The New York Times’ not-so-liberal bias against Trump

A July 23 commentary by The New York Times’ public editor, Liz Spayd, reads like a case study of the phenomenon that Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky identified in their 1988 analysis of the U.S. news media, Manufacturing Consent.

Herman and Chomsky argue that information in the U.S. mainstream press about significant world events and issues is subject to at least five propaganda filters, all of which affect the end product. Post-filtration, the worldview embodied in major press organs’ coverage tends to align with the interests of political and economic elites and powerful institutions — and not, for example, with those of the majority of Americans.

The authors have claimed that the common theory of a “liberal bias” in the mainstream U.S. news media is partly a bait-and-switch, designed to divert attention from the outsized influence of business and conservative interests over that media landscape. The illusory paradigm of the “liberal media” then invites a false debate over whether the news media are excessively liberal — analogous to quibbling over whether the crew of the Titanic was overly fastidious in preparing for the contingency of striking an iceberg.

The “liberal” chimera

Spayd’s piece opens with examples of complaints she has received in her work e-mail inbox. One reader asserts that the newspaper is alienating independent and open-minded readers, presumably with its biased political coverage. Another self-proclaimed “liberal” reader in California, who asked not to be named, expresses surprise and disappointment at feeling compelled to visit the Fox News website to apprise h/erself of “the rest of the story that the NYT refused to publish”. Yet another, who describes h/erself as “not even a Republican”, informs Spayd that the Times has “lost a subscriber” because of its “relentless bias against Trump”. Spayd does not cite any “actual conservatives”, but invites us to imagine what the complaints from those readers sound like.

At this point, symptoms appear of the facile, oversimplified dichotomy Spayd plans to trot out: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his conservative sympathizers versus the New York Times and its liberal journalists and editors.

“Like the tiresome bore at a party, I went around asking several journalists in the newsroom about these claims that The Times sways to the left. Mostly I was met with a roll of the eyes. All sides hate us, they said. We’re tough on everyone. That’s nothing new here.”

Note the twofold canard: the questionable premise that The Times leans left, and a tired journalistic cop-out that amounts to “We dissatisfy everyone, which means we must be doing a swell job.” In reality, of course, there is no necessary correlation between the quality of one’s journalistic output and its degree of success at rankling any segment of the public. A more intellectually honest approach to journalism would require publishing the truth, as best one can ascertain it, without regard to the reaction(s) its publication might elicit. Yet, as the rest of her article makes clear, this is not the approach that Spayd advocates.

“A paper whose journalism appeals to only half the country has a dangerously severed public mission.”

Here Spayd takes the dichotomy one step further: America is divided into halves, she implies, with the “conservative” half presumably sympathetic to Trump and the “liberal” half presumably sympathetic to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Never mind polls indicating that an historic percentage of American voters view both candidates unfavourably, to say nothing of the Democratic National Committee’s decidedly undemocratic rigging of the party’s primary process in Clinton’s favour, which solidified her victory.

The next sentence contains the lynchpin of Spayd’s thesis: “And a news organization trying to survive off revenue from readers shouldn’t erase American conservatives from its list of prospects.” In effect, then, The Times should cater more to “conservative” and “moderate” segments of the public, since they represent a gold mine of potential subscribers and advertising targets.

Inasmuch as she suspects her newspaper might be biased, Spayd’s instincts are sound. Virtually every piece of reportage in every journalistic publication in human history displays some form of bias. And bias is not inherently undesirable. In a factual debate between a well-informed climatologist and a climate change denier, for example, a bias toward the former is entirely appropriate.

But Spayd misdiagnoses the illness, and conflates the general concept of “bias” with the much narrower notion of “liberal bias” to such a degree that her analysis seems downright careless. She concludes by proposing remedies that have little to do with the demands of good journalism, and much more to do with boosting subscription and advertising revenue for The Times.

A closer examination of The Times’ presidential campaign bias

At this point, the existence of an overwhelmingly consensus at The Times over which of the two candidates is better suited for the job of Commander-in-Chief (namely Clinton) is plain as day. But is this an indication of leftish bias at the newspaper?

First of all, the implicit characterization of Clinton as a “liberal” or “leftist” is questionable at best.

In foreign policy, she owns a hawkish record of endorsing U.S. interventions that have violated the national sovereignty of other states — including disastrous military campaigns in Iraq and Libya, the funneling of arms and logistical support to hardline anti-government rebels in Syria, and the unconstitutional ouster of elected governments in Ukraine and Honduras. Her list of likely cabinet appointees include military interventionist Michele Flournoy and weaponized drone-enamoured former CIA director Leon Panetta, both of whom have already called for military aggression against the Syrian regime. Clinton compared the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014 to the actions of Hitler in the 1930s, and as Secretary of State, was a principal architect of the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia initiative that has heightened tensions in the South China Sea. The prospects for de-escalation of the world’s major conflicts appear sketchy if Clinton becomes president, and the likelihood of dangerous escalation very high.

Domestically, Clinton defended harsh welfare “reforms” implemented under her husband Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s, and sang the praises of the North American Free Trade Agreement — a corporate-friendly investment treaty that has eroded the bargaining powers of America’s working class, and served as a template for subsequent pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Incidentally, Clinton’s support for TPP has been on-again off-again, and if she becomes president, will likely be on again. She and her running mate Tim Kaine are both Wall Street favourites. She is a longtime proponent of the fracking industry (her campaign statements on the practice notwithstanding), and has named outspoken oil-and-gas champion Ken Salazar to head her transition team.

Clinton has tended to pursue neoliberal and militaristic policies repugnant to much of the American left, and advocated by many Republicans who have announced their intention to cast ballots for her in this election cycle. The Times’ preference for Clinton is no more a sign of “liberal bias” than lukewarm Clinton endorsements by Republican neoconservatives.

The tenuous Trump-Putin connection

Along with much of the U.S. mainstream media, journalists at The Times have lately embarked on a propaganda campaign to portray Trump as an agent (or something like that) of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

On the basis of officials’ statements and little else, The Times has strongly and repeatedly implied that Russia’s government was responsible for a hack of Democratic National Committee e-mails, revealing the DNC’s efforts to undermine the primary campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders. One of Russia’s motivations in perpetrating the hack, The Times’ reports imply, was to aid the presidential aspirations of Trump.

A July 28 article in The Times stated that Trump “said…he hoped intelligence services had successfully hacked Hillary Clinton’s email, and encouraged them to publish whatever they may have stolen, essentially urging a foreign adversary to conduct cyberespionage against a former secretary of state.” This is a radically uncharitable interpretation of Trump’s comments, which were likely in jest, and did not explicitly “urge” a “foreign adversary” either to commit cyberespionage or to publish anything.

In a more recent iteration of its Kremlin-baiting against Trump, The Times has highlighted payments from the party of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to now-resigned Trump campaign advisor Paul Manafort. In and of itself, disclosure of payments by foreign governments to campaign advisors serves the public interest, enabling readers to follow the money and draw their own conclusions. But The Times has gone much further than that in its aspersions.

Because Yanukovych was elected with strong support from Russophone and Russia-sympathetic segments of Ukraine, The Times has insinuated that the payments to Manafort may partly account for Trump’s “unusually sympathetic view” of Putin. Crucial context is absent, like the fact that Manafort has served political actors of various ideological leanings all over the world. Manafort’s past client list includes American political stalwarts like John McCain and Ronald Reagan — few of whom could plausibly be accused of Russophilia.

Moreover, one could identify suspect connections between Clinton and foreign governments, including the Putin regime, as well. Consider Clinton’s 2010 approval, in her role as Secretary of State, of a substantial sale of uranium mining concessions to the Russian state-run firm Rosatom, which came amid donations by the Russian government to the Clinton Foundation — a combination of circumstances on which The Times reported.

Selective stretching of the truth in a partisan campaign to link a domestic politician to a foreign official enemy is not a form of “liberal bias”. It is just sloppy, tendentious journalism.

As more honest reporters like Robert Parry of Consortium News and Adam Johnson of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) have pointed out, the Democratic nominee and her supporters in the press are playing a dangerous game by artificially tying Trump and Putin together in hopes of discrediting both. This propaganda reinforces the perceived legitimacy of NATO’s provocative military buildup and exercises near Russia’s western border. It also precludes a long-overdue and sorely needed public debate about U.S.-Russia relations and the Pentagon’s role in the world.

Not a defence of Trump

The purpose of this analysis is not to suggest that journalistic bias against Trump is necessarily unwarranted. Many of Trump’s statements and policy positions are simply abhorrent: the desire to revive practices “worse than waterboarding” in a reinvigorated War on Terror; stated intention to blitz areas of the Middle East inhabited by large numbers of civilians; outrageous mocking of the disability of The Times’ reporter Serge Kovaleski; reprehensible attitudes toward women; public denial of climate change despite an implicit acknowledgement of the threat it represents to at least one of his golf courses; various extremely ignorant statements about Muslims, Mexicans, and the Black Lives Matter movement. His policy proposals are frequently reactionary, and all but devoid of concrete details (viz. “We’re gonna build a wall!”, “We’re gonna make America great again — believe me!”). He is generally authoritarian, hawkish on surveillance, and apparently hostile to both journalism and dissent. The extensive research into Trump’s systematic tax avoidance, shady business practices, and links to organized crime by investigative journalist David Cay Johnston also merits prominent, aggressive coverage — more so than it has thus far received.

The real problem with The Times’ bias against Trump is not the fact it exists, but rather the form it has taken. In much of the newspaper’s reportage on the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump has become a vessel for all manner of political arguments that journalists and editors at The Times seem to disdain. For example, one might reasonably infer that a renewed Cold War with Russia is misguided, counterproductive, and potentially catastrophic, regardless of one’s personal feelings toward that country’s president; that “free trade” agreements introduced since the 1990s have harmed more Americans than they have helped; that the Pentagon’s self-appointed role as global military enforcer is economically unsustainable and of questionable benefit to international security; or that major protectorate states of the U.S. and NATO should accept a greater share of responsibility for their own security. Articles in The Times discussing Trump’s foreign policy proposals tend to dismiss these legitimate concerns insofar as Trump voices them.

In other words, The Times’ bias against Trump is not primarily “liberal” and hostile to “conservative” perspectives, but rather, resembles an attempt to preemptively discredit sensible challenges to conventional Beltway wisdom by associating those challenges with Trump.

What objectivity?

Spayd seems preoccupied with maintaining the theoretical barrier between fact and opinion, and clearly distinguishing the editorial offerings of the newspaper’s “liberal” columnists from its hard news articles. Yet this barrier is far flimsier and more permeable at The Times than her assessment suggests. In the case of Trump, even more so than usual.

This piece by The Times’ media columnist Jim Rutenberg offers some insight into why. He describes the tension that many traditionally “non-opinion” journalists — including, presumably, reporters at The Times — experience in their professional relationship with Trump.

“If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that,” Rutenberg writes. “You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.”

The conclusion Rutenberg draws is that because Trump is an outlier, journalists will tend to abandon the “normal standards” of “objectivity” and “balance” (Rutenberg seemingly conflates the two) in their reporting on his candidacy. Moreover, this practice is defensible — but only in Trump’s exceptional case.

He sums up the merits of this contention in his final paragraph:

“[J]ournalism shouldn’t measure itself against any one campaign’s definition of fairness. It is journalism’s job to be true to the readers and viewers, and true to the facts, in a way that will stand up to history’s judgment.”

The trouble is, this noble aspiration is not entirely compatible with what Rutenberg identifies as touchstones of “journalism with a capital ‘J’”, nor with the prescription for change that Spayd offers. It also invites questions about the criteria and circumstances under which it is appropriate for a journalist to abandon “normal standards”. If Trump’s presidential candidacy merits their eschewal, why not Clinton’s?

Ultimately, Rutenberg is posing a false dilemma, since journalism — including The Times’ brand thereof — is seldom objective in any meaningful sense.

Consider a July 20 news story in The Times, headlined “Donald Trump Sets Conditions for Defending NATO Allies Against Attack”:

Asked about Russia’s threatening activities, which have unnerved the small Baltic States that are among the more recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing if those nations have “fulfilled their obligations to us.”

The co-authors David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman provide no description of the Russian “activities” in question, but seem to presume the phrase “Russia’s threatening activities” will mean something to their readers. If a foreign newspaper were to refer in passing to “America’s threatening activities”, journalists at The Times would surely demand specific examples.

The journalists also engage in mind-reading, claiming that said “threatening activities” have “unnerved” small Baltic NATO member states. Later in the same article, we learn that “European allies” are “nervous about American commitments”, that Turkey “fears [the Kurds] will form a breakaway nation,” and that the Obama administration fears for Turkey’s stability in the aftermath of an attempted coup against its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This is a fundamental departure from “objectivity”. It is impossible for a journalist to know what the subject of h/er reportage is thinking or feeling. The attribution of thoughts and feelings to a subject of reporting is really the ascription of a journalist’s own assumptions about that subject’s mental and emotional state, and h/er values and priorities.

The journalists attempt to illustrate the contrasts between Trump’s approach and that of previous Republican presidential candidates:

Mr. Trump repeatedly defined American global interests almost purely in economic terms. Its roles as a peacekeeper, as a provider of a nuclear deterrent against adversaries like North Korea, as an advocate of human rights and as a guarantor of allies’ borders were each quickly reduced to questions of economic benefit to the United States.

This is the authors’ general interpretation of what Trump told them. They provide no substantiation in the form of direct quotes or paraphrases.

More important are the embedded ideological premises: the U.S. is a peacekeeper that deters the military activities of its adversaries, an advocate of human rights, and a guarantor of its allies’ borders that does not habitually prioritize considerations of economic self-interest in its foreign policy. The truth is rather more complicated.

The U.S. is often a warmonger and catalyst for violent conflict. In the past three decades, with military aggression against countries like Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, it has signaled to targeted regimes that they must either possess weapons of mass destruction, or risk obliteration at the hands of the world’s most powerful war machine. To invoke the same example the journalists cite, deterrence against the U.S. was precisely North Korea’s stated aim in withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and pursuing a nuclear weapons program in the first place.

The U.S. government is selective in its advocacy of human rights, tending to criticize adversaries’ violations more harshly than those of its allies, and indeed, is often complicit in its allies’ abuses. Anyone who subscribes to the claim about border enforcement should ask Palestinians and Lebanese how effectively the U.S. has defended their countries’ borders.

Finally, there is the matter of economics. Market penetration by U.S.-based corporations has arguably been the overriding consideration of U.S. foreign policy for well over a century. Consider the present-day example of the U.S. government’s opposition to the democratically elected leftist government of Venezuela, motivated almost entirely by the ambitions of U.S.-headquartered companies to more readily penetrate that country’s petroleum industry.

Major forms of bias I have identified in the news section of The New York Times

I have detected at least five types of bias in The Times’ news articles, none “liberal” per se:

  • American exceptionalism: The U.S. is an exceptional nation, and thus has the right to conduct its affairs without serious regard to international law. Only a few U.S. allies, and no espied U.S. adversaries, enjoy a similar right. Indeed, any behaviour by other countries that runs afoul of the Washington elite consensus will tend to elicit derogatory coverage in The Times.
  • Presumption of America’s virtue — and its adversaries’ treacherousness: Overall, the U.S. is unambiguously a force for good in the world. Periodic misjudgements like Iraq or Vietnam notwithstanding, its leaders nearly always have noble intentions. The same is not true of leaders adversarial to the U.S., who are inherently malign and mischievous, and whose misdeeds are largely attributable to those character defects.

A news article dated September 30, 2015, by The Times’ Helene Cooper, Michael R. Gordon, and Neil MacFarquhar, exemplifies this ideological slant.

The headline — “Russians Strike Targets in Syria, but Not ISIS Areas” — presents as authoritative fact the claim by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter that Russia’s air force was “probably” not striking ISIS-held areas. On the contrary, Russia’s military has clearly been striking ISIS redoubts since the beginning of its intervention in Syria.

Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict, foreshadowed by a rapid military buildup in the past three weeks at an air base in Latakia, Syria, makes the possibility of a political settlement in Syria more difficult and creates a new risk of inadvertent incidents between American and Russian warplanes flying in the same area. And it adds a powerful but unpredictable combatant to a civil war that has already resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and a flood of refugees.

This passage portrays as fact the reporters’ opinions that Russian military intervention is a haphazard vector of mischief and a barrier to diplomatic resolution of the war in Syria. It does not mention that the U.S.’s military activity and proxy regime-change project in Syria violate international law, while the Russian campaign does not. Nor does it realistically evaluate the Russian mission in terms of its stated goals: to support the diplomatic process and buttress Russian national security.

Instead, the journalists draw on their own ideological preconceptions to mind-read Putin’s motives for “interfering” in Syria:

On the international front, [Putin] wants to restore Russian influence as a global power and try to force an end to the diplomatic and financial isolation the West imposed after Moscow seized Crimea and supported separatists in southeastern Ukraine. He also wants to maintain control over Russia’s naval station at Tartus, in Syria, its only remaining overseas military base outside the former Soviet Union.

  • Evidentiary double standards for allies versus enemies: The evidentiary threshold required to indict official adversaries of the Washington establishment is dramatically lower than the standard required to credibly implicate officials in the U.S. or in U.S.-allied states.

Consider The Times’ presumption of Russian guilt in the tragic 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17, its rush to judgement against the Syrian government in the 2013 sarin gas attacks in Eastern Ghouta, its frequent citation of dubious and error-prone sources so long as they appear to corroborate the U.S. official narrative, and most infamously, its amplification of false claims by the U.S. government of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the U.S.-led invasion of that country in 2003.

  • Plutocratic bias: Summed up in the phrase “What’s good for the wealthiest members of American society is generally good for America.” Policy agendas that disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans — such as NAFTA and TPP — tend to receive favourable treatment on balance in both the news and editorial sections of The Times.

By contrast, in a piece demeaning Democratic presidential candidate Sanders’ single-payer health care proposal — which would bring the U.S. health care system in line with that of most other industrialized countries, and could plausibly reduce health care costs for the majority of Americans without jeopardizing quality of care — The Times cited several “left-leaning economists” skeptical of the plan. Not only were these skeptics not left-leaning in any meaningful sense, many were also linked to a Democratic establishment hostile to Sanders, and some had served in Bill Clinton’s administration — close to a conflict of interest.

  • Washington groupthink bias: The Times’ reporters tend to assume views that enjoy official sanction and/or bipartisan consensus in Congress are valid, even when they are poorly substantiated. In general, The Times tends to be inadequately skeptical of statements by “U.S. officials”. For example, the notion of “Russian aggression” is treated as axiomatic in the pages of the newspaper, although evidence of said “aggression” and appropriate context typically do not accompany these passing allusions. A similar practice applied to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the period between the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq invasion.
  • Mind-reading: It is standard practice for The Times’ journalists to attribute thoughts and feelings to reporting subjects — including individuals, organizations, institutions, and even whole countries. For examples, see What objectivity? and Presumption of America’s virtue above.

Spayd’s analysis does not account for any of these discernible biases, however. For her, it is only the perception of “liberal” bias at The Times that warrants a rethink.

Spayd’s problematic conclusion

Near the end of her commentary, Spayd quotes The Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet, who, the public editor writes, wants The Times’ reach to be wide:

“‘We have to be really careful that people feel like they can see themselves in The New York Times,’” he said. ‘I want us to be perceived as fair and honest to the world, not just a segment of it. It’s a really difficult goal. Do we pull it off all the time? No.’”

Does this statement imply that unless one is an American jingoist and/or nationalist with a political orientation that falls somewhere between the centre and the far-right, one is not part of “the world”?

Spayd continues:

“I agree with Baquet: It isn’t easy. But it’s not hard to imagine some small steps on a longer journey — leaving editorials on the editorial page, banning campaign ads from the home page, or building a better mix of values into the ranks of the newsroom’s urban progressives.”

To buttress her claim that America is a politically fractured country, with liberals and conservatives flocking to different news sources, she cites a Pew study indicating that 65 percent of The Times’ readership has political views to the left of centre. However, there is no consistent, universal definition of where the political centre lies, and political ideology is too complex and multi-dimensional for the classic left-right paradigm to adequately capture. Many American anti-war libertarians have a laissez-faire attitude toward same-sex marriage, and economic views well to the right of centre. On issues of international trade, “liberal” Clinton has historically been to the right of “conservative” Trump’s current stated position. Polls suggest both major U.S. parties are to the proverbial right of a majority of Americans on several consequential issues, like climate change, health care, and Israel-Palestine policy.

In any event, from the perspective of accuracy in journalism, it is not clear why The Times should strive to tailor its news coverage to the political orientation of the median American. After all, The Times is not running a focus-tested marketing campaign. Its role is, at least ostensibly, to inform and enlighten people.

And therein lies the root of the problem. The commercial organs of the American press have a dual mandate: on one hand, to disseminate information, spark conversation, and challenge popular ideas and sensibilities — a public service essential for the most basic functioning of a democracy; and on the other hand, to attract the largest possible number of subscribers, media consumers, and advertisers, at least in part by telling them what they want to hear. Reconciliation between those two aims has always been difficult, and even more so now that the traditional journalistic business model has been disrupted by the transition from print to online primacy.

Spayd’s final sentences inspire little confidence in her understanding of this tension, let alone her capacity to balance the competing priorities of business and public service appropriately.

“Imagine what would be missed by journalists who felt no pressing need to see the world through others’ eyes.”

This is not terribly difficult.

“Imagine the stories they might miss, like the groundswell of isolation that propelled a candidate like Donald Trump to his party’s nomination. Imagine a country where the greatest, most powerful newsroom in the free world was viewed not as a voice that speaks to all but as one that has taken sides.

“Or has that already happened?”

Indeed, The Times has consistently taken sides since its inception as a news organization. Spayd’s most fundamental journalistic failing — and that of the institution she represents — is an unwillingness or inability to correctly identify, much less address, that predisposition.