Paper of record or church bulletin of the left?

Paper of record or church bulletin of the left? August 27, 2012

The New York Times‘ outgoing public editor — Arthur S. Brisbane — wrote his final column this weekend. Most of it is outside the purview of this blog, which is discussion of media coverage of religion news. He talks a lot about how the Times has streamlined and responded to social media. But part of it was interesting enough to some readers to send it in for discussion. Here it is:

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.

It is to the New York Times’ credit that it publishes critiques such as this.

You’ll recall former public editor Daniel Okrent’s column headlined “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?”  The first line of that piece was “Of course it is.” It went on to mock anyone who thought the paper “plays it down the middle” on the issues of “gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others.” Okrent said the newspaper’s coverage of same-sex marriage resembled “cheerleading.”

One of the things I find most astute is how Brisbane notes that it’s easier to see the homogenous thinking on display across the paper’s many departments from the outside. Almost as if to prove his point, Times‘ executive editor Jill Abramson said to Politico in response to the column:

“In our newsroom we are always conscious that the way we view an issue in New York is not necessarily the way it is viewed in the rest of the country or world. I disagree with Mr. Brisbane’s sweeping conclusions,” Abramson told POLITICO Saturday night.

It’s interesting to read through some of the comments from readers, too. Ron from New York City says, “I’m all for gay marriage. But the obsession of The Times with gay marriage and all gay issues is beyond bizarre.” Dave from Texas writes “Groupthink can be a very dangerous thing. So many at the Times think the same way that they literally cannot comprehend how any thinking person could hold an opposing viewpoint. Sadly that inability is costing the Times tens of millions of dollars a year because their thinking is so one-sided that half, yes half, their potential customers refuse to buy their product.”

Media critics also responded to the piece. Jay Rosen says “Look: The New York Times would be better off if everyone knew where it was coming from.” National Review’s Jay Nordlinger agrees, saying that the Times must abandon “the fiction that ‘We’re just reporting the news here.’” The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple avoids the more interesting charges about same-sex marriage to criticize the public editor for failing to document bias covering Occupy Wall Street.

As for me, I’ll only say that I think that the type of bias that the New York Times displays when it advocates for same-sex marriage is hurting our ability to be civil with each other. Even before the politically motivated shooting at the Family Research Center, I wrote about my concern that unbalanced and inaccurate media treatment of same-sex marriage battles was harmful to civil society. I mentioned a few recent incidents — the reporter going off on a Chick-fil-A-related Facebook tirade, the same-sex marriage proponent losing his job after bullying a remarkably composed young Chick-fil-A drive-thru worker, a lesbian who said watching lines at Chick-fil-A made her feel like there were boots on her chest.

All of these stories made me sad, for one reason or another. Obviously something in civil society had broken down. As I wrote then:

If it is true that believing marriage is the conjugal union of one man and one wife is bigoted, the equivalent to the most vile racists of the past centuries, then it makes sense to react in the way the reporter, the recently fired corporate executive and the lesbian passer-by did.

If the idea that marriage is the conjugal union of man and wife is bigotry — and the mainstream media and the cultural elite have pounded this view non-stop for years (here’s the latest example of the accompanying holier-than-thou pietism with which the view is pushed) — then you should respond by tormenting drive-thru workers who are part of the bigotry-industrial complex. You should speak ill of people who hold this view on Facebook. Often! You should feel like eating a chicken sandwich was about people putting their boot on your chest.

The thing is, though, that it’s not…

When I first began covering this issue — back when California was deciding Prop. 8 — I was shocked to learn that what the media had told me was wrong. When I interviewed people who supported Prop. 8, I found that they were eminently calm and reasonable. Their arguments did take a while to learn, but they were able to be learned.

These people explained why marriage law exists and what it is designed to protect. They explained why they viewed a change to those laws as seriously misguided. They pointed out some of the logical conclusions to changing the definition of marriage.

Now, you may agree or disagree with what they have to say (and to learn more about what they say, I think this paper is easy to read and digest), but it’s not bigotry. And it is a scurrilous indefensible charge to say otherwise.

If our country is to work through these debates about what marriage is and what it should be, we simply must devote ourselves to listening to arguments and thinking things through. It is impossible to do that when we dismiss supporters of traditional marriage as bigots.

Even more than the reflexive cheerleading for same-sex marriage that Brisbane refers to, it is the media’s demonization of those who retain a traditional definition of marriage that concerns me. I am in no way blaming the media for recent violent attacks against people or businesses. Only the people who assault employees or their buildings are responsible for their actions. It’s just past time to start talking about what marriage is without charging people with bigotry. Some people believe that marriage is the conjugal union of a man and woman who make permanent and exclusive commitment to each other, based on their gender differences and built around conjugal acts — those acts that naturally lead to reproduction and unite them as a reproductive unit. Other people believe that marriage is the union of two (or some might say more) people of any sex who commit to romantically love and care for each other and share domestic burdens. These are different definitions that have consequences that are far-reaching.

We probably haven’t even touched the surface of what those consequences might be. And we will never be able to think these things through rationally and calmly if we denounce one or the other view as unfit for public discussion. Heck, I’d say that most media outlets haven’t even begun for a moment to think about any consequences for changing this definition — apart from what you read about in terms of particular people who would be affected by the change.

This is one of the wonderful things about a mainstream press. It can help promote civil discourse, rational thinking and an improved society (I thought this recent debate led by a New York Times religion columnist was a good step in the right direction). When the paper of record becomes a particularly virulent propaganda arm for one side in the culture war, those things don’t happen — and I hope we can agree no matter which side we take on hot-button cultural issues.

(For what it’s worth, I stole the headline from one of the commenters to the public editor’s last column.)

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19 responses to “Paper of record or church bulletin of the left?”

  1. “So many at the Times think the same way that they literally cannot comprehend how any thinking person could hold an opposing viewpoint. Sadly that inability is costing the Times tens of millions of dollars a year because their thinking is so one-sided that half, yes half, their potential customers refuse to buy their product.”

    That’s not overstating it. The NY Times Company is a publicly traded company with a market cap that is less than 20% of what it was eight years ago. Poke customers in the eye long enough, and you lose them…forever.

    • Chris – what was the fanous quote from the woman who supported George McGovern when he was trounced by Richard Nixon in 1972… something to the effect that she couldn’t believe that McGovern lost because everyone SHE knew was voting for him….

  2. Years ago, back when Brinkley was still on Sunday mornings, George Will made what I think is still the most accurate observation. Liberal bias is not a conspiracy; it is a consensus.

  3. I’m a huge fan of NPR, even as a conservative. However, when it comes to abortion, gay marriage, or any position help by religious conservatives they frequently fail to ask the crucial question of “why” people believe what they do. It feels like their situation is the same as the NYT, an insulated chamber of like minded individuals who cannot possibly understand why someone would think differently than them.

  4. Nice post, and I agree with much of it. I wouldn’t despair quite so much, however. The issue is relatively new and it feels like people on both sides hold a low opinion of their opponents’ reasoning on the issue. And that’s generally because the bulk of the population hasn’t really absorbed yet the best of the arguments on offer from both sides, so the discourse outside of elite circles on the topic is little better than default loyalties and prejudices. With or without the media, greater dissemination of the better arguments on each side will come with time.

  5. I howled when I saw this bit: “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.” Since, at least, the low 1990s I’ve been able to spot a Times article in the first two sentences, when they’re writing about politics, by the overt slant. They had one reporter who was good – I couldn’t do it with his articles – but most of them were so biased that only an extremely biased person could think they were honest reporting. This election year I simply skip anything sourced from the NYT.

    Ben, I live in California, I don’t see any move to reason on the ‘pelvic issues’ as someone refers to them. One side keeps pushing and the vitriol keeps escalating, and if there’s anyone even trying to have an intelligent conversation on them, they get shouted down. I don’t know how it can change, either. It’s been nasty and seems to be getting nastier, not better. When the ‘elites’ are the ones leading the charge with vitriol, there’s a problem. When the laws are being changed without giving the population TIME to have those conversations, we have a big problem. That’s the damage the cheerleading/vitriol major media are causing.

  6. The true test of a democracy is not how well it represents the will of the majority, but how well it protects the minority. By this standard, the Times coverage of the fight for marriage equality is exemplary; much of the MSM seems not to take that into consideration.

    • It is one thing to protect the minority, it’s a whole matter altogether when they become cheerleaders for the minority and turn the majority into a bunch of evil caricatures.

  7. My understanding of journalism is that it is not enough to report on the views of various groups, there also must be an explanation of how people arrive at these views. The format runs sort of this way: x believes such and such because of the reasons given. It is very helpful to know the reasoning behind rejection of GL marriage; but it would also be helpful to understand why GL react so negatively to this reason. Why does the lesbian feel buying sandwiches is like a boot on her chest? What experiences have caused her to feel this way?

    In the debate on same sex marriage, both sides have put up arguments, made cases and reached out. It appears that much of the press has come to side with the GL positions. And appears to accept the reasoning GL people advance about why their opponents arguments are hateful.

    It would be interesting to see coverage on why this is so. Part of this would require not just writing about GL people, but actually interviewing and interacting with them. Until then, we are left to surmise why the choice was made.

  8. Mollie says ( and I really miss the block quote function):

    If it is true that believing marriage is the conjugal union of one man and one wife is bigoted, the equivalent to the most vile racists of the past centuries,,,

    I don’t think that is the message at all. One of the parameters at GR, is that Mollie et alia are too young to remember the upheavals of the 50’s and 60’s. I do remember those times, and followed the news about desegregation while in high school. One featured story type that was repeated over and over again, concerned a middle class white reporter who spoke with ordinary white southerners about segreation. They were always pleasant, will mannerede middle class people who felt that black unrest was being stirred up by outside agitators, that local blacks were satisfied with segregation, that segregation was a benefit to both races. Frequently, the reporter would record white people explaining how Black people lived and how happy they were with the way things were. This whole genre collapsed rather suddenly, when black reporters were sent to the south and the nice white people would not speak to them. But the local blacks would, and totally demolished the views white people had been giving to reporters.

    And so it is with same sex marriage. Religion writers, as demonstrated at GR, have a habit of writing about gay people without ever speaking to any gay people. The straight reporter talks with straight people who explain why they are against same sex marriage. The straight reporters concludes that the straight people are totally reasonable and have great reasons for being against same sex marriage. And that the reactions of gay people are totally out of line. Very much like the nice, oblivious white southerners. Reporters who talk to actual gay people frequently come to sympathise with gay people.

    • Dalea, the straight reporter talks with straight people who oppose same-sex marriage and then reports that they are vile racist bigots. The straight reporters are all progressives who are determined to destroy all the old institutions, including marriage, and make society over in their vision. The NYT is a leading light in this movement.
      I agree though, they talk a lot about how normal gay people are, but we don’t see much in the way of gay voices.

    • dalea – seriously? Not sure what you are reading, but MJBubba is spot on. And I think there is plenty of coverage with same-sex marriage voices, explaining why they believe what they do…. I actually think mollie is spot on (as usual) with her analysis of the subject.

    • dalea,
      Like you, I am old enough to remember segregation. Unlike you, I do not think the disconnect between gay marriage proponents and opponents is merely due to lack of exposure. Many, if not most, of us have gay friends and acquaintances. This is even more true for members of what folks here refer to as the liberal media. Nor have the liberal papers shied away from interviewing GLBTQ individuals or devoting articles to aspects of gay culture. One NYT Magazine cover story involved a gay man who championed something akin to what used to be called open marriage; he and his partner were interviewed in depth. Gay marriages have been and continue to be covered. This is in no way the same as coverage of segregation/integration; gay individuals are in the newsrooms right alongside their straight coworkers. That is a big part of the bias demonstrated in the media.

      As for myself, I was a professional musician in my mid-teens (mid-’70’s) when I first encountered openly gay men. I attended a well-ranked music school where (eyeball) approximately 75% of my male classmates were gay, and have had ample time over the years to become acquainted with some of the less palatable aspects of the male gay subculture. Iow, separate and apart from what my religion says about gay marriage, I have seen enough to draw my own conclusions based on first hand data. Perhaps those are the voices that really aren’t heard: straight, religious people who are well-acquainted, who have gay friends and family, who are familiar with the subculture, but are still against gay marriage. There seems to be a misconception that anyone who is against same sex marriage is an ignorant bigot, unexposed, or both. Untrue.

  9. Mollie,

    I hope this comment is journalism oriented enough, but I keep wondering if this country was ever so civil that it’s fair to blame the media for the current incivility. Actually, I think it’s entire fair, but nothing new when you look over American history. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Vice-President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, opponents of Andrew Jackson who capitalized on the marital woes of his wife, and so on. There’s the (Un)Civil War, of course, but then you have a century of segregation, lynchings, and other oppression of blacks. Virtually every ethnic group coming to this country have experienced, and often, acted with prejudice and bigotry, from the Irish, who needed not apply, to Chinese to Hispanics today.

    That’s all politics, though with moral, even religious, overtones, but religion is not exempt from incivility: Mormon history has gotten some review lately. There was the No-Nothing Party, which left some number of dead Catholics along the way. I suspect most of us can think of various incivilities with religious roots. My opposition to same-sex marriage has gained me the appellation of “homophobic bigot” for 30 years. It hasn’t led to violence against me, but I suspect there might be retribution in my workplace if I took that sort of thing into the workplace. It’s nice to see at least one SSM advocate is willing to turn down the rhetoric:

    man, do I miss the link function!

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that, yes, a significant percentage of the media lead the cheers for the favored causes: same-sex marriage, abortion rights, universal health insurance with free contraception, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization. But are they leading the charge? Or just the cheers? Chicken and egg maybe, but it may be useful to look at the larger picture.

    It’s also interesting to ask, as above, how their economic interests fit into their ideological bents. But that’s probably another topic.

  10. I meant to quote the relevant portion of the interview with Bp. Gene Robinson (and now I’m missing the blockquote function):

    Inter: Christians who oppose gay marriage are sometimes described as “haters.” Is that characterization fair?

    Bp. Robinson: No. I’m concerned about the escalating violent language and overstatement. We can’t have a civil discussion about much of anything. I do not believe that everyone who opposes gay marriage hates gay people. There are many principled faithful people who oppose it based on what they have been taught to believe and do believe. We do not move forward by asserting that the other side is hating us.

  11. Mollie – You are consistently one of the best when it comes to cutting through to the real heart of issues in a thoughtful, interesting manner. I am thankful you are out there doing this.

  12. Google Pro Tip: ”Use “scare quotes” around your search term and Google will only pull instances of the phrase used sarcastically.

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