Why has The New York Times abandoned its commitment to journalism ‘without fear or favour,’ covering this presidential election?

 

Noticing the to-hell-with-objectivity coverage of the presidential race by some old media organs would be lonely without new media sites like deathandtaxesmag.com

Noticing the to-hell-with-objectivity U.S. election coverage by some old media organs would be lonely without new media sites like deathandtaxesmag.com

 

Why is Donald Trump’s non-existent following in Silicon Valley worth a story near the top of the home page of The New York Timesa report in which readers had to scroll down to its 11th paragraph to read the infinitely more remarkable news that Bernie Sanders has collected more than twice as much gold in donations from technology workers across the U.S. than Trump and Hillary Clinton put together?

According to estimates taken from Crowdpac, Trump campaign contributions from a grand total of 52 donors in this segment do not appear to have scraped even $20,000, compared with $2.7 million for Clinton and $6 million for Sanders. The headline for the bizarre NYT piece was just below the masthead when we popped in at the site last Wednesday night.

There was worse to come. Anyone who revisited the online NYT on Friday afternoon would have found no mention at all of the extraordinary backing for Sanders among the techie intelligentsia in an opinion piece by the veteran NYT reporter, Timothy Egan, illustrated with a picture of a supporter carrying a gigantic, clownish, papier-mâché model of Bernie’s head. The dateline for this screed titled ‘Bernie’s Last Stand’? Disneyland. And how did it characterise Sanders supporters? As virtual clowns:

Rumbling and roaring his way across California, Senator Bernie Sanders brought his political revolution to the neighborhood of Goofy and Mickey. […] Sanders … made his point about the great economic disparity in American life. His rallies in California — nearly two dozen in all — have drawn the expected crowds: young white Bernie bros in man buns, aging lefties in mildly subversive T-shirts — but also a fair amount of Hispanics and curious political neophytes. […] The Bern has been felt, the establishment rattled. Voters are decrying a “rigged economy” run by 1-percenters. Time to go back to Vermont, resuming the virtual anonymity that has characterized his quarter-century in Congress.

That is not merely partisan. It verges on vicious, not to mention contemptuous.

Call us naïve, but we confess to being shocked to the marrow by this newspaper smashing any illusion of a continuation of the grand old ideal for the practice of journalism ‘without fear or favour’ famously espoused by one of its own proprietors, in 1896. In hunting for the original declaration by that proprietor, we found the NYT all but disowning any connection to it last August — in a teasing attack on a reporter for the rabidly partisan Fox news network. Any idealist would read as a depressing exercise in revisionism what the story supplied — a sort of explanation for the elimination of an inscription of that quotation beside a statue of the newspaper baron in the lobby of the paper’s offices. It began:

Political madness has surely gripped the nation when a Fox News journalist publicly embraces a 119-year-old guiding principle of The New York Times, as Megyn Kelly did this week by vowing — Donald Trump’s taunts notwithstanding — to “continue doing my job without fear or favor.”

The piece concluded with this sentence: ‘But we still try to abide by Mr. Ochs’s principles.’ Only a Witless Wonder following the big New York paper’s coverage of this year’s presidential election could possibly believe that. Something has changed profoundly at the so-called ‘Gray Lady,’ long viewed by many as America’s sober, irreproachable journal of record — and not for the better.

Googling ‘Bernie Sanders Silicon Valley’ in the small hours of Friday morning yielded a string of headlines like the right-wing Wall Street Journal’s ‘Bernie Sanders Out-Raises Hillary Clinton in Silicon Valley’ and Newsweek’s ‘Who’s Silicon Valley Backing for President?’ with a lot of similar titles on all-digital media sites across the political spectrum. But certainly on Google’s first page of search results, on which any NYT story tends to rank high, there was nothing comparable from that paper. Nothing at all, in fact.

Most dismaying about the NYT’s decision to focus on Trump, not Sanders, in reporting on technology workers’ affiliations, is that the actual story is a good reporter’s or columnist’s dream. It is a paradox of marvellous depth, an as-yet unsolved mystery. Silicon Valley has been singled out for near-universal condemnation — not least, on this blink-and-you-miss-it post-Gutenberg blog — for its seeming callousness and unconcern about extreme, live illustrations of the growing social inequality crisis on its own doorstep. As Gawker.com has also noticed, the techies’ support of Sanders contradicts the Valley’s reputation as a stronghold of libertarian don’t-know-don’t care-about-the-less-fortunate and don’t-you-dare-tax-my-millions-for-government politics. We drew attention last August to the contradiction between this pegging and a statement by Sundar Pichai, the new head of Google, in an interview with a German journalist a few months before his appointment:

The thing that attracted me to Google and to [the] internet in general is that it’s a great equalizer. I’ve always been struck by the fact that Google search worked the same as long as you had access to a computer with connectivity, [whether] you were a rural kid anywhere or a professor at Stanford or Harvard.

Referring to the signs of clear approval, at the northern limit of the region, for the Vermont senator’s focus on income inequality — in spite of the growing tension, for years, between filthy rich techies and the poorer residents of San Francisco — Gawker’s Brendan O’Connor threw up his hands in obvious bafflement:

This is a little bit of an odd thing to say, however, as it is those very Silicon Valley workers who have contributed to said tensions. But! The world is a complicated place.

Over to you, New York Times: how about a spin-free analysis of this question from your army of Silicon Valley reporters and analysts? Seize the chance to prove your claims this very week that old print media capable of thorough, old-fashioned reporting deserve special privileges and protection?

How does a partisan press mislead the public and distort an election? Watch this conversation between Cenk Uygur and Bernie Sanders on The Young Turks

Bernie Sanders being interviewed about corporate media's partisan distortions of the truth by Cenk Uygur on The Young Turks, 23 March 2016

Bernie Sanders being interviewed about corporate media’s partisan distortions of the truth by Cenk Uygur on The Young Turks, 23 March 2016

Partisan press = blinkered vision + distorted facts Reichenau Island, 2011, by postgutenberg@gmail.com -- Originally posted on this blog on 5 May 2013

Partisan press = blinkered vision + distorted facts
Reichenau Island, 2011, by postgutenberg@gmail.com
— Originally posted on this blog on 5 May 2013

 

Weakening the capacity of the proudly partisan old media establishment to undermine democracy has been one of this blog’s causes from the start. In 2013, we collected a few of our posts about the evils of a blinkered — and blinkering — partisan press in one entry in post-Gutenberg.com during a British debate on the subject:

How Lord Justice #Leveson let down everyone who cares about the practice of journalism ‘without fear or favour’

We do not have a vote in U.S. elections. But, following the drama as closely as we can — like anyone anywhere on the globe not buried in a cave with abysmal wifi reception — we were delighted by the proof, in a superb half-hour interview, of exactly how influential old media are warping their depictions of Bernie Sanders and his campaign:

How high ambition hobbled Lord Justice Leveson’s chance to be a shining model for guiding media evolution and put new muscles on democracy

MIL22 + p-G leggitrice

Comrades across time: a scholarly girl of the 19th c. and a debater-netizen at a university today. (See our last two posts)
Sculpture by Pietro Magni, 1861, Villa Reale, Milano
Photomontage: MIL22 and post-Gutenberg

In social situations I try and leave telling people I am a lawyer to the end. I would much rather they see me first as an innovator, explorer, change agent, problem solver or entrepreneur.

— excerpt from article by Geoff Wild in the Law Gazette, selected for Private Eye‘s ‘Pseuds Corner,’ 14 December 2012

Why has Lord Justice Leveson turned against free speech on the net, after wisely refraining from doing any such thing during his hearings on press ethics and practices? His report and the aftermath of its publication, subjects of our last two entries in this blog, confirmed our grimmest expectations. The header of a post in May actually read:

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate?

Though honest, incisive journalists and editors of the highest rank justified — at the Leveson hearings — the public’s perception of the dangers of a fact-bending partisan press, the Leveson report said:

We want the news in the press to be true and accurate; we do not want to be misled or lied to. But we want, or are content for, it to be presented in a partisan way. We want a measure of balance and context, but we also want a perspective. We want the truth, but we understand that there are many versions of the truth, and incompleteness in all versions. […] [‘F]act’ and ‘comment’ […]  are by no means distinct and watertight categories. The very act of describing a fact is to comment on it. All forms of recording are selective.

As we interpret that, hair standing on end, the judge now fully supports newspapers and proprietors of the likes of Rupert Murdoch in their wish to protect their power base  — no matter what damage partisanship does to the presentation of the truth. In our May post in this spot, quoting the Leveson testimony of Alastair Campbell, the famously Machiavellian political adviser to Tony Blair who deeply regrets his own manipulations, we explained:

Why is the press so desperate to convince us that media partisanship is a good thing? Because, if the public approves of the press siding with particular political leaders and parties — instead of preferring press impartiality,  as it actually does, at present – the 4th Estate can continue to assume king-making powers.

Politicians will continue to put themselves at the beck and call of newspaper proprietors and editors in the hope of winning their nominations in elections. As Campbell pointed out yesterday, Murdoch’s is not the only press fiefdom involved in […] ‘a co-dependent relationship between politicians and the media’.

And then, just as we feared in early summer, in remarks made earlier this month, the judge has disappointed everyone who understands the internet as our best hope of accelerating and refining democracy — the steady trend across centuries, in the world’s free societies, towards making one human being more fully the equal of another in, above all, the right to unfettered expression.

Where did he go wrong?

It is clear that this happened at the very beginning.

The judge’s big mistake was in announcing at the start of his excavation into press misbehaviour that he did not want his recommendations for improvement to gather ‘dust on an academic’s shelf’ — along with the reports of several failed 20th-century attempts at tackling the job he was handed by David Cameron in 2011.

If Lord Justice Leveson only knew that he stood no chance of being a force for the good if he showed how much he cared about putting his ideas into practice.

This is because turning his conclusions into policy is the work of politicians. A politician sees getting re-elected as his or her most important duty. Politicians still believe that the support of the famous names in the newspaper business is crucial to winning elections — in spite of the internet’s destruction of the financial viability of these mouthpieces and readers’ growing reliance on other, net-based sources of information.

If only #Leveson LJ — who so impressed many of us watching the hearings with his intellectual rigour, meticulousness, and scrupulous disinterestedness — could have realised that in revealing that his supreme aim was to make his mark on history, he had fallen into the role of the hapless innocent in fairy tales who blindly promises the evil wizard his first-born child tomorrow, in exchange for magic that lets him slay dragons today.

During Tony Blair’s testimony at the hearings in late May, the judge implored the ex-prime minister to help him make his dream come true. What this lofty witness said proved that politicians fear falling out with powerful old print media to an unimaginable degree — as France 24 reported:

‘With any of these big media groups, you fall out with them and you watch out, because it is literally relentless and unremitting once that happens,’ Blair, looking tanned and smart in a navy suit and white shirt, told the Leveson inquiry.

‘My view is that that is what creates this situation in which these media people get a power in the system that is unhealthy and which I felt, throughout my time, uncomfortable with. I took the strategic decision to manage this and not confront it but the power of it is indisputable.’

What should the judge have concluded, from that remarkable, quaking confession of intimidation? That committing himself to being steered by politicians would mean losing his ability to offer wise, objective counsel about rules for fair combat in the evolutionary struggle between fading old media and their digital successors.

Which is how the Leveson Inquiry shows every sign of sinking ever-deeper into the muck of political bargaining and infighting in which politicians — now the main actors — will use every delaying tactic they can think of to ensure that the Inquiry’s clear demonstration of what needs to be repaired, discarded and replaced in British media comes to naught.

But then, isn’t the point of the Law to ensure that the behaviour of people and institutions conforms to rules and standards wrought from yesterday’s ideas? In that sense, lawyers and judges are innately, unavoidably, conservative — preoccupied with conserving the values of the past until forced to do otherwise.

So of course Lord Justice Leveson’s speeches in Australia earlier this month amounted to threatening the internet, or mass communication’s future, to please his new friends — the fogeys of the old print press.

Forget the debates now droning on about choices for self-regulation by the press, with or without statutory support. The judge has become the chief protector and champion of that same institution he seemed bent on purging, sanitising, and returning to the marvellous ideal of an incorruptible and deeply moral 4th Estate, mere months ago.

Will sic transit gloria do, for a Christmas message?