NYT D.C. coverage: will this season be tactic-obsessed, centrist and consensus loving, or...newsy?

Press Criticism | By Craig Gurian |

Oct. 7, 2011 — There’s a new bureau chief (David Leonhardt) at the Washington Bureau of The New York Times, so we are hoping that the problems we identified in the spring and summer won’t recur. 

We had first noticed the practice of having reporter opinions and assumptions neatly tucked into a story as though they were facts, but then starting coming across other problems: refusing to characterize something directly for fear of being seen as “taking sides” and presenting false equivalences, for example. There were also some classic he-said, she-said pieces and tactic-obsessed stories — both types reported without regard to truth value, morality, or legality. There are also numerous examples of what might be described as miscellaneous “centrism-philia.”

Finally, there was a category we described as holding back information during a debate because it doesn’t fit the chosen narrative.

This season, we couldn’t help but notice (see below) a remarkably tactic-obsessed story. (On the other hand, it’s clear that the Bureau’s reporters do know how to assess the truth content of the statements of various politicians.) We’ll see what the rest of the fall brings.

Updated Oct. 12, 2011 with example of story concerned about truth value of politican statements.

Key to annotations

Presenting as fact what is actually the reporter’s adoption of unsupported assumptions.

Refusing to characterize directly.

“He said, she said.”


False equivalence

Miscellaneous centrism-philia.

Holding back information during a debate because it doesn’t fit the chosen narrative

Diamond in the rough


“Democrats Seek Tax on ‘Richest,’ Aiming Gauntlet at G.O.P.”

Robert Pear, Oct. 6, 2011

In proposing a 5 percent surtax on incomes of more than $1 million a year to pay for job-creation measures sought by President Obama, Senate Democratic leaders on Wednesday escalated efforts to strike a more populist tone and to draw Republicans into a confrontation over how much affluent Americans should pay to help others cope with a struggling economy

The new plan, devised by the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, has a twofold purpose: to draw a sharp contrast with Congressional Republicans, who have dug in against any increases in tax rates, and to quell a revolt brewing among some Democrats who objected to parts of the White House plan.

Mr. Reid said the surtax would raise $445 billion over 10 years, just about the amount needed to pay for the jobs bill, though it appears unlikely it could make it through Congress.

the Democratic proposal seems more about politics than policy. Even if wavering Democrats could be rounded up to support the president’s plan, Senate Republicans could block the proposal by denying Democrats the votes needed to overcome a near-certain filibuster.

Details of the surtax proposal are still being worked out.

Congressional aides said it would probably work this way: The government would collect an additional tax equal to 5.6 percent of the amount of income exceeding $1 million. So for a person with income of $1.1 million, the extra tax would be $5,600, which is 5.6 percent of $100,000. Estimates from the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation indicate that 330,000 households have more than $1 million of income, broadly defined.

The proposed surtax would apply to wages and salaries, capitals gains, interest, dividends and some other types of income, Congressional aides said.

Public opinion polls suggest some support for the Democrats’ approach.

In a recent CBS News poll, 64 percent of people said taxes should be increased on households earning $1 million a year or more…

Tax rates on the wealthy have declined in recent decades. The total federal tax rate for the top one-thousandth of all earners — a group that now starts at about $1.5 million in annual income — was 53.7 percent in 1980, according to research by the economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty. By 2004, the latest year for which the economists have data, the total federal rate had fallen to 33.7 percent.

The proposal may help unify Democrats, allowing them to present themselves as populists in a tax fight with Republicans

The subordinate clause is that the surtax would pay for job-creating measures, but the main point is that the proposal is simply a political maneuver.

This paragraph makes the reporter’s take even more explicit: the purposes are tactical, not substantive.

The assumption is that if one sees intractable opposition, the only reason that one proposes something is for cheap political gain. It seems not to occur to the reporter that there might be a responsibility to put forward the proposal that one thinks makes substantive sense (just as Republicans put forward budget cutting proposals that they think make substantive sense), and the fact that a political impasse occurs might be precisely what is supposed to happen so that voters can make choices between competing visions.

“Some support” is a curious phrase (a strong majority would be more apt). But saying this directly — that much of the public finds this type of proposal entirely reasonable — doesn’t jive with the theme that the proposal is unrealistic and is just being used for partisan political ends.

Here, the reporter — who is experienced and knowledgable — presents some actual facts that would seem to have a bearing on whether the proposal would, as a substantive matter, perhaps make some sense. The facts cry out to be posed to politicians in competing camps, but the story never does that.

Back to tactics, and an opportunity to probe is lost.


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