Hello, Henhouse? Fox Calling

“Should we have affirmative action for conservatives?” This question, arresting enough by itself, becomes all the more so when the “we” in that question is The New York Times. It cropped up during a January 17 meeting in a nicely paneled Times conference room, billed as an “informal forum” at which various Times editors and reporters sought the advice of five outsiders -- a journalism professor, a liberal freelance reporter, a conservative reporter, a conservative magazine editor, and me -- on the question of the “proper boundary between news and opinion in the news pages and a host of issues that arise from the debate … [including] whether these various forms confuse readers about whether the Times approaches news coverage fairly and without a specific, preconceived point of view,” in the words of the editor who summoned the meeting.

The Times rethink is motivated by long-term management concerns about the paper's stagnant circulation and how to explain and reverse it. The youth falloff looms large in management's thinking, as does the Internet. But also ranking high among the in-house hypotheses was the assumption that growing numbers of actual and potential readers are turned off that the Times reads to them like a blue-state paper, reeking of liberal bias.

The Times staffers were mainly in listening mode; most of the talk was left to the outsiders. But the question about affirmative action for conservatives, which received a friendly hearing from most of the outsiders (not including myself), emanated from a Times investigative reporter. And it quickly became the center of the main debate. A top editor's statement that he worries about whether the Times is doing right by the danger of global warming, or rather succumbing to a shallow he said, she said once over lightly, occasioned much less attention.

Leave aside the irony of conservatives looking kindly on affirmative action (it's a theme one hears increasingly in the right's campaign for an “academic bill of rights”; see my “Permission to Speak Freely” in the March/April Mother Jones). Conservatives have not let up in their clamor against “liberal bias” in “mainstream media” (a term they've used so often they and others initialize it now as MSM) for more than three decades. Book-length refutations like Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media? and hundreds of resonant articles of the sort have left them unfazed.

If left-wing critics were half as influential as they're cracked up to be, you'd think they would have swayed some of those media moguls by now. But they haven't. The MSM have their ears cocked to the right. Perhaps there's a market explanation in part: The folks running our media are overly mindful of best-sellers published over the years under the names Rush Limbaugh, Bernard Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, et al. Whatever the exact reasons, the proprietors run scared. They know where political power lies.

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It's perfectly true that the Times, like other media, tends to dwell overmuch on the cultural mind-set of its Manhattan readers. This means it misses a lot of what's up on the far side of the bridges and tunnels. So it's healthy, and overdue, for the MSM to report the conservative movement thoroughly, as the Times' excellent David D. Kirkpatrick started doing before the election.

Now, I have no idea what Kirkpatrick's political leanings are, if any, and it doesn't matter. What does is that he takes the movement conservatives -- in particular, religious ones -- seriously and reports on their doings. A reporter doesn't have to be conservative to report on conservatives. If the reporter were conservative in his private opinions, that might help him ask good questions; on the other hand, it might hinder him from asking himself good questions about his questions. There's no reason why a sensitive centrist or liberal reporter, or a not terribly opinionated one, couldn't do the same.

In recent weeks, conservatives have been beating the drums about the Times' recently hired Nicholas Confessore, who has been working the metro beat and came to the paper from the Washington Monthly (and, yes, The American Prospect before that). It's not Confessore's local reportage that had conservative tongues wagging but a February 6 “Week in Review” piece, “Going for Broke May Break Bush,” that began, “Rarely has a domestic policy proposal so monumental come down the pike with so little obvious reason for being.”

National Review Online's Stanley Kurtz wrote that his “jaw dropped,” that he was “absolutely floored” at the “plain ridiculous” sight of this piece by what he called an “utterly partisan liberal writer.” In response to my query as to what he meant by “deep anti-Bush bias,” Kurtz e-mailed me that Confessore's opening line “tends to reinforce the Democratic argument that ‘there is no crisis.' Yet the public has known for some time that we face a long-term entitlement crisis. Young people are deeply skeptical about whether they will ever see all the benefits promised them.” Kurtz accused Confessore of “giv[ing] short shrift” to “folks like [former Republican Commerce Secretary Peter] Peterson and [co-author of The Coming Generational Storm Laurence] Kotlikoff,” who argue “that our entitlements are out of control and that a fix is needed.”

Kurtz was right this far: A LexisNexis search discloses that Peterson has had better years getting quoted at the Times than the last one. As for Kotlikoff, he has been cited more often, though chiefly in the Times' business pages. But one wonders how happy Kurtz would have been had Confessore cited Peterson to make the point that many fiscal conservatives believe that there can be no fix for Social Security without an increase in taxes, which is Peterson's position.

In his own recent Policy Review takeout on related matters, Kurtz writes, “Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns warn of a spiraling financial crisis that could even lead to worldwide depression.” But here Kurtz lumps together Social Security (moderate problem) and Medicare (much bigger problem), and sometimes even Medicaid and interest on the national debt, to force the point that Social Security is in crisis. As Paul Krugman and many others have written, there is a serious long-term moral and political problem as to how to fund medical care, but this is not the crisis President Bush talks about. Anyway, Confessore's lead was, to all but the most conservative readers, objectively accurate: Social Security does not face “bankruptcy” or any other self-evident crisis. His point was not that Social Security required no fixing but that Bush was risking tremendous political capital on his campaign for private -- sorry, personal -- accounts (even some leading conservatives, like William Kristol, have wondered why the rush).

Fair's fair: Not a few “Week in Review” pieces are written like this one, pumping up the political stakes of presidential showdowns. There's a preference for strategy stories over policy stories -- an enduring preference, ideology aside, because the drama of presidential boom and bust is more compelling than the clunky facts of what policies accomplish. We'd find much the same if we looked at Times coverage of, say, Bill Clinton's doomed health-care reform of 1993–94. Then, true, the Times did run an initial 16-page special supplement on the program. But then, as former Harvard President Derek Bok wrote in a study commissioned by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania: “After the President's initial speech to Congress, however, in September of 1993, media attention increasingly turned from the substance of the rival health plans under consideration to the conflicts and maneuvering of the different Congressional factions and interest groups that were struggling to get the upper hand … . Only about one-quarter of the newspaper stories and less than one-fifth of the television coverage focused on the substantive issues under consideration.”

What's indisputable is that the Times presupposes that its readers are more interested in the question of whether George W. Bush is up or down -- as, in 1993–94, in the equivalent question about Bill Clinton -- than in the merely wonkish (that is, factual) question of which policies make sense. What's also indisputable is that the collective fascination with winning and losing is less than edifying when it comes to the merits of proposals on how the government might spend trillions of dollars.

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So is the notion of affirmative action for conservatives anything but a Republican meme -- part pressure tactic, part whine? I doubt it. There's no evidence that serious reporters who are also political conservatives are lining up at the employment gates of the MSM. As one nonconservative participant in the Times' January 17 meeting put it (and the conservative editor confirmed), conservative journalists are more likely to be opinionators than reporters in the first place. I doubt that even those who are competent reporters would cheerfully trade their freedom for the constraints of the Times newsroom, however tied those may be to the prestige of the byline.

But the mere fact that Times editors are taking such notions seriously, fretting aloud about how to live down their reputation as a blue-state paper, is worrying. It suggests an unseemly readiness to cave in before force majeure whenever some rampaging bloggers (or just plain readers) get mad.

The New York Times publishes, in fact, in a blue city in a blue state. In all likelihood, its demographic will go on tilting toward the ultramarine. It has its limits, flaws, and warps, but most of what it publishes is worth reading -- and disputing -- anyway. Inevitably, like every other medium in history, it will cater to the preoccupations of its color code. What's wrong with that? If Times readers tilt Democratic, does this mean that the sun ceases to rise in the east? If its readers go off on an “Intelligent Design” binge, should the paper require religious means tests for new science reporters? Please. Once you start imposing political tests on people whose business is to see and smell what they haven't already seen and smelled, there'll be nothing left for American newspapers to do but to die.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Letters to a Young Activist.

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