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NYTimes “Public Editor” thoughtfully critiques newspaper’s biased coverage

by | Nov 22, 2016

By Dave Andrusko

liz-spayd  I readily confess that I put more emphasis on the coverage of the Washington Post because it is my hometown newspaper  but also because the newspaper still has enormous clout on Capitol Hill and influence in shaping political narratives, including the recent presidential election.

In a newspaper whose columnists compete for winning the daily Doomsday award, no one but no one is as off-the-wall as media columnist Margaret Sullivan. I mention Sullivan today because she was the predecessor to Liz Spayd as the New York Times’ “Public Editor,” which is fancy schmancy for Ombudsman.

Understanding that they have different responsibilities, the contrast is striking. Sullivan feeds the media beast, encouraging her colleague (as opposed to critiquing them) to hold Donald Trump’s feet, ankles, knees, shoulders , and head to the fire. Anything that is contrary to the narrative that he is a reckless beast is to be avoided at all costs. To paint him as even marginally “normal” is a lapse in journalistic ethics if not outright betrayal.

Sullivan is the epitome of, indeed a caricature of, the journalist living hermetically sealed off from Middle America (and, I suspect, proud of it). Rather than ask how in the world the Post could have missed what was going in the electorate, or the wisdom of tossing overboard any pretense at objectivity, Sullivan (like most Post columnists) sees her mission as bringing the Trump Administration to heel before it even begins.

In stark contrast, Spayd takes her job seriously. She is supposed to be the readers’ advocate, to “speak truth to power” (the big wigs at the New York Times), a newspaper which prides itself on doing so when the White House is occupied by a pro-life Republican but never when the President is a pro-abortion Democrat.

Please read, “One Thing Voters Agree On: Better Campaign Coverage Was Needed.” Two things (actually I could mention ten) make this must reading.

In reverse order, I take Spayd at her word that even (“even” is my adverb) Democrats have hammered the Times for its one-sided coverage.  She writes

What struck me is how many liberal voters I spoke with felt so, too. They were Clinton backers, but, they want a news source that fairly covers people across the spectrum.

Horst Gudemann of Jackson, Wyo., says he doesn’t want to be spoon-fed opinions that The Times thinks he should have, and he doesn’t want his primary news source to stereotype half the country as racists.

One-sided in what sense, you might ask?  Let me count just a few of the ways.

For one, as alluded to above, people who voted for Trump who do not fit the stereotypical Times narrative and who resent being portrayed as such. For another, spoon-feeding opinions not just on the op-ed and editorial pages but ladled into virtually every story about the 2016 presidential contest.

Second, what else contributed to “a searing level of dissatisfaction out there with many aspects of the coverage”?

  • “Readers complain heatedly and repeatedly about the forecasting odometer from The Upshot that was anchored on the home page and predicted that Hillary Clinton had an 80 percent chance or better of winning.” And
  • “They complain that The Times’ attempt to tap the sentiments of Trump supporters was lacking. And they complain about the liberal tint The Times applies to its coverage, without awareness that it does.” (For what it’s worth, I would vigorously disagree that they are unaware.)

Response?  The Times, Spayd writes, “sent an extraordinary post-election letter to subscribers that was in part an attempt to assure readers there was some self-reflection going on in the newsroom about its coverage.”

But as the avalanche of letters and calls and emails illustrate, a lot of people, not just people like me, found the missive from The Times’ executive editor, Dean Baquet, and its publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., short of self-reflection and long on self-glorification.

There was nothing, repeat nothing, in that letter that said, “Hey, we hear you. Our bad, we will do better.” It was just the opposite. Having failed to elect Clinton, the Times pledged to do its best to undermine President-elect Donald Trump 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, even before he takes office.

But hats off to Spayd. I have read all the Public Editors and none is with a country mile of her with respect to fairness, honesty, and the willingness to tell the Times’ leadership when they have gone off the rails.


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