The Young Turks, April 2012
The New York Times hired Arthur S. Brisbane in June 2010 to be the new Public Editor of the paper of record for much of the country. Identical to an ombudsman, the Public Editor position was one created in 2003 in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, to keep the journalists at the NY Times honest and fair, advocating for the readers.
At least, that was the theory.
Brisbane's actual record at this has been somewhat less than stellar, seriously damaging the already quite bruised reputation of the Old Gray Lady of Journalism. In January of this year, he published an op-ed questioning whether it was even really the responsibility of newspapers to fact-check claims of politicians, a disturbing question to be posed by the Public Editor. Jay Rosen:
I want make one observation, and let that stand as my reaction. Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.
No one knows exactly how it happened, for it’s not like a policy decision came down at some point. Rather, the drift of professional practice over time was to bracket or suspend sharp questions of truth and falsehood in order to avoid charges of bias, or excessive editorializing. Journalists felt better, safer, on firmer professional ground–more like pros–when they stopped short of reporting substantially untrue statements as false. One way to describe it (and I believe this is the correct way) is that truthtelling moved down the list of newsroom priorities. Other things now ranked ahead of it.
Sunday was Brisbane's final column with the Times, and in it, he spells out exactly the same kind of ambivalence and false equivalence that has people on both sides of the aisle distrusting the Times:
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.
Stepping back, I can see that as the digital transformation proceeds, as The Times disaggregates and as an empowered staff finds new ways to express itself, a kind of Times Nation has formed around the paper’s political-cultural worldview, an audience unbound by geography (as distinct from the old days of print) and one that self-selects in digital space.
It’s a huge success story — it is hard to argue with the enormous size of Times Nation — but one that carries risk as well. A just-released Pew Research Center survey found that The Times’s “believability rating” had dropped drastically among Republicans compared with Democrats, and was an almost-perfect mirror opposite of Fox News’s rating. Can that be good?
Want a little cheese with that whine, Mr. Brisbane? Tell me what kind of badge of honor it is for someone who is supposed to care about facts and truth to appeal to a group of voters who largely don't believe in evolution, climate change and women's sexuality and reproductive rights? Who believe that Saddam Hussein committed 9/11 (let's not talk about your paper's role in that little fubar, shall we?) and that Barack Obama has raised taxes and is planning to take our guns? That's not the New York Times being more progressive, that's being educated and intelligent, fer cryin' out loud. That's nothing about which to be ambivalent.
I'd say the sour grapes with which Brisbane ended his tenure with the Times signals that it was beyond time for him to step down.