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.
Hiatt is on to something then, but he flatters himself when he claims endorsements are one of a newspaper’s “most important responsibilities.” In my judgment this importance exists largely in the minds of editorial and campaign staffs. This year strong endorsements by the Times of Ned Lamont over Joe Lieberman and Democrat Diane Farrell over moderate Republican Chris Shays in Connecticut failed to sway exactly the kind of voters one would expect to swear by the Times. And it’s hard to imagine a Washington Post editorial swaying many votes in the District of Columbia, where Democrats always win, no matter what. Perhaps the Post editors’ views are of interest to a few Maryland or Virginia voters, though the Post‘s endorsement of Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich Jr. apparently failed to impress there as well. And just why the Post board found itself reaching into the Lieberman primary remains a mystery. Who, among Connecticut Democrats, takes orders from a newspaper with no stake whatever in the community?
Of course, editorial writers would argue that their authority rests not on any inherent influence, but on the power of their prose to persuade. But if so, why not sign your name to your argument? Lord knows, nobody reads committee-written and vetted editorials for their scintillating prose. Too often, the stentorian voice of the collective editorial acts as a condom against effective communication–a prophylactic against the accidental conception of wit or irony.
Sure, it’s fun to pretend to be powerful and influential and to have politicians play along. But sadly, readers see editorials touting certain policies and politicians and assume the entire paper–including the news columns–is slanted the same way. For Murdoch’s New York Post or the Moonies’ Washington Times (or, um, The Nation) that’s fine, because they are. But in the so-called objective press, editorials taint the reporting in the minds of many readers. And while I can’t prove this, I think this leads reporters and editors to bend over backward to prove they don’t share the biases of their editorial boards, which in a time of “faith-based” public policy-making by Republicans, makes said reporters look increasingly “liberal” merely for taking reality into account.
Wouldn’t most papers be immediately improved by dropping their editorial page and increasing the ideological range and informational expertise of their contributing columnists? I’ll go even further. Why not heed the examples of Britain’s universally admired (liberal) Guardian and (conservative) Economist and drop the frequently phony distinction between “fact” and “opinion”? Why not just let reporters tell us what they know to be true and how and why they know it? Such a solution would borrow what’s most engaging from the blogosphere without sacrificing the crucial function of newspapers in a democratic society. What’s more, it would offer the potential to re-engage people in a (Deweyite) discussion and debate without dumbing down their sources of (Lippmann-like) information.
Have a better solution? Let’s hear it.