The resignation of two top editors at the New York Times last week was the journalistic equivalent of bringing down a president of the United States. But the initial reaction from inside the journalism establishment does not augur well for any lessons that it should learn from this affair.
The New York Times will investigate, study and examine what happened, but it is unlikely the newspaper will reach the right conclusions. The problem for The Times and for much of "mainstream journalism" is that large numbers of people no longer trust what they read (or see on the broadcast networks). Growing numbers think the big media have an agenda that has replaced reporting. It doesn't matter what big media think about themselves, any more than it matters what a gas station manager thinks about his gas prices and the condition of his restrooms if the customers are fleeing to a competitor because they think he charges too much and his restrooms are dirty.
At the New York Times and the broadcast networks, management and reporters are suffering from "acute denial syndrome" (ADS). The problem isn't them, they say. They blame the "victim." Readers and viewers are supposed to shut up and swallow what is offered without complaining, because the public cannot possibly understand what it means to be a privileged, highly paid journalist.
That the media don't get it and, in fact, can't get it because of ADS, was evident in a "story" by NBC's Jim Avila following the resignations at the New York Times. Avila blamed conservatives and the Fox News Channel (where I appear) for the declining trust in the media. The public would trust the media more, he suggested, if conservatives would cease their criticism.
Avila's "evidence" for his conclusion is the far-left Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He used a sound bite from a FAIR representative who said, "Media watchdogs complain almost daily of bias, charging that some stories are deliberately ignored." But it's far more than ignored stories. It's also the way they are covered. For example, immediately after the first stories appeared on Sen. Hillary Clinton's new book, all of the broadcast networks accepted as truth her comments about Monica Lewinsky and when Clinton learned of her husband's affair. No doubters were heard. That contrasts with occasional conservative guests who are hammered from the first question. After the 2000 South Carolina primary, Jeff Greenfield interviewed then Gov. Bush and confronted Bush about the "tenor of this campaign," how he was maybe "marginalized," and less able to reach out with his message about inclusion. Just the other day, a White House correspondent wondered if, since no weapons of mass destruction have yet been found Iraq, Bush's "credibility is on the line."
The derision the big media holds for all things conservative, especially when that conservatism has a religious component, is beyond debate. But the question the big media should examine, but won't because of their ADS, is what must they do to win back the trust of the disaffected and the increased newspaper circulation and improved ratings that would surely follow?
The answer is they should meet with, hire and promote conservative voices within the media, just as they have done with every other group, including women, minorities and gays. Among the big media's problems is their definition of diversity. To them it means different races, genders and sexual preferences. But if all are liberal, how does that promote diversity of ideas? True diversity would report different opinions, different stories with different ways of approach. They won't do this (ADS sufferers don't see the problem) because they prefer the company of like-minded people no matter what damage they are causing to the profession and its financial health. Read the social pages and see with whom they associate. A former Washington Post ombudsman once tried to explain her paper's insensitivity to political and religious conservatives this way: "We don't know any of these people." If that isn't elitist, what is?
It is no secret why Fox News Channel, talk radio and conservative magazines and Web pages are popular. They are true alternatives to the one-dimensional slant that most people can see, except those who suffer from ADS. If the New York Times thinks it will fix its problem by replacing the editors who resigned with more liberals who have the identical approach to news and opinion, they will simply confirm what many others cannot deny.