Arthur Brisbane concludes his two-year run as the New York Times’ public editor — what most newspapers call an ombudsman — by getting a huge scoop in his valediction. The Gray Lady is … brace yourselves … liberal. Shocking, isn’t it? Brisbane says in his column that he started off his gig two years ago thinking that the allegations of liberal bias in the paper were simply incorrect. Now, after two years of analysis, Brisbane refers to an institutional bias that is “more easily recognized from without than within”:
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.
The best example of this predated Brisbane’s tenure at the public-editor desk. Howell Raines turned the mens-only policy at Augusta into a personal crusade, dedicating more newsprint to the lack of gender diversity at the private association than most other news stories … until it became painfully clear that no one really gave a damn about a private golf club’s membership policies. Augusta recently invited and accepted two women as members, one of whom was Condoleezza Rice (a choice clearly designed to stick a thumb in the eyes of its liberal critics), but the story had all but evaporated years before.
Brisbane also has something to say about a lack of institutional humility at the Gray Lady, and their apparent imperviousness to criticism:
Two years ago, when I wrote my “why on earth” column, I suggested that the pace of change called for a re-emphasis on “transparency, accountability, humility.” Looking back now, I think The Times could do better with these.
The Times is hardly transparent. A reader still has to work very hard to find any Times policies online (though some are tucked away there), and there is still no place where Times editors speak on the issues. As for humility, well, The Times is Lake Wobegon on steroids (everybody’s way above average). I don’t remember many autopsies in which, as we assembled over the body, anyone conceded that maybe this could have been done differently.
As if on cue, executive editor Jill Abramson responded to Brisbane by suggesting that he wasn’t one of them anyway:
Times executive editor Jill Abramson says she disagrees with Brisbane’s “sweeping conclusions.”
“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.”
It is essential, but clearly they’re not succeeding at it. They’re also not too keen on criticism, and Abramson’s defense is laughable. A bunch of us editors sat around the table and all agree that we’re doing it right, except for Brisbane, who clearly isn’t in the know. If anyone needed to read Brisbane’s words on humility, it’s Abramson — and I wouldn’t be surprised if Brisbane wrote them specifically for Abramson herself.
Meanwhile, let’s give Arthur Brisbane a salute on his way out of the progressive hive mind:
Let’s also give him at least one cheer for running these obvious conclusions in his last column at the NYT.