Brisbane, Abramson disagree on whether Times' liberal culture is a problem

The New York Times | Politico | Jay Rosen | National Review

In his goodbye column Sunday, former New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane marveled at the changes social media's wrought during his two-year term and said The Times needs a "reader portal of some kind" for a listing of standards and values. He dinged the paper for not being transparent enough and called the paper's corrections desk "a powerful engine of accountability." And he described the staff as "hyper-engaged journalists building their own brands."

I predict no one will remember those parts of Arthur Brisbane's farewell column, though, because he wandered one last time into the thicket of whether The Times is a liberal paper:

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.

That was enough to get Executive Editor Jill Abramson to talk to Politico's Dylan Byers. "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," 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."

Abramson's words, even with that "sometimes," reflect the kind of transparency Brisbane says is missing, writes New York University Professor Jay Rosen. The Times is a lot more open about being a product of that urban, cosmopolitan environment. That's good, right? Plus:

A good way to interrupt this welcome movement toward greater transparency is to frame the world view of the Times as a kind of ongoing scandal, a problem that needs fixing, a blight on its reputation, an injury to its journalism.

In a sideways way, National Review's Jay Nordlinger agrees with Rosen, writing that the paper must abandon "the fiction that 'We’re just reporting the news here.' "

National Review is an opinion journal. It was created to be that, and it has forever been labeled that way. Truth in advertising. If the New York Times, CBS News, and the like are going to be opinion organs — and they surely are — they should simply say so, so we can kind of get on with life, if you know what I mean.

But calling The Times an opinion journal glosses over the inconvenient fact that the paper does metric tons of reporting every day, no matter what conscious or unconscious filters its reporters are applying. (Look at this exquisitely reported and written profile of accused mass-murderer James Holmes.)

That's why the question of whether The Times is hopelessly biased will never, ever, ever get solved to the satisfaction of anyone who cares about it. Maybe a better question for the paper's next ombudsman is one that reflects The Times' changing economics: Does it cost the Times anything to fight those endless charges, and if so, can it still afford the entrance fees?

New public editor Margaret Sullivan begins Sept. 1.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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