Departing Public Editor Brisbane Laments Progressive 'Hive' of 'Like Minds' at New York Times

New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane devoted his last column for the paper's Sunday Review to praising the publisher for investing in journalism during hard times, but said the paper could use a dose of humility and lamented the paper's hive-mind liberal mentality.

Brisbane thinks the paper has "usually succeed[ed]" in maintaining "fairness and balance" in its presidential campaign coverage (Times Watch would disagree) but that the staff's progressive sympathies bleed over into coverage of other political issues.

I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds -- a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.

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.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

(Indeed, the paper's coverage of the Occupy movement was characterized by amateurish eagerness.)

Stepping back, I can see that as the digital transformation proceeds, as The Times disaggregates and as an empowered staff finds new ways to express itself, a kind of Times Nation has formed around the paper’s political-cultural worldview, an audience unbound by geography (as distinct from the old days of print) and one that self-selects in digital space.

It’s a huge success story -- it is hard to argue with the enormous size of Times Nation -- but one that carries risk as well. A just-released Pew Research Center survey found that The Times’s “believability rating” had dropped drastically among Republicans compared with Democrats, and was an almost-perfect mirror opposite of Fox News’s rating. Can that be good?

Former Public Editor Daniel Okrent told much the same tale more directly in a July 2004 piece: "Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper? Of course it is."

As if aiming to prove Brisbane right about the paper's closed-mindedness, Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson immediately challenged Brisbane without actually rebutting him.

"In our newsroom we are always conscious that the way we view an issue in New York is not necessarily the way it is viewed in the rest of the country or world. I disagree with Mr. Brisbane's sweeping conclusions," Abramson told POLITICO Saturday night.

"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."

The Public Editor slot will be filled by Margaret Sullivan, formerly of the Buffalo News.

-- Clay Waters is Editor of the MRC's TimesWatch site