Former New York Times executive editor turned Op-Ed columnist Bill Keller sat down last week with Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, for a wide ranging interview on the state of journalism and said the Times was “socially liberal.”
Keller, who resigned as the executive editor in June but has remained with the paper as a senior writer and Op-Ed columnist, recalled a 2004 column by then-Public Editor Daniel Okrent in which he asked the question of whether the Times was a liberal paper and proceeded to answer it by simply saying “of course it is.”
In that column Okrent found liberalism in almost every facet of the Times, from the Sunday Styles section with its gay wedding announcements to the opinion page where he said that a ”balanced opinion page” is an oxymoron.
Keller referred to Okrent’s column as one that was seared into his memory and it clearly still bothers him even today, especially when Okrent said that creationists should not expect to find comfort in the paper’s Science Times section.
Keller: I wonder what his science advisor—? No, let’s save that subject for another time. You know, we are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban, you know our weddings page includes and did even before New York had a gay marriage law, included gay unions, so we’re liberal in that sense of the word. I guess socially liberal.
Smith then asked Keller if the Times is biased in favor of Democrats or liberals.
Keller: Aside from the liberal values—sort of social values thing that I talked about—no, I don’t think it does. It’s a different question whether individual reporters—I mean, there are—there are surveys that show that people who work in journalism tend to be predominantly liberal in their views of the world. But, you know, and I—I know there’s a school of thought this is, you know, nobody’s objective, you should just sort of declare your biases upfront and be upfront about it. You know there is a—a real discipline that I believe in. It’s—not to sound too high-falutin’—but it’s not that different from the discipline that a judge has. You know, I know that every judge sitting on the bench has some strong opinions that probably enter into his feelings about defendants and prosecutors and defense lawyers. And judges know that their job is to interpret the law. Maybe they don’t do it perfectly all the time, maybe their biases creep in, but there is a discipline, there is an expectation that you’re—as a judge, you’re supposed to set your personal biases aside—
So the paper may be “socially liberal,” in Keller’s words, but because he expects reporters to set their biases aside the Times therefore isn’t biased in favor of Democrats or liberals.
If you believe that I have a nice piece of land in the desert that I can sell you.
Jill Abramson, who succeeded Keller as executive editor, has steered clear of the liberal label, socially or otherwise, and told The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz in September that “Journalists in the newsroom play it straight.”
That would be the ideal standard for any newspaper in the country—not just the Times—but the fact of the matter is that it isn’t the standard practiced very often, if at all, at the Gray Lady.