The New York Times folks see red

This is the rare week when I was writing a post for GetReligion and then realized that it was turning into my next Scripps Howard News Service column. As you know, I hardly ever post my column here. But here it is, only with the URLS that show what I was trying to do for the blog.

So here goes, starting here:

When it comes to capturing the worldview of New Yorkers, it’s hard to top Saul Steinberg‘s famous cartoon entitled “A View of the World from Fifth Avenue.”

It appeared — where else? — on the cover of The New Yorker. The city is in the foreground and, beyond the Hudson River, there is a void dotted with mesas, mountains and hints that Chicago, Texas, Nebraska, Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean exist.

There are no steeples anywhere.

This would have been the perfect cover for a new study (PDF) by the New York Times hierarchy entitled “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust.” The in-house panel decreed that the newspaper must do a better job covering “unorthodox views,” “contrarian opinions” and the lives of those “more radical and more conservative” than journalists inside the Mecca of American journalism.

“We should,” it said, “increase our coverage of religion in America and focus on new ways to give it greater attention. . . . We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar).”

It might help, noted the report, if Times editors sought out some “talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faiths.”

This is precisely what the newspaper’s “public editor” was describing last year in his column with the infamous headline: “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” Daniel Okrent’s very first sentence was his answer: “Of course it is.”

Many people criticize the Times for many things, he said, but the “flammable stuff” almost always seems to be linked to faith, family and morality and the most ticked-off people are on the cultural right.

“If you’re examining the paper’s coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world,” wrote Okrent.

The editorial page is thick with “liberal theology” and many think the news is tainted, too, he said. The coverage of gay marriage “approaches cheerleading.”

In a recent “On the Media” interview with WNYC, Okrent gracefully tried to retreat a step or two, acknowledging that he gave the “paper’s enemies” ammunition they could yank out of context. The Times isn’t really liberal, he said, it’s merely liberal on “certain issues, social issues. . . . It is a product of its place and of its people, and I think it’s really important for the paper to recognize that and recognize how it is perceived.”

In other words, the New York Times is only liberal on issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, Hollywood, euthanasia, gay rights, public education, cloning and loads of other issues linked to faith and public life.

That’s all. But that’s enough.

Life does look different from the vantage point of Ninth Avenue, and also from Times Square. The self-study panel noted, for example, the urgent need for the newspaper to be careful when it pins “loaded terms” on believers. For example, there are those “fundamentalists” who would rather be known as “Christian conservatives.”

One such religious believer is John McCandlish Phillips, who is known these days as a preacher on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But long ago, he was the rare superstar Times reporter with a worn-out Bible next to his newsroom typewriter. Now he is tired of hearing top Times columnists — stuck in a “values voters” funk after the 2004 election — saying that America has become an oppressive “theocracy” caught up in a “jihad.”

The self-study is a remarkable step forward, especially with its blunt talk about religion and the need for accurate, balanced reporting, said Phillips.

“People at the Times are sensitive, as they should be, to this criticism because they know it is accurate. . . . This document seems to be a call back to the standards that made the Times the foremost engine of news gathering and presentation in the history of the world.”

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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.

  • http://livejournal.com/~argan_argar Andrew S.

    This isn’t directly apropos, but… could I make a small suggestion? Could you put the author’s name at the top of the post, as well as the bottom? It could be something like,

    The /New York Times/ folks see red
    (tmatt)

    This is the rare week when…

    Quite often (as with this post), I’ll start reading and see something in the first-person-singular, and I ask “Well, who is this talking, anyway?” I scroll down to the bottom to see who the author is, then scroll back to the top to resume reading. It’d be easier to just put the author’s name out there right at the beginning, and I expect it’d be easy to change the WordPress template to do this, yes?

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    I will reveal all sorts of ignorance with the following questions, but why do people object to New Yorkers acting like New Yorkers? Are we rubes in the sticks honestly that easily led that we don’t recognize regional snobbery for what it is and read through it for the story? Why demand that New Yorkers edit their world view to match the rest of the US? Do we make such demands on papers in, say, Dallas? Is the point to amend religious reporting to one size fits all or one perspective fits all? And if it is, why not just abandon free press altogether?

  • http://www.christianitytoday.com rob moll

    People object to New Yorkers acting like New Yorkers because when they do, it affects the rest of us. When the NYT can’t see beyond the city, the disproportionate amount of people outside the city who read The Times wear The Times’ blindfolds.

  • http://weblog.theviewfromthecore.com/ ELC

    “Are we rubes in the sticks honestly that easily led that we don’t recognize regional snobbery for what it is and read through it for the story?” No, it’s the socialites in the urban areas who can’t do that. :-)

  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/ctmag/ rob moll

    An example of regional snobbery deserving of being read through: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/12/nyregion/12baby.html
    “But the Ludwigs and the Rosenbaums are among a growing number of Manhattan parents-to-be who do not learn the sex of their baby early, but still want the nursery decorated when baby arrives. So they choose two sets of furniture, clothing and bedding, then ask the store owners to call their obstetrician to find out whether to submit the order in pink or blue.”

  • francis

    The NYT should be pro-choice!
    It should choose between acting like New Yorkers (as nowadays and as complained about above) or calling itself the “paper of record” (as it once was).
    It’s their choice but they should choose.

  • do

    “the New York Times is only liberal on issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, Hollywood, euthanasia, gay rights, public education, cloning and loads of other issues linked to faith and public life.”

    er, how about immigration, race, and affirmative action? Somehow those got lost from the list…