Arthur Brisbane has often been too much of a fan of the New York Times to cause all that much trouble during his two-year tenure as its public editor. That comes through even in his swan song column published today. But give Brisbane credit for the ability to recognize the paper’s obvious liberal bias. That is praiseworthy but though the column is another benchmark in the confirmation of the Times’s ideological tilt, it is probably even more interesting that those who are in charge of the institution are still in a state of denial about it.
Even before copies of the paper with Brisbane’s column in it were delivered to newsstands, Times executive editor Jill Abramson was publicly disputing Brisbane’s unexceptionable statement to the media claiming that the paper’s coverage of issues was as “straight” as her predecessor Abe Rosenthal demanded of his staff in the past. If anything, Abramson’s claim tells us all we needed to know about the smug, self-satisfied culture of the Times that Brisbane wrote about. There is no hope of correcting the corrosive and all-pervasive liberal bias in the Grey Lady on her watch. Indeed, if Abramson’s comments about her expectations for Brisbane’s successor to Politico’s Dylan Byers are any indication, Times editors and reporters should expect even less guff from new public editor Margaret Sullivan than they got from Brisbane.
While lauding the professionalism of its staff and questioning whether its standards can withstand the gravitational pull of social media, the departing ombudsman was willing to face up to the reality of Times group-think about important issues:
As for humility, well, The Times is Lake Wobegon on steroids (everybody’s way above average). I don’t remember many autopsies in which, as we assembled over the body, anyone conceded that maybe this could have been done differently. …
I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds — a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.
When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. 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.
This conclusion should come as no surprise to anyone who reads the paper. Conservatives may take exception to his contention that the Times’s political coverage is as fair as he states. I will concede that the paper has certainly not been quite as biased in 2012 as it was in 2008 when the historic candidacy of Barack Obama was treated in much the same way that he diagnosed the coverage of Occupy and other liberal causes. But that is to damn the paper with faint praise. Nevertheless, Brisbane has made an important point about the way liberal bias is about more than skewing the news to the advantage of the Democrats.
We can only hope that his successor will follow up on this insight and spend her time the paper trying to highlight the problem. However, the paper has said it plans “to shift the job’s focus toward more engagement with the reader online and through social media.” Presumably that means less time flaying the Times’s staff for its obvious failings and more time on mollifying and entertaining the paper’s core liberal readership. If so, the public editor post will become as irrelevant as Abramson’s lame denials of bias.