New York Times public editor opens up on bias

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 28 2012 4:14 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama speaks in the White House briefing room in Washington, Monday, Aug. 20, 2012.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais,Associated Press

Last week, New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane, in his final column before leaving the paper, stirred up controversy by stating what critics on the right have claimed for years: the New York Times leans left.

"When The Times covers a national presidential campaign," Brisbane wrote, "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," Brisbane concluded.

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson told Politico this week that she disagreed with Brisbane's assertion. "In our newsroom we are always conscious that the way we view an issue in New York is not necessarily the way it is viewed in the rest of the country or world. I disagree with Mr. Brisbane's sweeping conclusions," she said.

“I agree with another past public editor, Dan Okrent, and my predecessor as executive editor, Bill Keller, that in covering some social and cultural issues, the Times sometimes reflects its urban and cosmopolitan base,” Abramson said. “But I also often quote, including in talks with Mr. Brisbane, another executive editor, Abe Rosenthal, who wanted to be remembered for keeping ‘the paper straight.’ That’s essential.”

But while Brisbane does not see bias in the presidential campaign, others are not so sure.

Back in June, the center-left online publication Politico noted the disparate treatment accorded by the New York Times to revelations of Anne Romney's horseriding and Barack Obama's youthful fervent dope smoking.

"On the front page of its Sunday edition," wrote Jim Vanderhei and Mike Allen wrote for Politico,"the New York Times gave a big spread to Ann Romney spending lots of time and tons of money on an exotic genre of horse-riding. The clear implication: The Romneys are silly rich, move in rarefied and exotic circles, and are perhaps a tad shady."

"Only days earlier," they continued, "news surfaced that author David Maraniss had unearthed new details about Barack Obama’s prolific, college-age dope-smoking for his new book, “Barack Obama: The Story” — and the Times made it a brief on A15."

This came in a week that saw two other notable cracks in the media's aura of neutrality. On Tuesday, White House correspondent Jake Tapper of ABC told radio show host Laura Ingraham, “I have said before that I thought the media helped tip the scales. You know, I didn’t think the coverage in 2008 was especially fair to either Hillary Clinton or John McCain.”

He was responding to even stronger comments made over the previous weekend by Time's Mark Halperin, who said at a USC/Politico conference that the 2008 presidential campaign coverage was "the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq war. It was extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama coverage," according to a Politico report of the event.

Halperin pointed to New York Times coverage in 2008, thereby anticipating and contradicting Brisbane's notion that bias was somehow filtered out for campaign coverage.

"The example that I use, at the end of the campaign, was the two profiles that The New York Times ran of the potential first ladies," Halperin said. "The story about Cindy McCain was vicious. It looked for every negative thing they could find about her and it cased her in an extraordinarily negative light. It didn't talk about her work, for instance, as a mother for her children, and they cherry-picked every negative thing that's ever been written about her."

In contrast, Halperin noted, the article on Michelle Obama was "like a front-page endorsement of what a great person Michelle Obama is," according to the Politico account of his comments.

The New York Times is not the only publication under fire here. In their Politico piece, Vanderhei and Allen also noted that, although Mitt Romney's high school forceful hair cutting incident made the front page of the Washington Post, the scoop on Obama's marijuana binges, though uncovered by a Post reporter, never did.

"Maraniss works for the Post and his pot-smoking scoop, which included details of Obama’s college-era dope-smoking club and waste-no-weed rules for inhaling it, never made the front of his own paper," they wrote.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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