The Times Narrative

Over time humans build up internal narratives that help explain the world and keep things in order. When observed events are consistent with these notions, our narratives are confirmed. Other events are dismissed or ignored. This is even a problem with supposedly objective scientists. Experimental results consistent with our previous notions are accepted with little thought, while results that are inconsistent with currently held theories are given additional scrutiny. This scrutiny is in direct proportion to the difference between new results and what was expected.

This resiliency of ideas and world view serves us well. Without it our lives would be all sail and no rudder. However, to this intellectual underpinning we need to bring an openness to new evidence. This is especially true in journalism. Journalists are not only constantly called upon to provide the facts about a story, but to decide what stories are important, and perhaps speak to larger truths. A news organization might always print facts, but a slanted selection of stories provides a distorted view of the world.

On the pages here, we have noted how columnist Paul Krugman leaped blindly to the conclusion that the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was caused by harsh political criticisms of Conservatives. It turns out that the shooter was delusional and of confused political opinions at best. Krugman has a world view and the shooting of Giffords so resonated with his notions, that he felt he could fill in the relevant information without bothering to wait for the details to emerge. The facts that surfaced were inconsistent with Krugman’s world view.

One can partially excuse the rash writing of a columnist. After all, they are paid to be opinionated. Why, as scientists would say, let data get in the way of good theory.

However according to William McGowan, in Gray Lady Down: The Decline and Fall of the New York Times, the Times has succumbed to the temptation to let internal narratives shape the news. McGowan is not a reflexive Times hater, gleefully jumping on the paper as its circulation plummets. The Times has been liberal for decades, but for many years this liberalism did not taint its news coverage.

Former executive editor Abe Rosenthal recognized that New York is Liberal and so are many who write for the Times. To keep the news straight he sometimes had to tack a little Right. The result was balance in the news side of the paper.

Indeed, even while the editorial page was distinctly Left and while the infamous Vice-President Spiro Agnew was railing against the press, and the Times was endorsing Senator George McGovern for President, the National Review, the quintessentially Conservative magazine, found the Times news coverage fair. They conducted an audit of stories that had a “distinct left-right line,” and concluded that:

“The Times news administration was so even handed that it must have been dismaying to the Liberal opposition… Were the news standards of the Times more broadly emulated, the nation would be far better informed and more honorably served.’’

Rosenthal was given broad authority to run the Times by publisher Arthur Sulzberger until Sulzberger’s passed on publishing responsibilities to his son Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. The younger Sulzberger is a sixties-era Liberal who has overseen the journalistic and economic decline of of the Times. He has systematically changed the Times from the national newspaper of record, to the party organ of the Left wing of the Democratic Party.

In Gray Lady Down, McGowan documents this decline, beginning with the excessive political correctness in news room hiring and followed by the collapse of journalistic standards. Sulzberger has been embarrassed by stories revealed as fraudulent, but he seems oblivious to the relationship between the reduction journalistic standards, in general, to the all too frequent sensational journalist failures.

Perhaps the clearest example of systematic and persistent narratives driving the Times to embarrassing behavior was the case of the Duke Lacrosse Team. A young black woman accused some members of the Duke Lacrosse Team of rape. It did not take too long before the woman’s story began to fall apart, but the story resonated so well with the Times’ internal narrative that it could not cover the story straight. As McGowan explained, in their coverage, “the Times’ script reflected a pattern of white supremacy deeply embedded in American culture…’’

Responsible press coverage would not have jumped to a single point of view and would have calmed the waters with careful fact-based dispassionate posts. Instead, it inflamed the situation both in news coverage and editorial comment. Ultimately, without help from the Times, the accused individuals were declared innocent and the prosecutor was sent to jail for of prosecutorial misconduct. A vigilant Times would have led the country toward the truth. Instead, their coverage dragged its feet, unwilling to give up its preferred narrative of Southern white racism by the privileged.

The Times will probably not collapse financially despite its current precarious position. It has too much momentum and respect garnered in earlier decades. In addition, there are probably too many liberals in New York whose internal narratives resonate with that of the Times for circulation to collapse entirely. However, until there is a new publisher and a return to journalistic standards of the Times under Rosenthal, the paper’s influence will wane into loud and embarrassing irrelevance.

2 Responses to “The Times Narrative”

  1. R. B. Parrish says:

    One wonders whether Times’ reporters, who seem to have been fed false information from sources favorable to the prosecution, are liable to being deposed, if it turns out that the lacrosse case was a deliberate attempt to frame innocent persons.

    While they might want to fall back on the “protecting a source” rubric, it would seem
    that if they were used to further a criminal conspiracy, they ought to a ) have an ethical
    obligation to help expose the fraud; and b ) want to distance themselves
    and restore their own reputation (such as it is) as truthful journalists.

  2. Frank Monaldo says:

    Thank for the reply. At this point, the Tines probably would rather forget the whole incident rather than face up to their mistakes.

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