There he goes, there (Bill Keller) goes again …

In light of the latest newsroom drama at The New York Times, let’s pause and reflect once again on why it matters so much who leads America’s most influential news institution.

I know that it only seems like yesterday that editor Jill Abramson was the new boss and we were trying to gauge how that would change the whole theology of journalism at the Times, so soon after the fascinatingly candid (you knew this was coming) remarks on religion, culture and the press by former editor Bill Keller. More on that in a minute.

Now Abramson is out and her top deputy has taken the top chair. Dean Baquet — a Pulitzer Prize winner and former editor of The Los Angeles Times — now serves as another historic figure in the newspaper’s history, as it’s first African-American executive editor. In a press release (questions were apparently not welcomed in this newsroom session), he remarked:

“It is an honor to be asked to lead the only newsroom in the country that is actually better than it was a generation ago, one that approaches the world with wonder and ambition every day,” he said in a news release.

The Times is certainly better at some things than it used to be, especially in multi-platform journalism. However, many will still debate whether it remains a traditional newspaper or has evolved, on many subjects, into a neo-European advocacy publication.

Some of the best quotes on this matter have, ironically, been printed in the Times — under the bylines of various public editors. I still think Arthur S. Brisbane’s 2012 farewell included some of the best material, from a GetReligion point of view:

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.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

Does some of that sound familiar?

Of course it does. In part, these themes were aired out for all to see in the farewell column (a pattern, perhaps) of Daniel Okrent, which ran under this famous headline: “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?”

After that question, his lede was blunt: “Of course it is.”

And it was that column’s headline that led to a series of questions in that dialogue at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin that led to these oft-quoted Keller remarks (at least here at GetReligion):

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. … “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.” …

Keller continued: “We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

So what are our era’s primary social, moral and religious issues, the ones on which our most powerful newspaper does not need to do balanced reporting that accurately reports the views of people on both sides? As I keep noting, that leads straight to the intersection of religion and public life, focusing on issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters.

So as the Times changes editors once again, why bring this up? Again.

Well, because the other day — well before this shakeup — Keller ventured back into this minefield. He is certainly not backing down on this doctrine, as shown in this Politico exchange with Susan B. Glasser and former Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli. This starts with the whole topic of “branding,” having an edge and social media:

Glasser: Do you think there’s a danger of this becoming sort of a siren song for a new generation of young journalists who think, I’m just going to get famous on Twitter and cable TV and then I’m going to be my own—

Brauchli: It’s already happening. The number of journalists — of people who went into Syria who are basically reporting for their Facebook page, with a potential freelance deal on the side — it is, again, in some ways it’s a throwback to what used to happen in journalism before there were big institutions, before the Great Anomaly. But not entirely: I think the Times’s niche is not — it doesn’t seem like a niche, but it is a niche — the Times’s approach is we are the paper that is deep, authoritative and covers the issues that matter most if you care about your world and want to make decisions. Other people will seek to be in that niche, too. I think the Wall Street Journal can easily make the claim that it serves that niche, too. But it has another sort of ancillary angle, which is that it’s heavily, it’s got a very strong business and economic—

Glasser: And also potentially conservative, in a way that the New York Times could become more of a brand for the liberal establishment. Some people would say it’s already there.

Keller: There aren’t very many subjects that make my heart sink quite as quickly as that one. I remember once upon a time they did some research to ascertain what people thought about the bias or lack of bias in the New York Times. And as I recall, the question was, “Is the Times a liberal newspaper?” And a majority said yes, and the next question was, “Is the Times fair?” And an even larger majority said yes. So read into that what you will.

Brauchli: That’s what you hope for in this era.

Keller: I think the Times tries very, very hard not to let itself not be typecast as a liberal paper. And God knows the efforts that have gone into constructing a wall between the opinion section and the rest of the paper are formidable and admirable. But the Times — back when Dan Okrent was our first public editor, he wrote a column with the headline, “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” The first sentence of the column was, “Of course it is.” Nobody bothered to read on to his explanation of what he meant by that. He did not mean that the Times panders to Democrats and gives short shrift to the Republicans; what he meant was that the Times is a big, urban, East Coast newspaper, run by liberal arts majors who respect science, who probably give short shrift to religion, who are liberal in the small-l, liberal arts sense of the word, not in the large-L Dennis Kucinich sense of the word.

Brauchli: If you’re looking at a newspaper in America, if you come at it with an ideological point of view, it’s something of a Rorschach test. You kind of see in it what you want to see. And I make the case that newsrooms of the big newspapers including the Journal and the Times and the Post — all have something of a bias: being big, Northeastern establishment organizations run by people with liberal arts backgrounds. These qualities pervade how they think. And reporters have not seen as much of the world from the perspective of conservatives in America today.

What is it with the “liberal arts major” stuff?

People only study the liberal arts in the Northeast? America isn’t full of Great Books programs with a wide variety of philosophical and intellectual approaches to the liberal arts? Frankly, I am not sure that Keller and Brauchli mean that studying the Humanities automatically leads to unbalanced coverage on moral, social, cultural and political issues. I would argue that this has more to do with one’s philosophy about journalism.

Meanwhile, the quote for the day is that our most important news organizations (in the Northeastern power corridor, or course) are led by people who, according to Keller, “probably give short shrift to religion.”

You think? Or only certain types of religion?

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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.

  • Julia B

    I have a Masters in Liberal Arts from Washing University in St Louis [years after a BS at SLU]. This is a Great Books/great issues focused program. The school is not a conservative bastion. It was just superb and changed my view of Western history. In a number of classes I was presented with professors’ great respect for the intellectual and rationalism aspects of my Jesuit Catholic background. Lots of respectful debates. Don’t know if that’s still the case. It sounds like those days are gone.
    Liberal Arts should not funnel people into a rigid one-size-fits-all mind set. That’s the opposite of what is is supposed to do. I’m getting depressed about our future.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    1) Keller hasn’t been editor of the times for a while, now.
    2) The truly exemplary religion reporters at the Times, present and past, might have a more informed opinion on this.

    • fredx2

      That is, if you could find an exemplary religion reporter at the Times. The Times has perhaps had the most anti-Catholic coverage of any of the major papers. Generally, Catholics laugh at what the Times prints. If the Pope comes out with an encyclical that says “Love your brother” The Times will have a headline that says “Pope approves of incest”.

      • Jeffrey Weiss

        Horsepucky. If you don’t think the NYT has a long history of exemplary religion reporters, I suggest that says more about you than the Times. Has the Times religion coverage been above criticism? Of course not. Has it been generally anti-Catholic? Of course not.

    • Jane Dunn

      Exactly. Why weren’t Keller’s remarks tempered by some of the extensive comments made by NYT editor/reporter Michael Luo? For example: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2013/12/not-5q1-thoughts-from-michael-luo-on-faith-and-ink/

  • fredx2

    I believe I am correct that almost every public editor has said something along the lines of “yes, it is a liberal paper”
    But Bill Keller denies it, or attempts to define it out of existence.
    Basically what he said was “we are liberal in the sense that we believe in science, truth and beauty. We are the educated set and the other guys are not”
    The notion that your side contains all the right answers is anathema to true journalism.
    Note that he openly says that the times “gives short shrift to religion” Question: why would anyone think that it is proper to give “short shrift to religion”?
    Bill Keller was the one, i believe, who said that the traditional side of the gay marriage debate would not be given in his paper because “Error has no rights”. So he believes that to support traditional marriage is the same as creationism, or believing the earth is flat.
    The Times ceased to be relevant about 2004. Since then, it has been a parody of itself.


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