God and The New York Times, once again

When it comes to the daily news, the recently retired editor of The New York Times has decided there is news and then there is news about religion and social issues.

When covering debates on politics, it’s crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it’s only natural for scribes in the world’s most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.”

Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: “You may not be in the right state for that.”

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.”

The bottom line: Keller insists that the newspaper he ran for eight years is playing it straight in its political coverage.

However, he admitted it has an urban, liberal bias when it comes to stories about social issues. And what are America’s hot-button social issues? Any list would include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion. That’s all.

Keller’s Austin remarks were the latest in a series of candid comments in which the man who has called himself a “crashed Catholic” has jabbed at his newspaper’s critics, especially political conservatives and religious traditionalists.

Shortly before stepping down as editor, he wrote a column insisting that religious believers — evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, in particular — should face strict scrutiny when running for higher office. After all, he argued, if a candidate believes “space aliens dwell among us,” shouldn’t voters know if these kinds of beliefs will shape future policies?

In another recent essay, Keller flashed back to an earlier national debate about the integrity of the Times and its commitment to journalistic balance, fairness and accuracy. It was in 2004 that the newspaper’s first “public editor” wrote a column that ran under the headline “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” Then, in his first sentence, Daniel Okrent bluntly stated: “Of course it is.”

Discussions of this column continue to this day. The key to that earlier piece, noted Keller, was its admission that the Times‘ outlook is “steeped in the mores of a big, rambunctious city,” which means that it tends to be “skeptical of dogma, secular, cosmopolitan.”

This socially liberal worldview does have its weaknesses when it comes to covering news outside zip codes close to Manhattan.

“Okrent rightly scolded us for sometimes seeming to look down our urban noses at the churchgoing, the gun-owning and the unlettered,” noted Keller. “Respect is a prerequisite for understanding. But he did not mean that we subscribe to any political doctrine or are foot soldiers in any cause. (Anyone who thinks we go easy on liberals should ask Eliot Spitzer or David Paterson or Charles Rangel or…).”

As for the future, the newspaper’s new executive editor has carefully offered her own opinion on the worldview of the newsroom she leads. In an interview with current Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane, Jill Abramson joined Keller in stressing that it’s crucial to remain unbiased — when covering politics.

“I sometimes try not only to remind myself but my colleagues that the way we view an issue in New York is not necessarily the way it is viewed in the rest of America,” she said. “I am pretty scrupulous about when we apply our investigative firepower to politicians, that we not do it in a way that favors one way of thinking or one party over the other. I think the mandate is to keep the paper straight.”

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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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