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NYT Ombud Knocks “Occupy” Cheerleading

Arthur Brisbane, outgoing ombudsman at the New York Times, caused a bit of a stir this weekend with his final column. As Jonathan noted, much of Brisbane’s criticism of the paper is standard fare. But one aspect of it stood out to me. Brisbane wrote:

Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

The paper’s bias on cultural issues always been more profound than its bias on other issues. This may be partly due to the fact that the paper’s editors hold consistent and clear positions on social issues, and so its dedication to those “causes” represents an animating principle of the paper’s coverage: they are part of the organization’s worldview. On other issues, the paper will usually advocate for an issue based on which party is in power. The Times will argue forcefully in favor of the filibuster when the Democrats need it, but against it once the Democrats have virtually unfettered power in the Congress and White House. The Times will argue in favor of fiscal responsibility when a Republican president presides over a federal deficit, but argue against restraining spending when a Democratic White House needs ammunition for class warfare.

The editorial direction of the Times is that of a partisan journal. On most issues, then, the Times’s editors do not communicate a guiding principle to their reporters, so the bias takes the form of tone, story choice, story placement, etc. But that has never been the case with regard to social issues. The paper’s reporters generally join the paper’s editorialists–raising questions about the thorough and troubling disregard to journalistic ethics and traditional practices–in cheerleading for such “causes.” Both Brisbane’s column and Times editor Jill Abramson’s response acknowledge the fact that on social issues, New Yorkers—or, to be more accurate, the New Yorkers the paper wishes to acknowledge, often at the exclusion of much of the city—see things differently than the rest of the country.

Because this bias on social issues isn’t hidden by the paper, Brisbane’s comments are not only not controversial, but in the media environment in which the Times operates, constitute a badge of honor.

More interesting by far is Brisbane’s inclusion of the “Occupy” movement with that of the issue of marriage equality. A perfect example came on July 13, when the Times published an absurd puff piece on the establishment of an Occupy Wall Street summer camp, run by a couple of bored radicals.

This was eight months after even the mainstream media became forced to report on the widespread revelations of sexual assault taking place at the Occupy camps. To make matters worse, the camp organizers, rather than help the victims of sexual violence, established the policy of aiding the escape of the rapists by ordering them quietly out of the camps to prevent unwanted attention from the police. Though Mayor Bloomberg was far too tolerant of the violent, anarchic protest camps, even he was forced to concede the Occupy policy of shielding rapists from the police was “despicable.”

So how did the Times reporter covering the Occupy summer camp, Alan Feuer, tackle the ridiculous notion that these people should be allowed near children? He didn’t. Any possible danger to the children goes unmentioned, but the reporter did find time for some levity, joking about how there was a “lack of sufficiently radical activities,” such as, Feuer suggests, “shoot-the-banker archery.”

Arthur Brisbane probably didn’t find jokes about murdering bankers nearly as funny as Feuer or his editors at the Times did, so this type of coverage likely inspired Brisbane to express his discomfort with treating violent radicals as earnest goofballs. On this issue, however, the Times cannot use geography as an excuse. As I wrote earlier this month, New Yorkers have been catching up to the rest of the country in their loathing of Occupy. Even longtime fans of the Times like Brisbane find the paper’s extremism on this issue troubling.



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