Commentary Magazine


Was It Time or Bias that Caused the Media to Slant the Story?

Since Daniel Okrent left the post, the men who have served as the public editor of the New York Times haven’t caused much trouble for the journalists they are supposed to be monitoring. That has certainly been true of Arthur Brisbane, the latest to sit in that seat. However, when confronted with a colossal case of journalistic malpractice, even a Brisbane can’t ignore it. Thus, Brisbane was forced to address the fact that, like much of the mainstream media, the Times‘s coverage of the Arizona tragedy led with and assumed that the shooting was the result of conservative incitement, which would lead to serious political repercussions.

Unfortunately, Brisbane’s analysis of the Times coverage ignores the real problems while focusing on the one element that journalists have always had to deal with: time. Brisbane seems to think that the Times’s initial report that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was dead was terrible. It was an error but one that was an understandable result of a chaotic situation. Brisbane is more forgiving of the bigger mistake: “The Times’s day-one coverage in some of its Sunday print editions included a strong focus on the political climate in Arizona and the nation. For some readers — and I share this view to an extent — placing the violence in the broader political context was problematic.”

While he rightly deplores the instinctive decision of both reporters and editors to “frame” the Arizona shooting as an event that was a direct result of conservative dissent against the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress, Brisbane still thinks there “were some good reasons to steer the coverage in this direction.” But the only “good reason” he cites is the assumption that any violence directed at a politician must be the result of the fact that a lot of people disagree with her policies.

Brisbane acknowledges that a better focus of the Times coverage would have been one that highlighted the fact that the shooter was mentally ill. Yet he blames the false assumptions that caused the newspaper to “frame” all its coverage around a false belief that this was a political event for which conservatives must pay on the lack of time. But that is no excuse. Journalists never have enough time. But that’s no reason to take an event and shoehorn it into a fabricated story line that is based on the delegitimization of those who espouse political views that the Times opposes.

It wasn’t time that caused the editors at the Times and other broadcast media to falsely accuse conservatives of inciting the shooter; it was their own very obvious political bias. Like the pundits who write on the paper’s op-ed page who have continued to link the crime to politics, even after President Obama urged his followers to stop doing so, the paper’s news editors live in a world where conservative opinions simply aren’t legitimate. Indeed, on the same page where Brisbane’s apologia for the paper appears was a column by Frank Rich that again sought to falsely link Palin to the shooting. Rich spoke of the widespread public anger against the Obama administration’s policies as a violent “insurrection” that threatens the rule of law rather than a grassroots movement that led to an overwhelming Republican victory at the polls last November. Like so many other liberals, Rich thinks it doesn’t matter than Jared Loughner was insane. As far as he is concerned, those who oppose the Democrats are still responsible, even though Rich has produced as much “hate” of President Bush and the Republicans as even the most rabid conservative talk-radio hosts have of Obama.

It is noteworthy that Brisbane even bothered to notice how badly his newspaper got the story wrong. But until he addresses the political bias that was the primary cause of that error, accountability at the Times is still not in the cards.