I was at a book party not long ago when Randy Cohen, who writes the New York Times Magazine‘s “Ethicist” column, walked up to New York Governor George Pataki and said, “Please, Governor, where’s New York City’s school aid program? You’ve got to fund that!” Pataki, upon learning of Cohen’s place of employ, said something like, “Yes, the Times would complain about school funding,” and walked away. End of conversation.
You see, the Times editorial page strongly opposes Pataki’s stonewalling of court-ordered increases in education funding. Pataki therefore feels he can blithely blow off a guy who writes an advice column in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine.
Why am I telling you this story? Pataki was obviously full of it. He knew that the author of a paper’s Sunday advice column is no more responsible for the opinions expressed on its editorial page than the guy who drops it off at my doorstep each morning. But being a politician, Pataki was also aware that the Times editorial page gives the paper its reputation as a “liberal” newspaper–no matter how sympathetic its reporters try to be to the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (and no matter that, in fact, the Times editorial page endorsed Pataki himself in his last campaign). Because of this reputation, Pataki thought he could ignore a question from anyone associated with the newspaper without paying a price. And here, unfortunately, he was probably right.
Fred Hiatt, who heads the Washington Post editorial page, admits that “endorsements by the editorial page can make life difficult for our colleagues who report and edit the news, though in fact we operate totally independently from each other.” Despite this independence, he recognizes that “some readers and campaign workers will always be skeptical of that separation, and the doubts can be a burden on Post political reporters.”
In the case of the Post, the dynamic is somewhat different. Its editorial page has rushed so far right of late, it has come to mimic the work of the self-described “wildmen” of the Wall Street Journal. Post editorialists apparently feel they are free to ignore inconvenient facts reported in the paper’s news section, and misuse others, to justify the Bush Administration’s campaign against Joe Wilson and other critics–as a careful Media Matters for America report has demonstrated.
While reporters and editors would like to believe that their readers are fully aware of the split between the news and editorial desks, in fact the distinction matters only to the minuscule minority who read the paper the way journalism professors would wish. Most news consumers do not know or care enough to make such distinctions. The Times is recognized as a “liberal newspaper” because it has a generally liberal editorial page. (For the first time in modern memory, the Times endorsed virtually all Democrats this year.) The Wall Street Journal is seen as the opposite. As a result, Journal reporters are apparently less terrified than their Times colleagues of appearing to confirm suspicions of “liberal bias” in their stories, so they feel slightly freer to tell the truth.