Outgoing New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane made himself a hot aggregational commodity this weekend with a farewell column accusing his paycheck issuer of bias. The money graphs:
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.
So the New York Times covered Occupy Wall Street like a cause, huh?Well, then I don’t want the New York Times spearheading my pet causes. Because the New York Times didn’t exactly hop right on the story of Occupy Wall Street, a slow-footedness that was memorialized in the video above on Current TV starring then-host Keith Olbermann (remember back when he wasn’t relevant?) and Philadelphia Daily News’s Will Bunch. The segment took place on Sept. 21, about four or five days after the protesters descended on Zuccotti Park. When asked by Olbermann about the reaction of the mainstream media, Bunch replied:
“The New York Times, I mean, this is the hometown newspaper of Wall Street and there’s been no print articles in the New York Times to date, with these people kicking around down there for four of five days now. ...newsrooms are not in touch with the pain and suffering in the country.... I thought it was funny that the biggest story in the New York Times during the five days of protest — the biggest local story — has been the demise of Ray’s Pizza.”
The New York Times, of course, eventually figured out that the protests were worth covering, a conclusion that most other media organizations reached as well. From the date of Bunch’s critique through the end of November, according to a Nexis search, the New York Times ran more than 800 pieces with some reference to Occupy Wall Street.
The coverage included roundup blog posts, updates on police actions — and an early piece by Andrew Ross Sorkin. A bio on the New York Times Web site describes Sorkin as a “leading voice about Wall Street and corporate America.” This leading voice about Wall Street in early October did a little bidding for someone from Wall Street regarding Occupy Wall Street. Sorkin:
I had gone down to Zuccotti Park to see the activist movement firsthand after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank last week, before nearly 700 people were arrested over the weekend during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.
‘’Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?’’ the C.E.O. asked me. I didn’t have an answer. ‘’We’re trying to figure out how much we should be worried about all of this,’’ he continued, clearly concerned. ‘’Is this going to turn into a personal safety problem?’’
At the end of the piece, Sorkin catches some protesters heading to an ATM. Surely Sorkin’s sources on the Street go a chuckle out of that.
Is Sorkin’s piece an example of “overloving” the Occupy story? Or is it a counterexample? And what of Ginia Bellafante’s story from the same period, whose title, “Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim,” spoke for itself. Another example of “overloving,” Brisbane?
Surely the meticulous and thorough Brisbane has documented his feelings on the matter in a deeply reported column. Surely this charge of OWS-related progressive crusading didn’t come from nowhere, right?
It did. A search of Brisbane’s blog and his columns shows no attempt to document a crusade on behalf of the New York Times vis-a-vis the Occupy movement. In November, Brisbane did tilt at Occupy coverage, but only in the most technocratic manner. An excerpt:
Now, almost two months into the protest, it’s time to ask: How should The Times report on the movement going forward? How can The Times get a handle on the big issues, while at the same time keeping an eye on ground-level developments in the Occupy camps? Here’s a menu of suggestions; some are my own ideas, and others were culled from views I solicited from readers and journalists.
First and foremost, The Times needs to find the structure emerging from the seemingly formless mass of a movement....
...and so it went. Later in the piece, Brisbane pens a passage that verily advises the paper to practice Occupy overlove:
While The Times seeks out a macro view of the issues and context, it should also find a creative way to capture the micro view. Publishing a daily blog about life at an Occupy camp is one good idea, suggested by Tom Fiedler, journalism dean at Boston University and former Miami Herald executive editor. Another good suggestion — in a blog post by Emily Bell, a former digital editor at The Guardian in Britain who now teaches digital journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism — called for a Times “air traffic controller,” someone like NPR’s Andy Carvin, who could use social media to aggregate Occupy developments worldwide every day.
Sounds like a lot of journalism that could easily end up being undermanaged.
Without a fuller explanation of the progressivist allegation, we can only wonder what Brisbane was thinking. Was he referencing Natasha Lennard, the freelancer who contributed to some of the early coverage before being outed as an Occupy loyalist? Or what?
Documenting media bias is difficult work. It requires going through, in this case, hundreds upon hundreds of stories, flagging instances of attitude and possible slant, weighing the mass and comparing it all against the work of other publications. Brisbane apparently didn’t have the time or appetite for such work in the case of the paper’s Occupy coverage. So he threw out another lazy and unsupported allegation of media bias. In doing so, he joins a large group.
When asked about whether this marks a fresh critique of the paper’s Occupy coverage, Brisbane sent me a link to the column quoted above, and conceded:
I addressed some of the complaints I was getting at the time and then took at look at suggestions for how to cover the story going forward. So, you’re right that I had not previously offered the point of view that was included in my sign-off piece.
Now there’s some ombudsmanian integrity.
*Former public editor Daniel Okrent already addressed this part of the Brisbane column.