bias at the Times

Last Friday, Daniel Okrent, the “public editor” of The New York Times, asked a conservative and a lefty to address charges of bias at his newspaper (link). From the left, Todd Gitlin argued that The Times is biased against Kerry because it insists on treating Republicans and Democrats as if they were equally dishonest and corrupt. Gitlin thinks that the Bush Administration is far worse, and the apparent even-handedness of the coverage actually gives the incumbents a free pass and encourages bad behavior: “The Times‘s decorous approach to the news has often helped President Bush in three significant ways: by equating his gross deceptions with Mr. Kerry’s minor lapses; by omitting or burying news of administration activities and their consequences; and by missing the deep pattern of Mr. Bush’s prejudices and malfeasances.”

From the right, Bob Kohn argued that The Times is biased against Bush because its news coverage assumes the liberal answer to social issues. Kohn lists “same-sex marriage, abortion, stem-cell research, gun control, environmental regulation, capital punishment and faith-based initiatives” as topics on which news stories in The Times always assume the liberal perspective. For example, Okrent had earlier described the tone of news articles on same-sex marriage as “cheerleading.” But Republicans are strongly against same-sex marriage. Thus “the president’s views fly in the face of what are being presented as objective facts. No technique of bias is more powerful–more useful as a means of influence–than presenting a candidate’s unadulterated views through a prism of advocacy passed off as hard news.”

A blog is for sharing what its author thinks, so here are some of my responses:

  • As I argued in an earlier post, the Bush campaign has behaved worse than the Kerry campaign, but Kerry and Edwards could have avoided headlines of the “both-sides-twist-the-truth” variety if they had been scrupulously accurate.
  • However, the bigger problem is not spurious even-handedness. It’s a relentless focus on the behavior of candidates on the campaign trail. We have plenty of ways, nowadays, to find out what candidates are saying, how they look in the field, what strategies they’re using, who is funding them, and who’s currently ahead. These issues are of limited importance to citizens. It would be much more useful for a well-staffed and well-funded institution like The Times to give us information about issues and policies. What does the federal budget consist of? If one wanted to cut it, what could be cut? What is the empirical evidence about the effectiveness of gun control? What would likely happen if the minimum wage went up? In what ways does the federal government currently regulate industry to preserve the environment? Which of these ways are thought to work? What ideas have been proposed for addressing the loss of manufacturing jobs? If reporters concentrated on these questions, they would not have to be referees in the campaign scrum.
  • Bob Kohn is correct that The Times’ news coverage often presumes a positive attitude toward gay marriage, gun control, and environmental protection, and a negative attitude toward Christian fundamentalism. This “bias” (if you want to call it that) probably reflects the attitudes of the social class that reads The Times (see yesterday on social class and tolerance for homosexuality). Likewise, The Times’ news coverage assumes that GNP growth is intrinsically good; that the business of America is business; and that people should consume lots of expensive items, including foreign travel and electrical gadgets. Compared to the huge amount of space that The Times devotes to Wall Street, it hardly covers labor unions. Thus its “bias” is consistent with upper-income, urban, East-coast liberalism, and inconsistent both with religious conservatism and with radical leftism.
  • But I don’t think it’s helpful to shout “bias.” One could strive for even-handedness on every issue, but to what purpose? Who said that The New York Times should to represent the median voter’s opinion on every topic? I think a complaint about bad coverage should always be accompanied by a moral argument about the issue being covered. For example, assuming that The Times really is a “cheerleader” for same-sex marriage, the issue is not whether this represents “bias.” The issue is whether same-sex marriage is good or bad. Since I think it’s good, I have no problem with The Times’ coverage. If someone wants me to object to the coverage, he will have to argue that same-sex marriage is wrong.