Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt launched his latest Week in Review column "Keeping Their Opinions to Themselves " with an accurate reading of a liberally slanted story by Patrick Healy on the campaign style of Sarah Palin, a story Times Watch criticized when it appeared last week. He even indirectly admitted that Times reporters were probably more liberal than the rest of the population. But he refused to make the connection between liberal journalists and liberal journalism.
Last Tuesday, The Times ran a Political Memo about the content and style of Sarah Palin's campaign speeches, and I braced for an outpouring of protest from her supporters.
The article began, "Here is the thing about Gov. Sarah Palin: She loves America. Really loves it." I thought it sounded sarcastic and condescending, The New York Times making fun of a rube from Alaska, and I was sure others would too.
But every reader I heard from had an entirely different reaction. They focused on the reporter's assertion that Palin is "the most electrifying speechmaker" on a major party ticket this year, a candidate who "generates enormous fervor at her events." Stephen Lathrop of Hull, Mass., said The Times was allowing itself to "become the victim of a skillful manipulation" and that it had turned into "an involuntary Palin booster."
Throughout this election season, most of the thousands of messages I have received about Times news coverage have alleged bias - bias in headlines, photo selections, word choices, what the newspaper chooses to write about and what it ignores, what it puts on Page 1 and what it puts inside. Most of the complaints, but by no means all of them, have come from the right. Nobody acknowledges the possibility that, because of their own biases, they could be reading more, or less, than was intended into an article, a headline or a picture. Many go a step beyond alleging mere bias to accuse The Times of operating from a conscious agenda to help one candidate and destroy the other.
Like Times editor Richard Stevenson did when talking to readers online in June, Hoyt admitted that journalists in general and perhaps Times journalists in particular tend to lean to the left. Like Stevenson, he denied that this slant had any impact on the paper's coverage.
Being human, journalists do have personal biases, and a long line of studies has shown that they tend to be more socially and politically liberal than the population at large. There is no reason to believe Times journalists are any different. But Tien-Tsung Lee, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, wrote in 2005 after reviewing the literature that "a link between reporters' political beliefs and news coverage has never been convincingly established."