Semi-tough love from NY Times public editor

In his farewell column as public editor of the New York Times, Arthur Brisbane diplomatically but clearly told the paper it has drifted off in a liberal bubble, serving a group of like-minded people, and losing credibility as a result:

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.

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?

The newspaper's executive editor, Jill Abrahamson, is not accepting the critique:

"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," Abramson told POLITICO Saturday night.

"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," she continued. "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."

Rick Moran points out the obvious flaw in Abrahamson's rationalization:

Mr. Brisbane also shares that "urban and cosmopolitan" worldview mentioned by Abramson - an excuse for denigrating those as ignorant rubes who hail from anywhere outside the New York-Boston-Philadelphia-Washington axis.

The Times cannot hear the truth Brisbane has spoken, not without questioning foundational beliefs animating their work lives and sense of self. The paper will drift further and further into an echo chamber, perhaps a viable course in this time of revolutionary technological change.  But it has proven that as an institution it is not a purveyor of objective coverage, but rather an ideological organ. Nothing wrong with that, if only they didn't rather comically pretend otherwise.

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