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May 09, 2005

NYT Takes Steps

Guest: cntodd

The NYT today announces that it is taking steps to “increase its readers trust.” Sounds like a nice plan – they could start by firing Friedman, Brooks, and Tierney, oh and Judith Miller.

But what I find more than a bit strange is that they also propose the following:

The committee also recommended that the paper "increase our coverage of religion in America" and "cover the country in a fuller way," with more reporting from rural areas and of a broader array of cultural and lifestyle issues.

What on earth does broadening coverage of religion and rural America have to do with regaining their readers' trust? If you can’t get the things right that you do already, what makes you think that changing the topic will help?

Perhaps it is really code for: “The Right keeps trying to discredit us because they think we are too liberal and elitist, so maybe if we go out to the pasture then they will think that we actually give a damn.”

[X-posted at Freiheit und Wissen]

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Was one of their steps getting rid of blogspace? I mean, I could see how rotting two week old links would help the NY Times argue that those crazy media hatin' bloggers haven't got a shred of evidence to stand on, but still, I want my permalinks.

"What makes you think changing the topic" will help? Because it's an old technique that works, especially for the right. When the left tries it, it usually bombs.

Ah, yes, the PBS strategy. Aren't cowardly acts fun?

Hey, look over there. It's a runaway bride! (Seems to work for CNN and Faux News.)

And I didn't even notice them selling the New York Times in Biloxi, MS or Manhattan, KS, so what makes the publishers think that "those folks" will ever "trust" the NY Times. {Especially since the radical right demagogues bashing of the NYTimes has nothing to do with what's actually being printed. It's really just a tactic of the Busheviks to whine like a victimised baby to gain sympathy and the NYTimes makes a good fall guy.}

The NYT is one of the few national papers that has increased in circulation lately. Having lived in outposts (not quite like Biloxi, though), I would say that there are many who look to the NYT specifically because it doesn't talk nonstop about religion and various other topics that you can't escape no matter how hard you try in many parts of America. I never read Tierney or Brooks, they are too stupid. If NYT gives over more of its space to arrant supidity in the name of "cultural sensitivity" I might just have to cancel.

Well, they could save themselves some work and just print Atrios' "Bobo's world" series as it appears.

We had a Second Amendment story here in Oregon. Some teenage thugs burst into the home of a rural married couple. Both the husband and the wife were armed, but they lost the gunfight and were both killed. I don't imagine that that story will get a lot of play in self-defense circles.

At great risk, I'd like to play devil's advocate for a second, and say this:

Couldn't the inclusion of more religious and rural coverage make for a more well-rounded newspaper? To the extent that a paper can never be completely objective, isn't including many different points of view helpful? Including more topics (vs. 'changing the topic') can imbue trust by giving multiple points of view.

I actually think this is one of the fallacies that dominates the 24 hour news networks. “If we present different sides of some topic, then we can be objective.”

I cannot say how much this pisses me off to no end. It was part of what was so wrong with shows like Crossfire – let’s hear two sides to one story and that will mean we have done our journalistic duty.

Personally, I think it is irresponsible and bad for public discourse. It has allowed the talking heads to replace journalistic reporting. CNN and Fox would never follow up some pundit by saying, “Hey now, let’s make sure we have the facts straight.” They would just let each one go and the feel content that they have shown both sides to the story.

Needless to say, the idea of “objectivity” that seems to govern the NYT editorial page is also the idea that “just having different viewpoints is objective.”

Likewise I would argue that having more diverse stories, say from rural B.F.E., would not make the NYT more objective or well-rounded either. You could be well-rounded just by doing a better job at investigative reporting on national or international affairs. To be objective, you do not have to show a lack of bias.

Couldn't the inclusion of more religious and rural coverage make for a more well-rounded newspaper? To the extent that a paper can never be completely objective, isn't including many different points of view helpful?

They offer no explanation of what they mean by more coverage of religion. Will this be a special section on religious news (like local papers do on a weekly basis) or is this religion interspersed with news or certain religious takes on the news (I'm having a visual of Garett Norris on week-end update "and now the headlines for the Hindus"). Considering the current political environment it sounds like pandering (or worse).


To the extent that a paper can never be completely objective, isn't including many different points of view helpful?

Including many points of view on what in the OP/ED section or in the news sections? Expanding Op/Ed and/or rotating columnists with different perspectives, maybe inviting guest columns from readers (have someone who submitted a well written letter to the editor and offer them an opportunity to expand it to a column), sure could be a great experiment. Adding different views to an actual news piece, on the other hand, makes it something other than news (I could see if you ran a news item on organ donation, including a reference to what a bunch a different religions beliefs on organ donation is with and a reference for more info; including a religious perspective on legislation pertaining to gun laws - not so much).

Another translation: we're losing smart urban liberal readers, maybe we can make up for it by getting less-smart rural conservative readers.

In other words: its another gasp of elitism. After all, there couldn't be anything wrong with how they cover the news...

When I lived in Manhattan, Kansas a few years ago the New York Times could be purchased at the supermarket and several independent bookstores.

I understand why Brooks is so bad, but what did Friedman do to you except shill too much for the War on Iraq (still less than Brooks and Safire, mind you)?

cntod--

How does offering more points of view "irresponsible and bad for public discourse"? Discourse, I think, by definition, requires at least the possible presentation of different points of view. Otherwise, what is offered up as 'the facts' is assumed to somehow be free from any editorializing/opining at all. Which is, I think, disingenuous--the choice of what to cover during the day, for instance, is an editorial decision, it itself.

Take an oversimplistic example of two headlines: "Dems Reject Social Security Improvements". This obviously leaves something out--the view that Bush Jr's ideas about Social Security AREN'T improvements. Now, the paper could simply be more objective by not writing headlines like that, I know, and write instead "Dems, Republicans Unable to Agree on Social Security". But it's not always that easy to nail something objectively--there are often nuances that can be brought out by showing opposing/different viewpoints.

Now, when we get to talking about including rural and religious coverage, we're talking about bringing out viewpoints (at least possibly) that may have not been represented--just by covering a religion story, the editorial staff is saying, in effect, that 'religion matters to some people' in a way that that editorial staff didn't explicitly acknowledge before--even if they are 'just reporting the facts'.

Again, to oversimplify, I don't see the fallacy in the very basic idea that 'more opinions' = 'more well-rounded'. One reads lots of articles about the same stuff,and then reads between the lines and the differences between the viewpoints of the articles, and makes one's opinion. This is the basic reason why watching only CNN or FOX to get one's news is not a bright thing to do--there is ALWAYS an editorial slant; putting more points of view in a paper can at least give people more information.


I must be missing something in your analysis of my stated position, above. Where's the fallacy, exactly?


ol cranky,

I agree with you that they'll need to spell things out more to show they're not simply pandering--which is partly why I noted I'm playing devil's advocate here.

I think your example of the differences in giving a religious perspective on organ donation vs. giving a religious perspective on gun laws is a good one, intuitively. I have to say, though, that I agree with you on the 'not so much' with the gun laws and religion, I am at a loss to explain why. What's the difference, if a religion takes a stance on, say defending oneself inthe same way that it takes a stance on what 'life' is (in the organ donation story, for example).

As far as 'editorializing belongs in the op/ed section', I tend to agree with you--but the very discussion on whether religion and rural sections ought to be included in the paper is an editorial decision. The choice to cover only urban areas is an editorial decision, and the 'ommission' of rural stories is ITSELF an editorial comment, or could be percieved as one...if you see what I mean. Presenting rural-ish stories could be seen as making the editorial statement that rural areas are important too, and where their veiws differ, people in rural areas might have some different things to say...

JP -

No problem, I could have been more clear.

The fallacy, as I called it, is the assumption that simply having different view points is itself a way to present objective journalism. Indeed, presenting differing view points can in fact be its own form of editorializing.

I can offer two examples, both from the network media, but I think this can work the same way in print as well.

First, on the cable shows like Crossfire, two different viewpoints are offered that purportedly offer the two sides to some issue. Someone comes on to give the left side and someone comes on to give the right side. The two debate back and forth, and then we the audience are supposed to think that these are the two sides of the issue and that we have just witnessed objective reporting because we heard both sides.

But that is mistake in part because it assumes that there are just two sides to the issue. By carefully selecting who represents the left and who represents the right, a reporter or host can in fact “limit the bounds of appropriate discourse” on a topic. Fox does this the best by almost always selecting either an idiot Democrat or by selecting a rather moderate one.

The assumption that having two people go head to head in a debate fashion will give you an objective picture is just a mistake. It doesn’t mean you can’t get an objective picture, but it does show that just having such a format is not enough.

Second, some cable shows will have one person go after the next rather than at the same time. Wolf Blitzer often does this on CNN. He will interview someone from the right and then someone from the left. Supposedly this then is objective reporting because he interviews someone from both sides. But once again this is a mistake.

Not only can this repeat the editorializing process of the debate format, but it can be even more responsible. For some reason, reporters like Wolf think that when they interview someone they are not supposed to challenge them. Before this past November, I remember him interviewing two different people regarding the Swift Boat attack adds. He interviewed someone from Kerry’s camp, and then he interviewed separately someone from the Swift Boat veterans. During the second interview, he just asked some questions and let them tell flat out lies, things that had already been discredited elsewhere, particularly on the blogosphere. If Wolf had wanted to do even the slightest bit of work, he could have challenged the veteran saying “now wait a minute, that is simply not true and here are the facts to back it up.” But they won’t do that. They think that simply by showing two different perspectives they have been objective and that is all they need to do.

on whether religion and rural sections ought to be included in the paper is an editorial decision. The choice to cover only urban areas is an editorial decision, and the 'ommission' of rural stories is ITSELF an editorial comment, or could be percieved as one...if you see what I mean. Presenting rural-ish stories could be seen as making the editorial statement that rural areas are important too, and where their veiws differ, people in rural areas might have some different things to say...

I had always worked on the assumption (yeah, I know what they say about that) that the majority of readership of the NYT outside the NY metro area probably get a local paper for... well, local coverage (including the suburban and/or rural point of view). More rural concerns of the farmlands of NY & NJ may not be even remotely similar to those of the heartland, so I'm not sure that rural coverage will necessarily help them in their goal of being a more "well rounded" paper. If they really want to get into a well-rounded view of different newsworthy topics including different regional perspectives, in depth expose's that include analysis breakdown by various types of communities and/or coverage of special topics in a way that shows how topics that would seem to only be of local concern in a rural area really should concern us all (and vice versa) seems a more logical way to go.

…continued

In short, simply showing more view points is itself not enough to be objective. Indeed, showing different viewpoints can be the result of extreme bias.

There are other ways in which showing different viewpoints creates bias. For example, by always interviewing or debating the same two sides (and almost always moderate ones at that), that media have conspired with Washington to erode democracy. We are to believe that these are the two opposite ends of the spectrum – as far left or as far right as one can reasonably be. Consequently, if you are further left or further right than either of these, you fall outside the bounds of reasonable discourse and are therefore not a part of the conversation.

I have written about this aspect of the cable networks repeatedly, and in particular in my posts on Bill O’Reilly. As a result of this editorializing in which voices get heard, we have a very narrow two-party political system in this country and those who fall outside of that are thought to be crackpots. Here is there is a limiting of voices simply by having multiple voices which purport to be the entire spectrum.

But simply adding a third or fourth or firth viewpoint in rather than only two will not make it more objective for the same reasons that just two do not guarantee objectivity. One could always editorialize in the same fashion by who gets selected or by opting not to challenge who gets interviewed.

I have kept all of my comments as a discussion about “objectivity” but I noticed that you also used the word “well-rounded.” Of course, these two concepts are not coextensive. Something could be objective without being well-rounded and vice versa.

Personally, I am not sure that “well-rounded” is a very helpful way of evaluating a newspaper. But even if it is, I am not sure that you could judge a paper to be “well-rounded” simply because it offered news stories from different walks of life. Would the NYT be well-rounded if its top two front page stories consisted of 1) A story about multi-lateral arms negotiations in La-ga-stan and 2) A story about a bake sale in Tiny Town, West Virginia? Giving two different extremes does not make a paper well-rounded any more than it could guarantee objectivity. Indeed, any NYT readers like myself who might want a well-rounded paper might want to read the former but not the latter. And one might find the same about the small local paper in Tiny Town. Their circulation might consist of people who want to read about the bake sale but not global conflict in the Eastern Hemisphere.

“Well-rounded” for any paper is going to be contextual, depending upon its circulation. Standard NYTs readers might want more science or health reporting, more business news, more human interest stories from international countries, more investigative reporting on corruption or Washington insider pieces, and so on. There is more than enough to allow the paper to be well-rounded without starting covering news in small rural towns.

To sum up – whether or not a network or paper can be judged “objective” or “well-rounded” will depend upon the content itself and not the pure variety.

cntodd--
I think I get what you're saying better now, thanks. I guess (he said, probably backing off a bit from the devil's advocate position!) I would respond by saying that of course it's not *only* multiple positions that would lead to more objectivity -- how one chooses those positions will matter, as you point out (i.e. picking the dumb Dem and the articulate Republican isn't an objective way to go). But I would also argue that it is not always the case that showing various perspectives is *always* less objective, either. In fact, I claim that offering more opinions in general will lead to getting the the 'heart' of the matter--of course, people will have to discover for themselves which opinions ought to be tossed (i.e. the dumb Dem's opinion AND the articulate Republican's position, in some cases) and form one of their own. And, to reiterate, not just any opinion/viewpoint will do. It wouldn't do any good, for instance, to 'include more religion' in articles if one only included viewpoints from, say, the Quakers.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that your attack on offering multiple viewpoints isn't really an attack on offering multiple viewpoints--it's an attack on offering non-objective multiple viewpoints; in effect, your entire criticism could be levelled against a paper that only takes up one viewpoint (objective or not, I think). Taking Wolf's framing of the problem at face value isn't the smart thing to do (or O'Reiley's, etc.), but that's the case whether or not multiple views are being offered, right? And if multiple views are being offered, I think people have a better chance to say, "Hey, what she said and what he said make me think they'reboth wrong on point x, and right on point y," etc.

I do agree that the 'framing' problem is a big problem--but it's a big problem whether one or multiple viewpoints are being offered. I think.

ol cranky--

I think I agree with you completely--but because they haven't spelled out what the new way of doing business will be (as you originally pointed out) we don't know that what you're suggesting isn't exactly what they'll be doing, I think.

Look, guys, the story here is that the NYT, which was already pretty bad (as shown by the Judith Miller Iraq stories, and many more) is caving in to organized right-wing pressure groups. This has nothing to do with religion or rural areas.

And it won't work. The pressure will not let up, and the NYT will remain the enemy for the people who call themselves conservative. These people won't be happy until it goes out of business entirely.

The hard right has taken over the Republican Party, the federal administration, and increasingly the judiciary. They're putting the muscle on the media now, which was already pretty intimidated. They're also putting the muscle on a lot of other businesses, threatening to use the power of the State against them unless they play Republican ball.

Have you ever reas the religious coverage in the times. Its loathsome. They would need to hire a new staff just to understand what they are covering. Its like Frank Rich is the editor of all religion coverage.

john emerson--

And, of course, what you're saying is very much in the spirit of the original post; what I was pointing out is that there is a way in which what they claim they're going to be doing (and we'll have to see, as others have pointed out, just what they mean)may make their paper a better paper, in that it will offer up stories from points of view that it hasn't in the past.

From a brief glance at your own blog, Mr. Emerson, I see you're something of a Rortian...the whole idea of offering up varying points of view in order for people to form their own opinions about what's going on is a particularly Deweyan notion, it seems to me. Couldn't that be the spirit of what they're trying to do?

(Granted, it could very well be that they are simply pandering. i acknowledge over and over that in a sense I'm playing the devil's advocate. But I'm unimpressed with "Hey guys, this is what's going on..." sorts of 'arguments' to that effect, like the one you offered up.)

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