Editor Richard Stevenson Flops in Defense of New York Times's Fairness

A Thursday Politico story by Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen struck a nerve among liberal journalists by daring to suggest conservatives have a point when it comes to charges of media bias, singling out slanted coverage in the New York Times and the Washington Post:

On the front page of its Sunday edition, the New York Times gave a big spread to Ann Romney spending lots of time and tons of money on an exotic genre of horse-riding. The clear implication: The Romneys are silly rich, move in rarefied and exotic circles, and are perhaps a tad shady.

Only days earlier, news surfaced that author David Maraniss had unearthed new details about Barack Obama’s prolific, college-age dope-smoking for his new book, “Barack Obama: The Story” -- and the Times made it a brief on A15.

No wonder Republicans are livid with the early coverage of the 2012 general election campaign. To them, reporters are scaring up stories to undermine the introduction of Mitt Romney to the general election audience – and once again downplaying ones that could hurt the president.

“The New York Times has given Obama the longest wet kiss in political history, and they have done him a favor again,” former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said. “The New York Times does a huge expose that Ann Romney rides horses. Well, so does my wife, and a few million other people. Watch out for equine performers!”

Tim Graham at Newsbusters found editors rushing to the defense of their papers. Times political editor Richard  Stevenson responded with a detailed rebuttal including some stories critical of Obama. Yet even Stevenson's hand-picked examples demonstrated the Times' left-ward slant.

Here is Stevenson's rebuttal (interspersed with Times Watch's rebuttal of his rebuttal):

Since the very first stirrings of the 2008 campaign, The Times has exhaustively and aggressively covered nearly every aspect of Barack Obama's story. To suggest that we've pulled our punches or tilted coverage in his favor or against his opponents just is not supported by the facts.

Let's take a look at a few off-the-top-of-my-head examples of our recent work.

Two days after we published the dressage piece, we ran a 6,000 word report on Obama's management of the anti-terrorism fight. Jo Becker and Scott Shane uncovered a wealth of new detail, including material that drew criticism for the White House from left and right.

Fair enough, although both the useful story on Obama picking individual drone targets and the useless one on Ann Romney's horse hobby made the front page.

We've done fresh and exclusive reporting about aspects of Obama's record that no one else has examined, like Gardiner Harris's look at the politicization of the FDA.

Harris' April 3 piece on the Food and Drug Administration may not have reflected well on Obama, but it amounted to an attack on him from the left wing. A sample: "...the Obama administration has often been more cautious on regulatory issues than the F.D.A....Consumer advocates credit the Obama administration with bolstering the F.D.A.’s budget and championing landmark legislation that strengthened the agency’s authority to regulate food and tobacco. But they also express concerns that the administration has been overly cautious, sitting on important regulatory policies regarding foods and medical devices to avoid giving Republicans fodder for attacks."

On campaign finance, we broke the news that in the rush to raise every possible dollar, the Obama campaign had accepted money from questionable sources.

Stevenson's timeline is unclear, but he may be referring to an October 10, 2008 campaign story, "Fictitious Donors Found in Obama Finance Records," that appeared on page A24. But three days before that the Times was doing its best to minimize Obama's problem, as shown by the dismissive headline over a page A21 story: "G.O.P. Query Involves 1% of Giving to Obama." And as Times Watch documented in 2008, candidate Barack Obama's overall coverage was highly positive, while Republican John McCain's coverage was highly negative.

Next Stevenson claimed:

We undertook a major investigative project to examine the link between campaign donations to Obama and access to the White House.

Stevenson may be referring to this April 15 front-page story, but such occasional looks are more than balanced out by tons of anti-Republican stories during the 2010 and current election cycle all but begging the IRS and Federal Election Commission to investigate GOP-affiliated fundraising groups like Karl Rove's American Crossroads.

Stevenson ended by trumpeting his paper's fairness:

There's plenty more where all that came from.

On the other side of the ledger, it would be hard to sustain an argument that we are looking for negative stories about Romney. This morning's Zeleny-Rutenberg piece made the explicit point that Romney has emerged in stronger-than-expected shape from the initial engagements of the general election. Hard to see any effort there to "undermine the introduction of Mitt Romney to the general election audience."

Yet the Times has so fardemonstrated an undeniable anti-Romney, pro-Obama slant in story selection during the campaign. Times Watch monitored the paper's political blog the week of May 21-25 and found nine positive stories about President Obama and not a single positive story about Mitt Romney.