William McGowan is the prominent journalist and author, most recently, of Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America. The book authoritatively covers the important and interesting subject suggested in its subtitle.
Glenn Reynolds hailed the book in the excellent lead review of the January 24, 2011, issue of National Review. Glenn wrote: “McGowan piles up incident after incident demonstrating beyond dispute that the New York Times of today is very different from, and far inferior to, the New York Times of a generation ago….[He] deploys the sheer repetitiveness of the problems as a way of making clear that they are systemic ones, not just the result of a few bad actors or bad decisions.” Numerous excerpts of favorable reviews are compiled here at the site for the book.
In a series of previous posts Bill has examined the Times‘s treatment of national security issues. In this concluding installment of the series Bill will takes a look at other issues of adult supervision at the Times:
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As noted in the first post of this series, Bill Keller was made executive editor to nurse the New York Times back to health after the Jayson Blair scandal, to correct for the crusading biases of Howell Raines, and to lend gravitas to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., widely perceived as a lightweight. But Keller has actually increased the leadership deficit at the paper. He’s been defensive about criticism and subverted reforms designed to prevent scandal and the perception of bias. He has resorted to glib pronouncements while “dissing” other news organizations, especially Fox News.
Initially, Keller appeared open to criticism. Just before the 2004 presidential elections, he had cocktails with Karl Rove, who complained that the Times was unfair to George W. Bush. The New Yorker‘s Nick Lemann reported that Keller sympathized, saying, “Conservatives feel estranged” because they “don’t see their ideas taken seriously or treated respectfully.”
In January 2004, Keller started a “conservative beat” to identify leading conservative thinkers, describe the conservative grassroots, and explore how the movement “works to be heard in Washington.” He created a “public editor” to address complaints of ideological blind spots. The first public editor, Daniel Okrent, affirmed the charge that the paper tilted toward the cultural left. “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” Okrent asked in his headline, answering in his lede, “Of course it is.”
For a while there was more candor about liberal bias. A 2005 report, “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust,” said that “when numerous articles use the same assumption as a point of departure, [the resulting] monotone can leave the false impression that the paper has chosen sides.” The committee that produced the report recommended broadening the definition of diversity to bring in more conservatives. Keller said he wanted “more journalists with military experience, more from rural upbringings, more who grew up in evangelical churches.”
But the reforms enacted on his watch have been halfhearted or ineffectual. The conservative beat was discontinued in 2007, permitting inattentiveness to stories such as the revelations of ACORN corruption in 2009. Keller soon announced that an editor would monitor “opinion media” and brief other editors on “bubbling controversies.” But nothing’s been heard about this since.
Public editors have often been treated like unwanted stepchildren. Keller told Okrent’s successor, Byron Calame, that some of his questions were “prosecutorial and scab-pulling.” Okrent characterized his own tenure as “18 months of bruised feelings, offended egos, pissed off editors and infuriated writers.”
Liberals continued to dominate hiring and set the newsroom tone. If you worked for the Washington Monthly, welcome aboard. Staffers from the Weekly Standard need not apply. Those few with conservative leanings who did get recruited-with their “nonstandard narrative,” as some at the Times put it-told Okrent they were “constantly made aware of their differences.”
Right-leaning media assembled voluminous evidence of bias in stories about race and crime, illegal immigration, Islamic assimilation, the arts, and military operations. Keller categorically denied it. In 2005 he extolled the paper for “agnosticism as to where a story may lead.” In 2007 he told a British audience that it was “just plain wrong to say that the newsroom is ‘liberal’ in the sense that it toes a certain political or ideological line.” Reporters, he said, “have no license to insinuate their politics or ideology into news stories.”
Yet as I documented in Gray Lady Down, editors and reporters at the Times manipulate story selection, quotes and choice of sources to inject opinion quietly into news reports. And as the public editor Clark Hoyt wrote in April 2008, the “news pages are laced with columns, news analysis, criticism, reporter’s notebooks, memos, journals and appraisals-all forms that depart from the straightforward presentation of facts and carry the risk of blurring the line between news and opinion.”
A prime example of opinion bleeding into news coverage was the Duke “rape” case of 2006, on which the Times ran almost 150 news reports, columns and editorials, almost all skewed against the suspects. One controversial piece affirmed that the prosecutor had assembled a strong enough case to go to trial, even as it acknowledged the case had major holes in it. Dan Abrams, a former MSNBC legal analyst, called the article “shameful” and “an editorial on the front page of what is supposed to be the news division of the newspaper.”
The longer Keller stayed in office, the more his sympathy for conservative complaints about media bias wore thin. In fact, even as he was validating the conservative point of view to the New Yorker he maintained the idea of a “liberal press” had been manufactured for political gain.
During the 2008 election campaign, Keller approved a front-page report insinuating that John McCain had had an affair with a young lobbyist, based in large part on anonymous sources. The McCain campaign denounced it as “a hit-and-run smear campaign.” Clark Hoyt scorned Keller’s explanation that the story was about recklessness and potential conflict of interest.
Asked about the McCain campaign’s complaints on a New Yorker panel, Keller arrogantly replied, “My first tendency when they do that is to find the toughest McCain story we’ve got and put it on the front page.” But Keller had to eat crow when the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, brought a $27 million libel suit. She dropped it in exchange for a back-peddling statement from the Times–a year after the original report.
Meanwhile, the Times succumbed to Obamania, minimizing Obama’s relationships with Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the former terrorist Bill Ayers. Keller even wrote part of an introduction to a hagiographic book about Obama’s “Historic Journey.” David Gregory, hosting the Today Show, asked him if the book added to “criticism of the news media that we’re somehow cheerleaders for Barack Obama.” Keller said that “as a rule, reporters don’t fall in love with candidates. They fall in love with stories.”
Keller’s anticonservatism has been most virulent in his Ahab-like crusade against Fox News. On C-SPAN in 2004, he quoted the Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll’s assertion that Fox does “pseudo-journalism.” In 2005, he called Fox’s “fair and balanced” motto “the most ingeniously cynical slogan in the history of media marketing.” Speaking about the Tucson massacre at the National Press Club in late January this year, he asserted, “It is true that the national discourse is more polarized and strident than it has been in the past, and to some extent, I would lay that at the feet of [Fox owner] Rupert Murdoch.”
In March 2011, at the City University of New York, Keller took his anti-Fox vendetta to a new level, saying, “I think if you’re a regular viewer of Fox News, you’re among the most cynical people on planet Earth.” Bernie Goldberg put his gloss on Keller’s words: “He finds Fox viewers to be among the stupidest people on the face of the Earth.”
Keller’s recently launched Sunday magazine column displays yet more disdain for conservatives, along with self-serving spin–and a need for a better fact-checker. The first four columns required two corrections–an amateurish error rate. On March 25, referencing the NPR sting, he wrote that James O’Keefe (of the ACORN prostitution sting) had posed as a potential donor to NPR. In fact, it was two associates of O’Keefe who did so. This error suggested that Keller may not have watched the video he was writing about.
The column’s headline, “Traditional News Outlets-Living Among the Guerrillas,” epitomized Keller’s arrogant myopia. “When we get it wrong,” Keller claimed, “we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.” But it took Vicki Iseman a year and a lawsuit to get her correction. Brandon Darby was slandered in a 2009 Times report as the instigator of a bombing plot against the 2008 GOP convention. In fact, he was an FBI informer. It took Darby two years and he, too, had to file a lawsuit to get his correction.
Keller maintained that the Times does “not go into a story with a preconceived notion” or “manipulate or hide facts to advance an agenda.” But what about its refusal to acknowledge the religious motivations of jihadi attacks like that at Fort Hood in 2009? What about the notions shaping coverage of the Duke rape case, or the Tucson shooting, on which the Times beat the drum about allegedly violent right-wing rhetoric for days after it became clear that the shooter was an apolitical nutjob? And almost everything the Times published about Rep. Peter King’s hearings on Islamic radicalization showed an agenda, impugning King’s motives and invoking the specter of bigotry.
Writing about James O’Keefe and Julian Assange, in his “Living Among the Guerrillas” column, Keller commented that “each, in his own guerrilla way, has sown his share of public doubt about whether the press can be trusted as an impartial bearer of news.” Keller has done his own share to sow the same doubts.