NYT: still wearing its politics on its newsroom sleeve

Press Criticism | By Craig Gurian |

June 29, 2011 — National political reporters for the New York Times may not drink as much Kool-Aid as outgoing executive editor Bill Keller (whose piece on the noble efforts of the “Gang of Six” — Senators working toward moving Congress “past paralysis and toward compromise” in respect to the deficit — ran in the May 1 edition of the Sunday Times Magazine under the headline “They Could Be Heroes”), but they have trouble resisting the lure of always seeing the political center as being “reasonable” and “practical.” And it impairs their work.

Remapping Debate is documenting the scope of the problem —  illustratively, not comprehensively. We started with an emphasis on the practice of having reporter opinions and assumptions neatly tucked into a story as though they were facts. As you’ll see when you mouse over the highlighted selections, there are other recurring problems that are hard to ignore: for example, refusing to characterize something directly for fear of being seen as “taking sides,” and presenting false equivalences.  There are also some classic he-said, she-said pieces and tactic-obsessed stories — both types reported without regard to truth value, morality, or legality. Finally, there are also examples of what might be described as miscellaneous “centrism-philia.”

These are all practices that help shape what is and is not debated, and thus — regardless of any protestations to the contrary — are thus deeply political (in effect if not in intent).

Note: the text of this story has been revised and supplemented since the publication of initial selections on May 19, 2011.

Research assistance: Alyssa Ratledge


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.


“Bachmann Opens Campaign as Expectations Grow”

Jeff Zeleny, June 28, 2011

…As she returned to her childhood home in Waterloo, where she lived until the age of 12, Mrs. Bachmann asked voters to “make a bold choice” as they weigh the Republican contenders. She presented herself as a forceful conservative, unafraid to confront the party establishment and unwilling to compromise on its principles in her quest to win the nomination to challenge President Obama…

On the eve of her announcement, she was locked in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney in The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll, the first survey of voters who say they plan to attend the Republican caucuses that open the presidential nominating contest early next year. Her name recognition and high visibility contributed to her rapid rise, advisers said, and her challenge now is to build a campaign structure that can capture the grass-roots enthusiasm surrounding her…

She introduced herself as a candidate with broad appeal, acknowledging the spirit of Tea Party activists, but pointing out that she also hails from a long line of Democrats. (Yes, she conceded, she once volunteered for the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter.)

…A wide circle of relatives and friends surrounded Mrs. Bachmann, including Bruce Munson, a cousin, who joined for a family picture after her speech. Mr. Munson said the nation would grow to love her tenacity, adding, “If anyone can break the glass ceiling, it will be Michele.”

Mrs. Bachmann, who rose to prominence with her evocative quips and spirited presence in television interviews and appearances at Tea Party rallies last year, has also experienced a string of gaffes…

Even accepting the terms of a “who is up and who is down story,” wouldn’t one want to get more than advisor spin? Perhaps even a comment from someone pointing out that the rise of candidates may have something to do with the common tendency in the press to dub a candidate a rising star and then focus on following that star, rather than subject the candidate to substantive scrutiny.

Actually, this story only contains one perspective — the candidate’s — but the problem is similar: giving something weight because it has been stated, not subjecting it to any reality testing. The colloquial tone of the follow-on parenthetical about having once worked on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign may give the story a little spice, but it would have been better to contrast the “broad appeal” assertion with the “forceful conservative” who is “unwilling to compromise” assertions reported at the top of the story.

The Times can really afford to be more probing on substance than to quote a cheerleading cousin.

Could this refer to misleading statements designed to be provocative, statements made heedless of whether or not they were true? The answer is not to be found here, with the story instead valuing (and enabling) putatively successful political tactics and robbing the reader of the ability to assess the accuracy of the statements.

“For Republicans, Redistricting Offers Few Gains”

Jennifer Steinhauer, June 12, 2011

On paper, the sweeping gains Republicans enjoyed last year in statehouses across the country gave the party a profound advantage in the nascent and increasingly contentious power struggle to create new Congressional districts.

But those gains are likely to add up to fewer than 10 seats in the House of Representatives, largely because Republicans took so many seats from Democrats in 2010 that there are not many left to change hands through redistricting…

Compounding the Republicans’ problem, much of the nation’s population gains have been among Hispanics, who have tended to vote Democratic, or in areas where voters tend to be less friendly to Republicans.

Strict federal laws concerning areas that are dominated by minorities will also be an obstacle for the party in some states. For the first time since the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965, a Democrat controls the Justice Department, which enforces the law, during a redistricting year.

Redistricting — a tedious and often litigious process that follows every 10-year census cycle — is largely a game of math and hope…

Texas Republicans are trying to make the best of their four new seats — gained almost exclusively through growth in Hispanic residents — by making sure that two Democratic-leaning districts that Republicans won in the last election, in south and west Texas, are stuffed with more Republicans. They can do this in part by moving Hispanics out of those districts and consolidating them into one Democratic stronghold.

At the same time, in the Dallas area, Republicans are also seeking to scatter Hispanics into districts dominated by Republicans, to diffuse the influence of Hispanic voters there and protect Republican freshmen.

For states losing population, like Michigan and New York, the goal is to force sitting members of the opposing party to face off in one compressed district.

Perhaps the most aggressive example of partisan maneuvering is in Illinois, which lost one of its 19 seats. Democrats have redrawn maps to hurt five Republican incumbents, making many of them face more Democratic voters in 2012…

Instead, they carved up five remaining districts into oddly shaped bits, leaving a freshman Republican representative, Jeff Landry, to choose between running against another Republican incumbent or giving up his seat…

A wild card in the process is the Voting Rights Act and how President Obama’s Justice Department enforces it…

Under one measure of the law, “reasonably compact areas of racial and ethnic minority populations” are supposed to have their own district. The measure has been the subject of a dispute in many states, largely because the Hispanic population in the country has doubled to nearly 16 percent in the last 10 years, and the parties are struggling to comply with federal law while maintaining dominance.

That rule is often interpreted conveniently by both parties

There is no interest in figuring out what would happen if there were fair redistricting, a remarkable omission especially in light of the fact that, as reported one day earlier, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission had demonstrated that, when incumbant protection is not the goal, it is possible to redistrict achieve relatively compact, more competitive districts that are compliant with the values of the Voting Rights Act.

Purely viewed from a tactical perspective, not from the point of view of whether the maneuvering is fair or legal.

Again, something as historically and currently crucial as the Voting Rights Act — designed to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution — is demoted to an inconvenience.

The giveaway. It is accurate to say that both parties have regularly treated redistricting as a game, but that is very different from accepting the premise that redistricting is a game. On the contrary, the fair conduct of redistricting is a fundamental requisite of representative democracy, and it is surely not the job of a newspaper reporter to numb potential citizen outrage by presenting the phenomenon of redistricting abuse as an inevitable part of the process.

This is commonly known as “packing,” a practice that should draw scrutiny for potential Voting Rights Act violations, but the legality or illegality of the conduct is not rendered as important in the presentation of the article.

This is “cracking” — the companion process to “packing” — and its impropriety is also of no apparent interest in the presentation of the story.

What is of interest here is that the reporter’s entirely reasonable observation about objectionable Democratic behavior did not lead to any probing of the politicians responsible for perpetrating the conduct. Indeed, the article is devoid of any attempt to question any politician — Democrat or Republican — about the propriety or legality of the dominant redistricting practices.

It is true that there have been long periods when the Voting Rights Act has not been seriously enforced, but it is not unreasonable for a reader to want to know what would happen if the Voting Rights Act were enforced robustly.

It is unclear why the story assumes that the parties are struggling to comply with federal law, rather than investigating whether one or both are struggling to evade it. And, if the effort is to evade federal law, a basic question would be, “Which party or parties are trying to do that?” This might also have been coded in blue.

Quite a euphemism. What is meant is that the rule is often violated.

Is it true that both parties violate the letter or spirit of the Voting Rights Act and otherwise redistrict unfairly? Yes. Have they been doing that to the same extent and with the same impact? Not necessarily. Yet the story leaves the reader only with the sense that “they all do it,” rather than drawing on sources to define who actually does what and with what frequency and effect.

“Economy’s Woes Shift the Focus of Budget Talks”

Jackie Calmes, June 9, 2011

Recent signs that the economic recovery is flagging have introduced a new tension into the bipartisan budget negotiations, giving rise to calls especially from liberals to limit the size of immediate spending cuts or even to provide an additional fiscal stimulus.

On Thursday, for the first time in two weeks, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and six Congressional leaders will meet with a new urgency to take up negotiations toward reaching a deficit-reduction deal in July. Democrats will make the case for additional tax revenues to balance spending cuts, an approach Republicans have rejected…

Democrats and more liberal economists are suggesting that any long-term deficit reduction be paired with short-term spending increases or tax cuts to spur the economy, should it continue to weaken — perhaps by extending for 2012 the payroll tax cuts, business write-offs for equipment and other investments and extended federal unemployment benefits that President Obama and Republican Congressional leaders agreed to in December for this year…

Mark Zandi, the chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, a macroeconomic consulting firm, who has advised members of both parties, said he was not ready to call for an additional stimulus. “I think we can wait to the fall to determine whether that’s necessary or not,” he said…

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an adviser to Republicans, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and now president of the American Action Forum, a center-right research group, said he had no fear that the White House and Congress actually would cut too much. “I live for the day when a Congress cuts spending so aggressively that it actually endangers near-term growth,” he said. “We’ve never seen that.”

But neither should they provide additional stimulus, Mr. Holtz-Eakin said. “It was appropriate when the economy was falling,” he said, “but it’s been growing for a long time. We need better growth policies.”

Two stories, false equivalence


“Senate Rejects Republican Bill on Exploration for Oil and Gas”

Carl Hulse, May 19, 2011

the Senate on Wednesday decisively rejected a Republican plan to allow more coastal oil and gas exploration and to speed the issuance of drilling permits to oil companies.

The 57-to-42 vote against the measure came a day after Republicans rejected a Democratic plan to end tax breaks for oil companies as both parties sought to gain political advantage with frustrated consumers contending with high prices at the pump…

Fifty Democrats, five Republicans and two independents opposed the measure; 42 Republicans backed it. Sixty votes were required to advance the bill, so it fell 18 short…

“Senate Refuses to End Tax Breaks for Big Oil”

Carl Hulse, May 18, 2011

The Senate on Tuesday blocked a Democratic proposal to strip the five leading oil companies of tax breaks that backers of the measure said were unfairly padding industry profits while consumers were struggling with high gas prices…falling eight votes short of the 60 needed to move ahead with the bill

In the 52-to-48 vote, 3 Democrats joined 45 Republicans in opposing the bill, which was supported by the Obama administration and fiscal watchdog groups that saw the tax help for the oil industry as wasteful. Forty-eight Democrats, two independents and two Republicans backed it…

An assumption built into most political reporting: that, fundamentally, there has been an economic recovery in process, one that would be sustainable if unfortunate events didn’t keep on conspiring to knock the economy off balance. Recovery for whom, and at what cost? Entirely ignored are the facts that: (a) the financial system may be less stable and, given the absence of serious reforms, remain more vulnerable than it appears; and (b) there remain many millions of citizens for whom there has been no recovery at all.

Because that which is termed bipartisan is deemed to be good, the actual news is not explored: if there hadn’t been a lot of tension in the talks already, one side must have been asleep at the wheel (and Republicans have been very clear about what they want).

It isn’t clear the person or interests for whom the “new urgency” exists. The unstated premise is that the only way to get to an increase in the debt limit is to get along with some significant cuts. That may be the White House view, but it does represent a departure from the process employed for previous raises in the debt limit. The possibility that some could find it urgent to state clearly that an a debt-limit increase will not be held hostage is not explored.

This might also have been coded in yellow. Dismissed from the conversation (and the article) is the argument that there should be spending increases but no tax cuts at all.

Serving both parties characteristically, as here, is seen to provide a badge of authority, notwithstanding the fact that Mr. Zandi, to put it mildly, has not demonstrated a stellar record of providing accurate predictions, let alone penetrating insights.

This might also have been coded in yellow or blue. First, the “balanced” approach is seen as exemplified by someone who both dismisses the possibility that less-than-maximally aggressive spending cuts could be counterproductive and rejects spending increases. In other words, a “reasonable” cutter who opposes stimulus. Second, Holtz-Eakin’s view is juxtaposed to those who suggest more stimulus, without any discussion of the evidence supporting either position.

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