Al Franken, 'Moderate'? Even the Times' Public Editor Sees Something Awry

Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt devotes a rare column to labeling bias suggesting conservatives have legitimate complaints with the paper's "conservative" (and "neoconservative") labeling habits.

"Lost in the Shorthand," Public Editor Clark Hoyt's latest column, dealt with labeling disparity in the Times, a favorite subject here at Times Watch.

When covering conservative politicians and movements, the Times invariably overdoses on the "conservative" label, scattering it mulitple times throughout a story, and piling on unflattering adjectives: "archconservative," "far right," "reactionary," "hard-line", and "ultraconservative." Liberal labels of pols and movements are far less common, and "archliberal," "far left," and "ultraliberal" as ideological characterizations are almost nonexistent in the pages of the Times.

Though Hoyt didn't make the paper's liberal labeling slant explicit, his story dwelled mainly on conservative complaints about unfair labeling by the Times, particularly on the difficulty of labeling the Christian right. Hoyt even touched on a couple of examples Times Watch (shockingly) missed.

Sometimes such shorthand gets so short it seems clearly wrong. I heard from readers last summer after an article about legislation to control greenhouse gases referred to 10 Democratic senators, including Franken, Russ Feingold, Carl Levin and Jay Rockefeller, as "moderate." Victor Thuronyi of Takoma Park, Md., said most people would call them liberals and wondered whether it was time to get rid of most labels. Just calling them Democrats would have been fine, he said.

John Broder, who wrote the article, said he intended to say the senators, all from states dependent on coal and manufacturing, were "moderate" on that one issue. He has since called them "Brown Dogs," a play on fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats. But in his most recent article, they were just Democrats, as Thuronyi suggested.


When Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was described in the paper in December only as a "neoconservative writer," he objected, fairly pointing out that other sources in the article were identified by their professional affiliations. But he also rejected the term neoconservative for himself and his views on foreign policy. He said true neoconservatives like Irving Kristol were leftists who switched to the right. "I was never on the left, and I don't consider myself especially conservative," Kagan said. He wrote an article in 2008 arguing that what is called neoconservative foreign policy, including muscular intervention, really falls into a progressive tradition.