But in this week’s episode, Okrent (pictured) decided to let Columbia University j-prof Todd Gitlin make a case that the newspaper of record has actually leaned to the political right, allowing President Bush to get away with murder in terms of playing loose with the facts. It is no surprise that Gitlin stresses issues of economics and the war in Iraq. He seems to be asking the Times to stop quoting people on both sides of these issues and to simply haul off and say: “The president is a liar.”

Then Okrent lets the right speak, in the person of Bob Kohn, a California lawyer who is the author of “Journalistic Fraud: How The New York Times Distorts the News and Why It Can No Longer Be Trusted.” Did they really get that title on the spine of a book? Kohn argues that the Times has consistently leaned to the cultural left and, thus, has attempted to nail President Bush on issues that are important with his base voters on the cultural/moral right.

Before you know it, Kohn has gone and done a very nasty thing. He quotes Okrent to make his point, flashing back to a column earlier this summer. In effect, Kohn spots the “ghost” in this debate.

Clearly, we live in an age in which issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, stem-cell research, public education materials on life origins and faith-based initiatives are central to our political debates. On these issues, the Times is a choirleader for the lifestyle left. This, in turn, affects its political coverage.

Several weeks ago, Daniel Okrent, this paper’s public editor, courageously stated the obvious: of course The New York Times is a liberal newspaper (“Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” July 25). And he wasn’t just talking about an editorial page he finds “thoroughly saturated in liberal theology” or the Sunday carvings of Frank Rich, who “slices up” President Bush and friends in the Arts & Leisure section.

More incisively, the public editor demonstrated how The Times — in its purportedly objective news pages — leans left on the social issues, showing by example how The Times presents same-sex marriages in a tone that approaches “cheerleading.” Now, turning to politics, the public editor would have us believe there is no systematic bias against either presidential candidate.

Now, I am convinced that both of these gentlemen may be right.

The Times may lean right on some issues of government, economics and foreign policy. It is certainly possible to fire away at the newspaper from the political left on those issues, just as Howard Dean could fire away at John Kerry during the primaries.

Meanwhile, the Times certainly leans left on cultural and “theological” issues. I have yet to hear anyone dispute that. Correct?

So what unites these two points of view? Is the Times a “liberal” newspaper or, in its heart of hearts, is it a newspaper that leans toward radical individualism and, perhaps, a more cultural form of libertarianism? It is culturally liberal, much more than it is politically liberal. Correct?

Meanwhile, Kohn asks his liberal readers to try to imagine the world of the New York Times turned upside down. Can they dare to imagine how they would feel if their beloved newspaper was just as partisan, only from the right:

… (Put) put yourself in my slippers: imagine how your Sunday morning coffee encounters with The Times would sour if the front page of the Arts & Leisure section were turned over to, say, Ann Coulter. Is that the kind of paper you want? That’s the paper you have.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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