Bill Keller, et al, openly confess that “error has no rights”

Bill Keller, et al, openly confess that “error has no rights” February 25, 2013

As the debates rage on about you know whatWashington. Post. Ombudsman. Bias. Column. — I would like to jump in remind faithful GetReligion readers of an earlier episode in this post-journalism drama. I’ll also share another link or two pointing toward pieces in which journalists are discussing some of the prickly issues in the Patrick Pexton piece.

But first, let’s back up to the earlier event (video here) in Austin, Texas, that still has me depressed, the one during which Bill Keller, days after stepping down (or is that abdicating) as New York Times editor, essentially said that there are different journalistic rules for covering social issues and religion, as opposed to politics and real news. For those who have forgotten his remarks, here is a flashback care of a column I wrote for Scripps Howard:

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 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 some of the “social values” issues that have popped up in the news every now and then since, oh, 1973 or thereabouts? That would be any issue in public life linked to sex, salvation, marriage, abortion, parenting, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other things that, in the United States, tend to get linked to religion. Did I miss anything major in that list?

None of those issues, of course, have anything to do with politics or life in the public square. So how, precisely, does a newspaper such as the Times cover political life in America in a balanced way without being able to be accurate and fair in its coverage of opposing voices in debates about religious and social issues?

Yes, the same question would apply to The Washington Post.

Let the journalistic debates continue, since the only thing that is at stake is the future of what historians would call the American Model of the Press.

Meanwhile, over at, former Post media-beat reporter Howard Kurtz has weighed in on Pexton’s piece, and related issues. He notes, for example, what happened when the newspaper in Laurel, Miss., covered a particularly moving same-sex union rite, the first ever in that Bible Belt county.

The result: A torrent of angry calls, canceled subscriptions and outraged comments on the paper’s website and Facebook page. As recounted by Deep South Progressive, one person wrote: “This is what we have to put up with on the world news every night. Never thought I would open my local paper and see such. Insulting!!!”

Said another: “It’s a sad day for traditional family values when this is printed on the front of a newspaper.”

You have to love it when, to quote the cultural right, one turns to a website on the cultural left. But, never mind, the ultimate point made by Kurtz is solid, which is that this event was certainly both historic and newsworthy. Kurtz, of course, also notes that we are talking about the deep South, where so many people once opposed journalistic efforts to cover racism. Metaphor noted.

Turning to the Pexton piece, he describes the view of the anonymous Post reporter who depended the newspaper’s one-sided approach to gay-rights coverage:

The reporter said: “The reason that legitimate media outlets routinely cover gays is because it is the civil rights issue of our time. … The true conservative would want the government out of people’s bedrooms, and religion out of government.”

That is bias, pure and simple. Yes, it is a civil rights issue, but the reporter simply can’t understand why anyone would have a different viewpoint other than that the government should not interfere on such issues as same-sex marriage and perhaps, by extension, abortion. If this seems outrageous to you, keep in mind that President Barack Obama did not come out for same-sex marriage until the final months of his first term. Many people are opposed to it for reasons ranging from tradition to religion, and we in the press have to respect that.

There was a time when most gay journalists remained closeted for fear of being penalized. A decade or two from now, as today’s younger people move into positions of power, opponents of same-sex marriage may seem as wrong-headed and their views as antiquated as those of people who defended keeping blacks at the back of the bus.

So, once again, here is the bottom line: Journalists should strive to avoid bias when covering bigots. Metaphor extended, once again.

Lost in all the noise is the fact that there are many religious traditionalists who would accept the state taking a secular, civil approach to all unions, leaving “marriage” language to religious groups, while also seeking the defense of, you know, those First Amendment rights related to free speech, freedom of association and religious liberty.

Now, once again, journalists do not have to agree with the views of bigots like the pope, the Rev. Billy Graham, the archbishop of Canterbury and the Dalai Lama, but — as a matter of journalism ethics — it would be good to accurately report their views and arguments.

Here is the basic principle for left and right, as I like to state it: Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.

So what is at stake here? Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher offered this summary, in which he pleads for intellectual diversity in modern newsrooms:

Over the years, talking to fellow conservatives about media bias, it has usually been my place, as one who worked in mainstream media, to tell conservatives that they’re wrong in some significant way about media bias — not its existence, but the way it works. Most reporters and editors, in my 20 years of experience, do not set out to slant stories, and in fact try to be fair. The bias that creeps into their coverage is typically the result of a newsroom monoculture, in which they don’t see the bias because everybody, or nearly everybody, within that culture agrees on so much. In the case of gay rights and the marriage debate, though, they don’t even make an effort to be fair. I have heard some version of the “error has no rights” claim for years now. They honestly believe they are morally absolved from having to treat the views of about half the country with basic fairness in reporting. And they are shocked — believe me, they really are — that these people view them and the work they do with suspicion, even contempt.

“Error has no rights”? Read his whole piece.

I suspect that more journalists, left and right, will be speaking out on these issues. Stay tuned.

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9 responses to “Bill Keller, et al, openly confess that “error has no rights””

  1. ““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.”

    tmatt, it’s Lent. I’m off the booze. Why do you torment me with such drivel? Dear Bill, liberal arts colleges are so called not because they’re politically or socially liberal, it’s because the clue is in the name: they teach the liberal arts.

    I’m only a mud-encrusted peasant who never went beyond high school, not a cosmopolitan sophisticate who worked for “The New York Times”, and I knew that.

  2. I wonder if Bill Keller knows that he has a lot in common with an 18th century Pope who insisted that “error has no rights”. LOL

  3. The “liberal” in liberal arts does not mean “open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban,” it means “relating to the areas of education necessary for producing a virtuous, dutiful free citizen.”