Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The New York Times, Insularity, and Assumptions

"...I don't really care what The New York Times thinks...."
Cindy McCain, in an interview with Greta Van Susteren, from "On the Record," October 20, 2008.

This isn't a political post. It's about The New York Times, and why it's important to pay attention to the news: not just read it.

As my posts sometime do, this one got longer than I'd planned. This may help you find your way around: Back to Cindy McCain. I don't blame her for saying, "I don't really care what The New York Times thinks." Under the circumstances, that's a rather mild statement.

America's 'newspaper of record' has taken some care to educate the American public about Cindy McCain's history of drug addiction, theft, and miscarriages ("Behind McCain, Outsider in Capital Wanting Back In" (October 17, 2008)). Under the best of circumstances, most people don't like that sort of thing being published. Again.

Cindy McCain's lawyer has asked why The New York Times hasn't been as active in pursuing Barack Obama's drug dealer. I don't think there's much question that the lawyer is biased. A lawyer in that position is supposed to be biased.

There may be a perfectly good reason why I haven't been able to find anything in The New York Times about Barack Obama's drug connection, apart from "Clinton Apologizes to Obama for Drug Comment" (December 13, 2007). After all: Obama wrote about the dealer in his book, "Dreams of My Father;" it was a long time ago; and nobody seems to care about it. Nobody important, anyway.

I brought up the Cindy McCain, drug addict / Obama, insulted candidate, matter because it serves as a pretty good introduction to New York City's hometown paper.

The New York Times: A Fine Old Family Business

I have read, and believe, that many people view The New York Times as America's newspaper of record. The Times unquestionably has a fine-looking front page, a history of supporting Pulitzer Prize winning reporters, and is published in New York City.

These factors give weight to its motto, "All the news that's fit to print."

The New York Times has a long history, too. It was founded in 1851. Back then, the town I grew up in was a crossing on the Red River of the North.

One family has owned The New York Times Company since 1896. It's active ownership, too: The last I heard, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., is still chairman. That family business has done pretty well over the decades. They own 18 newspapers, including the International Herald Tribune and The Boston Globe.

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The New York Times and the News: You Can't Please Everybody

A FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting - neat, huh?) report shows, you can't please everybody. That FAIR report, and others, show that
  • Conservatives think the NYT is too liberal
  • Liberals think the paper is too conservative
  • Activists think it misses the important point
    • (theirs, of course)
It's just as well that someone documented that, but I think it's fairly obvious. In any but the smallest and most homogeneous communities, a newspaper can't please everybody.

A Rasmussen poll, reported in July, 2007, gave some interesting numbers. In that poll, this is how Americans see The New York Times:
  • 40%: Biased in favor of liberals
  • 11%: Biased in favor of conservatives
  • 20%: Reports news without bias
Public opinion polls are pretty good at showing what people believe, but not so hot for uncovering objective truth. In Egypt, for example, 43% of the people "know" that Israel blew up New York City's World Trade Center on 9/11. In Turkey, 36% think that the American government did it, and in Jordan, only 11% think it was Al Qaeda. They can't all be right.

The Rasmussen poll does show that Americans have a strong tendency to see The New York Times as liberal. I think there's a good reason for that.

The New York times is a newspaper that's been owned by one family for over a hundred years, and started out as New York City's hometown newspaper. To a great extent, it still is the Big Apple's hometown paper.

Now, a very short, and selective, look at The New York Times' blooper reel.

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Make a Few Little Mistakes... Embarrassments at The New York Times

Like any organization that is run by human beings, The New York Times has goofed now and then.
Famine? What Famine?
One of its Pulitzer Prize winning reporters, Walter Durante, wrote accounts of Stalin's forward-looking industrialization policies. They made the Soviet Union look so good, it's almost as if Mr. Durante was repeating what the Stalin administration wrote about itself. Which, it turns out, was pretty close to what he'd been doing.

That came out much later. In Durante's day, the fuss was mostly over how he missed a Ukrainian famine. Millions of people died, partly because of General Secretary Stalin's policies.

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Nazi, Schmazi, I'm Not Biased
Then there was the Nazi Holocaust in Germany. I know: Non-Jews, cripples, and Poles (many of whom were Jews) were killed, too. But let's get real: Adolph Hitler and company were none to happy about Jews breathing the same air as the Aryans. And, they took active measures to 'correct' the situation.

You wouldn't know about what was happening to Jews in Europe, reading The New York Times in the years leading up to that unilateral action1 that liberated Auschwitz.

I think I can understand The New York Times' publisher's decision to ignore the conversion of Jews into lampshades and gloves. He was Jewish, and may not have wanted to seem biased. There's a pretty good discussion of the NYT, Nazis, and lots of dead Jews, in "Buried by the Times - The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper (Laurel Leff, Cambridge University Press, Hardcover edition 2005, Paperback 2006).

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We Can't Criticize Him, He's, Well, You Know
Then there was the little matter of Jayson Blair, the reporter for The New York Times who got caught plagiarizing parts of his stories, and making up some of the rest. Reporters aren't supposed to do that, by the way. Even if they have titles like "In Military Wards, Questions and Fears From the Wounded."

If you check out that article, keep reading until you reach the last page. The New York Times added a correction, acknowledging "misrepresentations and plagiarism by Jayson Blair." I think The New York Times deserves credit for posting that correction, instead of removing the article from their website.

Mr. Blair was, eventually, fired. Some people claim that he wasn't fired sooner because he was black: and nobody wants to seem biased. Others claim that it simply takes that long to fire someone. I don't remember reading about anyone saying that he was fired because he's black, which is an interesting omission.

Mr. Blair's experience was, in a way, a lower-profile replay of Janet Cook's Pulitzer-Prize winning career at the Washington Post.

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She Wrote WHAT?!
Judith Miller left The New York Times because of what she reported. As nearly as I can figure it out, she made the New York Times support the Bush administration's involvement in Iraq. She did this by reporting on what the Bush administration (and quite a few other governments) thought was solid intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program.

Then, the coalition didn't find WMDs. The conclusion was obvious: since we don't see WMDs, there are no WMDs.

(from U.S. Army Quartermaster Center and School, used without permission)
'Okay, men: there are a dozen cargo containers buried out there. Go find them!'

Obvious to people whose frame of reference is Central Park, or maybe even Massachusetts, maybe. To me, not so much.

At any rate, Judith Miller had to quit because of what she'd written.

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'All the News We Feel Like Printing'

I think that would be a more accurate motto for The New York Times: But I believe that what they do print is, for the most part, news. Not wishful thinking or deliberate falsehoods.

I don't assume that about all 'news' services.

Iran's digitally-enhanced news about its missile test didn't come as a great surprise to me. The Iranian brass wanted a news report about a completely successful test-firing, and that's what they got. Never mind the missile sitting on its launcher.

The prize, though, goes to the Reuters free-lance photographer who submitted what may be the 21st century's worst example of journalistic photographic fakery to date. You probably remember it: The photo of Beirut burning, with that honeycomb effect in the smoke?

I'd be surprised to learn that The New York Times deliberately lied. For example, after irregularities in Jayson Blair's work were brought to their attention, the powers that be in The New York Times appear to have started a careful process of uncovering what actually happened: and eventually booted him off the staff.

On the other hand, I think that The New York Times and its publisher write about, and for, their own world: New York City, and all those places that aren't New York City.

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From the Pier-Bound Shores of Chelsea to the Austere Grandeur...

The New York Times, serving all the land: from the pier-bound shores of Chelsea to the austere grandeur of the United Nations Plaza; from the verdant wilds of Van Cortlandt Park to the cloud-capped towers of Broadway.

The Big Apple's a diverse and wonderful city, and is America's biggest city. But it isn't America.

I see The New York Times as a hometown paper with a long history and a dedication of bringing news of the world to its readers: people who live in the boroughs of New York City. I don't expect The New York Times to reflect my interests or views, any more than I read The Straits Times of Singapore to find out what's going on here in Minnesota, or to get a view of the world that takes Midwestern interests into account.

I think that there's reason to believe that The New York Times is run by what in the good old days would have been called 'the better sort' of New York's people. That means that a very select group of people decides what constitutes "All the news that's fit to print." [emphasis mine]

Reporting on the Haditha incident is a good case in point. The New York Times (and all other American papers what take the NYT's lead) decided to focus on facts that told the story of monstrous Marines murdering moppets.

Facts that didn't support the 'Haditha is Iraq's My Lai' story weren't emphasized. Which, I think, is quite understandable. If "everybody knew" that perceived American atrocities were what was important in this story, it would be very easy to ignore information that didn't support that angle.

Which is why it's important to study the news, not just read it. I read articles in The New York Times. I also read articles from Reuters, the San Francisco Chronicle, CNN, AlJazeerah, FOXNews, the Fargo Forum, and any other news service I can find that's providing information I'm looking for.

But I don't assume that any one of my sources is either omniscient, or utterly unbiased. I try to understand what they believe, or wish, is so about the world, what they think is most interesting: and how likely each is to make something up, if facts don't support their position.

Cynical? No, I don't think so. Everybody, including me, has a place from which they see the world. That's the way the world is, and it's a good thing: This would be a boring place if we were all identical.

Trouble comes when a person - or a news service - has a parochial point of view, and doesn't realize it.

Previous post on this topic: In the news: Background:
1If America was 'going it alone' and acting 'unilaterally' when a coalition of over two dozen other nations invaded Iraq, then America's involvement in World War II was 'unilateral,' too.
Additional information (October 22, 2008):
A CNN interviewer 'misquoted' the National Review, claiming that a NR article characterized Sarah Palin as "stupid."

More at: "Sarah Palin is 'incompetent, stupid, unqualified, corrupt, or all of the above' "

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.