NYT ombud: Trust us, we're unbiased

With a tough presidential election on the horizon, media outlets relish the demand that the battle will bring for news and feature coverage.  In order to get those readers, though, the media outlets have to be perceived as reliable and trustworthy.  That brings us to a rather humorous column from the New York Times’ public editor — their version of an ombudsman — Arthur Brisbane, in which he addresses the disparity in scrutiny of Mitt Romney over the sitting President in recent Gray Lady coverage.  Brisbane criticized his paper four weeks ago for an over-the-top slam of an investment by the blind trust set up for Ann Romney, and apparently that’s part of his argument that the Times will provide fair coverage of the upcoming general election — despite the suck-up coverage given Barack Obama in his first term.

No … really:

According to a study by the media scholars Stephen J. Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter, The Times’s coverage of the president’s first year in office was significantly more favorable than its first-year coverage of three predecessors who also brought a new party to power in the White House: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

Writing for the periodical Politics & Policy, the authors were so struck by the findings that they wondered, “Did The Times, perhaps in response to the aggressive efforts by Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal to seize market share, decide to tilt more to the left than it had in the past?”

I strongly doubt that. Based on conversations with Times reporters and editors who cover the campaign and Washington, I think they see themselves as aggressive journalists who don’t play favorites. Still, a strong current of skepticism holds that the paper skews left. Unfortunately, this is exacerbated by collateral factors — for example, political views that creep into nonpolitical coverage.

To illustrate, Faye Farrington, a reader from Hollis, N.H., wrote me earlier this year in exasperation over a Sunday magazine article about “Downton Abbey,” the public television series, in which the writer slipped in a veiled complaint about Mitt Romney’s exploitation of the American tax code.

“The constant insertion of liberal politics into even the most politically irrelevant articles has already caused us to cancel our daily subscription,” Ms. Farrington wrote, “leaving only the Sunday delivery as I confess to an addiction to the Sunday crossword.”

The warm afterglow of Mr. Obama’s election, the collateral effects of liberal-minded feature writers — these can be overcome by hard-nosed, unbiased political reporting now.

Stop it — you’re killing me, Arthur!  Seriously, I can’t quite catch my breath from laughing out loud.  Brisbane gives us two of the most obvious cases of bias and says that this editorializing can be overcome by trusting the same people not to editorialize in news stories in the next six months.  One can imagine Lucy telling Charlie Brown much the same thing right before pulling the football away for the 50th year in a row.

The story on Ann Romney’s blind trust is one good data point that shows the problem doesn’t just lie with “liberal-minded feature writers.” By definition, a blind trust keeps the owner from making or even knowing of the financial decisions made by the trustees.  Ann Romney isn’t the candidate.  How, then, is this a news story in the presidential race?  Mitt Romney cut his ties to Bain in 1999, long before the company invested in the Chinese company in question.  Ann Romney’s blind trust has a “relatively small stake” in Bain Capital Asia fund in question, and she didn’t direct the purchase.  Furthermore, the trustees bought the stake before the fund invested in Uniview.  Does this tell us anything about Ann Romney, let alone Mitt Romney?  Of course not.  But the Times certainly didn’t mind tying both of them to Chinese surveillance.  Spooky!  Who gave that story the green light?  The editors, that’s who, not “liberal-minded feature writers.”

Here’s one data point omitted by Arthur Brisbane in his “trust us” missive: Vicki Iseman.  That was just one example of the NYT’s “hard-nosed, unbiased political reporting” in the 2008 election.  The Times endorsed John McCain in the Republican primary — much as they did today for Mitt Romney — and less than a fortnight later accused him of having had an affair with a lobbyist based on innuendo provided by a couple of disgruntled former low-level staffers.  The story was absurd, and the Times later tried to backpedal furiously from their insinuations by saying that the relationship was merely inappropriate and not necessarily sexual. The paper was roundly condemned for their yellow-journalism story, but I don’t see Brisbane discussing that in yesterday’s column.

The Times also went after McCain for his medical records in May, which he released as planned anyway.  What really went on in that incident?  The McCain campaign excluded them from a media pool during the release of the records, no doubt for payback on their Iseman smear.  The NYT then threatened to write negative editorials about his medical records if they were not added to the pool, which they did when the McCain campaign refused to knuckle under to their extortion threat.  The “hard-nosed, unbiased political reporting” that followed included two separate articles whining about their exclusion from the rather large pool at the McCain event.

So forgive us for laughing at you, Arthur.  You gave it the ol’ college try, but after watching the Times at work four years ago — and before and since then, too — we’re not about to trust the Gray Lady in 2012 to behave responsibly.

Update: Vinny Gambini said it best:

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