By Christopher B. Daly
Today’s front page of the New York Times presents a dramatic example of what drives some people crazy about the news media — hidden bias. Many people expect the Times to exemplify the 20th Century ideal of journalistic “objectivity,” a perhaps naive view that news should consist simply of facts. In this view, readers of such facts should draw their own conclusions, and the newspaper as an institution should restrict its opinions to the editorial page.
People who hold those views will surely be angry with the Times today for its handling of the Trump-birther story.
Here’s a photo of today’s print version of the Times’ page 1:
The lead story –the one judged by Times editors to be the most important of the day — is not a news story at all. It is a “NEWS ANALYSIS” that is marbled with blatant opinion and bias. The author, Michael Barbaro, obviously hates Trump, and his piece drips with contempt.
Yes, the Times applied a few fig leaves: the NEWS ANALYSIS line above the headline and the setting of the type in a “ragged right” format, rather than the “justified” columns that the paper uses for straight news. But a groggy reader at the breakfast table could be forgiven for expecting a news organization to lead with news, rather than opinion.
The Times did in fact carry a straight news story about the same event, but it was buried inside.
In the online version, things were different, but still exasperating for readers who expect unbiased news. Here is the homepage as of this morning:
As you can see, the Trump analysis piece is re-contextualized and subordinated to classic Times-only stories: a tribute to a playwright whose work is essentially unendurable and a staff story from a distant hellhole. The Barbaro analysis piece is still there, now positioned in the lefthand column and still given precedence over the related news story. But notice that in the online format, editorials get equal billing with news. What the Times calls “The Opinion Pages” now occupy the upper right quadrant of the homepage — in the spot traditionally reserved in the old print layout for the day’s top news story. So, the reader who scans this page will observe first that the Times hates that liar Trump and second, that the news team follows the same editorial line.
For the record, Times editors insist that they are still following the rules of objective news. They insist that the editorial operation is totally separate from the news operation. They insist that their reporters are factual and fair.
Is it any surprise that some readers disagree?
Alternatively, Times editors might argue that “everybody knows” what Trump said, thanks to faster media. Therefore, the Times should offer readers something of value that they could not find elsewhere. There is some validity to that view, but the Times has not fully embraced that self-conception either.
[In my personal view, the Times faces a crossroads: rein in the opinion, or embrace it. The current approach is awkward at best.]