Accuracy in Media

margaret sullivan nyt

For the second time in less than a week, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has taken the paper to task for its reporting.

This time Sullivan is wondering what has happened to real news at the Times:

It’s a Monday morning in mid-January. Your print edition of the Times is at hand, along with your coffee. You scan it for news. But, for the most part, you scan in vain.

Of the six front-page articles on Jan. 13, only one can be described as hard news: an article from Paris about negotiators putting the last touches on a deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear program. The other five are: a reconstruction of the “Bridgegate” scandala news-feature story about relics restored to the National Museum of Afghanistanan article about politics in Minnesota and Wisconsin; a setup story about Supreme Court arguments on the collision of free speech and abortion rights; and a feature about a high-end pawn broker.

Sullivan said she started thinking about this after a reader complained that there wasn’t a single news story on the front page of the Nov. 26, 2013 paper, calling the stories “interpretive journalism” as compared to the “real news” on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.

Just to make sure that these were not isolated incidents, Sullivan reviewed a few weeks worth of front pages and found that there were  indeed several more days when real news was hard to find:

In general, I found an emphasis on interpretive and enterprise journalism. I also found many examples of interesting and well-written articles with little news value.

Managing editor Dean Baquet did admit to Sullivan that there isn’t as much traditional news as there used to be on the front page, blaming it in part on the constant flow of news that readers have access to:

We have to ask ourselves what’s new and surprising and important to people — what we can offer that no one else can. So we put pressure on ourselves to put it in perspective or say what it means or give the backstory.

Baquet also told Sullivan that the ideal front page would include three or four “strong news stories that nobody else has, an investigative story, and a couple of really good reads.”

Sullivan would probably prefer that as well, but that’s not what the Times is delivering these days, in her opinion:

In my view, the Times’s most prominently displayed stories sometimes go too far in the direction of interpretation, analysis and elaborate writing. The reasonable reader, with only his coffee for assistance, might well wish that the important nugget of news would appear in the second paragraph instead of the seventh.

That reader (as opposed to a journalist who is plugged in to changing events all day long) may prefer more of the original news and less of a “second day” approach. In some cases, a breaking news article that appeared on the website all day long, frequently updated, never even makes it into the Times archive, pushed aside by the more interpretive article that appears in print the next day, but where the news is obscured.

While the “interpretive” writing was only noticed by Sullivan recently, Accuracy in Media has been pointing out this type of biased reporting for nearly 45 years—in the Times and other mainstream newspapers—so she’s a little late to the party. But at least she is willing to publicly raise questions about the Times’ reporting, which other liberals are loathe to do.

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