Salting the New York Times

Kerry Martin UVM Burlington VermontGrowing up, The New York Times was always around. It was my parent’s paper of choice, informing the ways they explained the world to me. And it was the first thing to kindle my own interest in news media, as an eight-year-old gaping at its cover story on 9/11, reading its Arab Spring coverage a decade later, and beyond.

I was 19 when I really dove in. I wanted to understand world affairs. So I read The New York Times, and only the Times, for two or three hours a day, almost every day.

By 20, I could concede that other news sources might have a valid word or two. So, using that rather malleable machine called Facebook, I began following every media outlet I’d ever heard of (and spend time on their websites), turning my News Feed into an unwieldy anthology of current events, important and otherwise. I follow sources similar to the Times like The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, voices from the other side like The Wall Street Journal and (gulp) Fox News, media from abroad like Le Monde and RT, and outlets more tied to the internet age like The Huffington PostVICE NewsSlate, and so on. And on and on and on.

This morning, like many mornings, I scrolled through this hundred-headed monster of journalism, but today it made me sick. The sheer quantity of perspectives that once intrigued me enough to almost abandon the Times now disappointed me, not only for the impossibility of reading and understanding them all, but also for the futility of discerning “true journalism” from BuzzFeedstyle cyber-pulp (a line that HuffPost has blurred, at everyone’s loss). I found myself begging for one reliable source, one newspaper of record, one master publication that I could unilaterally trust.

Could it be The New York Times? My old friend, could it be you?

The Times, after all, has held itself and its competition to an incredibly high standard of journalism. It seems to approach every story with an open mind, an ear for history, and intense investigation. It employs an ombudsman (or “public editor”), a sort of corruption whistle-blower rarely found outside the public sector. And I think it’s done a tremendous job at resisting the shallowest internet trends, which other respected media outlets have fallen for: click-baiting headlines, flashy banners, excessive infographics, egregious use of the word “BREAKING,” and very fuzzy distinctions between articles, editorials, op-eds, and blog posts.

Most importantly, the Times has done, I believe, a great job at remaining cautious when reporting on developing stories. Network television has probably set the worst example in this regard, often spreading misinformation for the sake of getting the story out first. Today’ game of seconds, compounded with the pressure to tell an exciting story, has turned much news into what Wolf Blitzer unapologetically calls “the first draft of history.” In these cases, the Times has remained conservative in the storytelling sense, presenting the facts as they are so far confirmed and conceding that much is still unknown.

As print journalism is suffers more than ever before, the Times deserves recognition for not letting the internet age interrupt the basic journalistic standards it began forming for itself in 1851.

But I don’t want to naively fall into the Times‘s strong, sexy arms. My times abroad, my studies of postcolonial and subaltern theory, my immigration advocacy, and my commie radical UVM friends have cast doubts over huge, establishment institutions, the Times included.

So, with about a thousand Times tabs open in my browser, ready to read, ought I take it all with a grain of salt? If the Times is my media backbone, how does it affect my whole anatomy of knowledge? Do I already have scoliosis?

First, let’s look at the most common critique lodged at the Times: it has a liberal bias. In recent decades, conservatives have made a sport out of ripping on the Times, essentially for being a bunch of metrosexual elitist Jews who corrupt families with port-wine and classical music. But that’s based on a backwards assumption that the Times is meant to be neutral, and that its noble intent of balanced, encyclopedic reporting has somehow been hijacked by the liberal establishment. That’s simply not the case.

In 2004, former Times public editor and Fantasy Baseball inventor Daniel Okrent wrote a brilliant op-ed that confirmed and justified the paper’s liberal bias, pointing out that “The Times has chosen to be an unashamed product of the city whose name it bears.” Although the Times has become a national and international paper, it can’t be blamed for trying to reflect the urban cosmopolitanism its hometown, New York City. “You can take the paper out of the city,” he writes, “but without an effort to take the city and all its attendant provocations, experiments and attitudes out of the paper, readers with a different worldview will find the Times an alien beast.”

I’m tempted to just be satisfied with this, to lay all my trust in the Times‘s urban, liberal slant. I’m young and my views are not mature, but I’ve never found the Times to say anything–either fact or opinion–that I’ve outright disagreed with. Wouldn’t it be comforting just to accept the Times wholeheartedly, to treat it as an encyclopedia, to let it build my worldview and sculpt my ideology without resistance? In fact I’ve done that before, when I was 19, and it was comfortable.

The truth, however, is not such a flat plane. The best we can do is question much and wager an answer. So, rather than blindly accept and adopt the Times‘s liberal bias, I’d like to explore its implications. A confessed liberal bias certainly influences the frequency and tone of topical coverage, as Okrent’s gay marriage example makes quite clear. It also risks swaying leftward less-objective statements like personal profiles and anonymously sourced quotes. And this occurs in more than just “fringe” reporting; And this selective storytelling doesn’t just take place in the more “fringe” reporting, but every line of every piece written in that anecdotal Times style.

Indeed, like a collection of short-stories, the heterogeneous narratives in each Times issue–and within many individual Times articles–lend themselves to an ultimate theme or purpose. (It’s not necessarily hermeneutic, cohesive, or teleological, but it has palpable moods and tones;  Okrent’s invocation of the Times‘s postmodernity suggests that its chaotic narrative structure may convey a truth more authentic than “reality.”) The question on which my trust in the Times hinges is whether that theme/purpose/ideology has an overtly political motive, either in the short term or long term, and who holds the reins.

Many voices of the conservative establishment believe that the Times goes out of its way to influence electoral politics, overtly and subliminally in their choice of stories and tone of coverage. Again, I don’t have a huge problem with this, given the right to a free press and the Times‘s partisan transparency: they’ve endorsed every Democratic presidential candidate since Kennedy. But others–those who (perhaps rightfully) see both parties as part of the same establishment, like this writer for (oh no) Gawker–see the Times‘s alliance with Democrats as a veiled defense of the entire political institution, even at its most exclusionary and corrupt. He shreds the Times for their weak dismissal of Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), whose anti-corruption rhetoric has been proven hollow and hypocritical.

Is the Times the voice of the establishment? During World War II, it was basically on War Department payroll and complied in underreporting Holocaust atrocities. Sixty years later, it failed to take a critical stance against the Iraq War and actually helped disseminate the Bush administration’s WMD propaganda. At the same time, the Times has always provided hard-hitting, whistle-blowing coverage of governmental, corporate, and its own practices, from publishing the Pentagon Papers, to scrutinizing of the Saddam conspiracy and the Times‘s coverage of it, to exposing Iraq War cover-ups of chemical weapons discoveries. These latter examples make the former exclusions and oversights look like peripheral cases. But clearly they are important enough to be taken out of the news.

(I also find it curious how, due to their high web score, most Google searches for New York Times flaws, biases, and corruption just churn out Times investigations about those things in other institutions. Plus a few banal reports on site shutdowns and viruses.)

There is also a serious national bias that must be accounted for, either due to its New York City mentality, its possibly shady government ties, its largely United States readership, and/or the inescapable ideologies of its individual writers. Unlike a liberal bias that shows itself clearly in the Times‘s Democratic endorsements, their national bias is less obvious, far from a patriotic US endorsement. In the Times, rather, what is foreign stays foreign, and any reports on other countries must be foreign policy, foreign affairs, international news. Simply the term international inflects way it writes about any other country. Yes, The New York Times helped me to understand and critique US foreign policy, but it took my studying in other countries and reading their newspapers to accept that their foreign correspondents are just Americans Abroad.

At the end of the day, I still regard The New York Times as an an exceptional news media outlet and I’m glad it’s around, but it ought to be taken with a grain of salt. It should be viewed and read as within several balances of power. First, with our (increasingly corporate) government that allows the Times to investigate and criticize its individual projects without questioning the project of governance as a whole, which does indeed merit questioning. Second, it’s in a balance of power with its own ideology, within which every word we write and say takes place, despite our best efforts at objectivity and neutrality. And whenever you read it, you yourself are a power-holder, but if you’re rightly equipped, you can control which truths to take from the Times and which to leave unfinished.

Genuinely, I recognize in the Times an ideology not so far from my own. But in order to grow and read critically, I’ll need to find, map, and fortify the ground on which I stand. And this demands the calibrating power of diversity, of historical, alternative, and international media–even when my News Feed makes my stomach turn.

Kerry Martin UVM Burlington Vermont


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