Item: Last week, former President George H.W. Bush announced that he was through with the New York Times -- sort of. Bush said on CNN that he had "given up" on the paper, though his comments gave some wiggle room as to the meaning of "given up." He speculated that his son might fall into the same category as former first wife Barbara Bush, who refuses to even leaf through it anymore.
Forty-one charged that the news pages of the Times "are getting to show a certain bias." Through analysis pieces under headings such as Reporter's Notebook, Bush argued, journalists are allowed to insinuate their own opinions in pages that were previously the Platonic ideal of "objective reporting." Thus the paper's sales pitch, on the front page of every issue: "All the news that's fit to print."
For its coverage of the incident, USA Today chased down Times editor Bill Keller. While Keller tried to put a good face on it, you could tell the grin was forced, like a salesman who found out that a close relative just died and wanted to wrap this up quick. He said the former commander-in-chief's critique doesn't "stand up."
Keller conceded that Bush's particular piñata -- the Reporter's Notebook -- might occasionally serve as a way for reporters to slip in "unacceptably snarky" lines, but he said he and his fellow editors "try hard to fight that." The best he could muster was this: "[N]otebooks are not by any means a vehicle for people to slip their personal opinions into the newspaper."
YEAH, CAN'T HAVE THAT. Personal opinions are the last thing you want in a serious newspaper. Well, except for editorials and op-eds. And book, movie, and theater reviews. And cartoons. And reader mail. And sports columns. And cutting in-depth profiles. Wouldn't want someone to make a technology column more readable by, say, throwing jokes in.
Come to think of it, a lot of the features that people really care about in newspapers are saturated with personal prejudices. And yet, critic and publisher alike agree that bias is a four letter word. Letter writers charge that a reporter's place of origin, religion, or political affiliation affect the work that he produces. Ombudsmen answer back that reporters are trained professionals, capable of overcoming such obstacles.
Well, most ombudsmen.
Readers may have been vacationing at the time, so here's a refresher: In late July, Times "public editor" Daniel Okrent wrote a little cherry bomb of a column. Title: "Is the New York Times a liberal paper?" First sentence: "Of course it is." Addressing the Times' coverage of a cluster of social issues, he wrote, "if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed."
I won't attempt to summarize the full article (track it down; read; marvel at its greatness) but Okrent made one point worth repeating: The New York Times may be a nominally national paper but half of its readers are in Manhattan, which voted something like 80 percent for Gore in 2000. Further, many Times readers in the rest of the country, who pay a lot of money for the paper, think of themselves as blue staters in exile.
And so Bill Keller has found himself in an unenviable position. Coming in the wake of the crusading liberal Harold Raines, Keller would like to return to the old ideal of the Times as the paper of record. But it won't happen -- ever. He has a staff and an audience that liked the old Times just fine, thank you, and management that wants to make money. This might come as news to our former president, but that bias that he's finally detected is great for the bottom line.
Jeremy Lott writes from Lynden, Washington.
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