From Bias to Bigotry

Posted: Oct 25, 2014 12:01 AM

Recently, after the New York Times published a racially insensitive article about film and television producer Shonda Rhimes, the paper became the object of weeks of scorn and derision that prompted a public debate over racial diversity in the newsroom.

It may be true that the Times should diversify its staff on racial grounds. But there is another area in which the Times is sorely in need of diversification: its coverage of religious and social conservatives.

The Times has always had a liberal bias. But these days its goal seems to be to drive social conservatives from the public square entirely.

Conservatives have long complained about liberal media bias, and for good reason. Research has found that overwhelming majorities of newspaper reporters and editors hold liberal viewsgive to liberal causes and vote for liberal political candidates. 

Liberals claim that most reporters play it straight. But numerous studies have found otherwise. The bias is especially evident on social issues, where coverage of issues like abortion tilt heavily toward the liberal position, and has for decades. In 1990, a Los Angeles Times study of major newspaper, television and newsmagazine coverage confirmed that a pro-abortion-rights “bias often exists.” 

More recently, UCLA political scientist Tim Groseclose developed what he calls a “slant quotient” measuring media bias from 0 (totally conservative) to 100 (totally liberal) by comparing how often newspapers cited liberal versus conservative think tanks in their political reporting. 

Groseclose found that out of twenty major news organizations, only one—the Washington Times—was right of center, with a slant quotient of 35. The New York Times was the second-most liberal, with a score of 74.

In a July post at his blog at The American Conservative, writer Rod Dreher revealed that, after decades of subscribing to the Times—enjoying its thoughtful reporting but detesting its liberal bias—he had finally had enough and cancelled his subscription.

What put him over the edge was a tweet by Times correspondent Josh Barro. Barro tweeted, “Anti-LGBT attitudes are terrible for people in all sorts of communities. They linger and oppress, and we need to stamp them out, ruthlessly.”

“I don’t expect the Times to reflect my worldview, exactly,” Dreher wrote in explaining his decision to cancel his subscription, “but I will not subsidize journalism put out by journalists who want to ‘stamp out, ruthlessly’ the religious convictions of people like me.”

Dreher speculated that “[Barro] said out loud what I believe most people in news and editorial at the Times say only among themselves: that people like me should be ruthlessly driven out of the public square over our views on homosexuality and related issues.”

Dreher said that the Times “seeks to make it impossible for traditional religious believers to live in this country.” “I’m not sure when it happened, or why it happened,” Dreher continued, “but at some point I started to think that the Times really does hate social and religious conservatives. I mean hate.”

Dreher is right. The Times’ coverage of social conservatives has shifted from merely displaying bias to revealing a deep-seated bigotry.

It is difficult to come to any other conclusion when one reviews some of the hateful columns the Times has published in recent years. There was a 2011 piece by then-executive editor Bill Keller that compared conservative Christian presidential candidates to people who “believed that space aliens dwell among us.”

Then there was columnist Timothy Egan’s recent piece that seemed to compare the five Catholic justices on the Supreme Court to the terrorist groups ISIS and Boko Haram. 

The Times spends an inordinate number of column inches advocating for a more socially liberal Republican Party. Every few months seems to bring a new piece about how young conservatives are about the turn the GOP into a party that’s conservative on fiscal issues but liberal on abortion, marriage and religious freedom.

The Times’ habitual response to anything that might bolster the conservative cause is to ignore it. Like most of the media, the Times had to be shamed into sending a reporter to cover the trial of “House of horrors” abortion practitioner Kermit Gosnell. Then it downplayed his crimes by, for example, repeatedly referring to babies born-alive after botched abortions as “fetuses.” 

The Times doesn’t ignore abortion—but it rarely reports on it when the narrative doesn’t advance the abortion-rights argument. By one count, the Times ran some 250 stories in less than three months on Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s comments about women and rape, including nineteen in the first two days alone.

The Times seems to take particular delight in highlighting divisions within the Catholic Church. A mid-September piece titled “Biden, a Catholic School ‘Kid,’ Praises Nuns Under Fire From the Vatican” began with an anecdote about the advice America’s first Roman Catholic vice president gave Pope Benedict XVI a few years back. “You are being entirely too hard on the American nuns,” Biden reportedly told the Pope in reference to what the Times called a Vatican “crackdown” on American nuns who were advocating on behalf of liberal political causes. “Lighten up.” 

There are occasional moments of self-reflection and candor at the Times, usually issued by public editors, and usually as they are on their way out the door.

Dreher noted that a decade ago former Times ombudsman Daniel Okrent wrote that “for those who…believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it’s disappointing to see the Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading.” 

Okrent acknowledged that the Times treats devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, and Texans as “strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide.” The Times now treats conservatives more like strange objects to be expunged from the public square.

In 2012, out-going Times public editor Arthur Brisbane issued a similar lament. As a result of his paper’s liberal advocacy, he wrote, “developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in the Times, over-loved and under-managed, more like causes than news subjects.” 

Earlier this year the Times’ current public editor, Margaret Sullivan, questioned why her paper did not provide more coverage of the March for Life, an annual march in Washington, D.C., that often draws hundreds of thousands of pro-life activists on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade abortion decision.

Sullivan quoted a reader who wrote in to say: “A massive pro-life march in a winter storm is all but ignored. And the motto of the New York Times is, ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print.’ I guess pro-life news is not fit to print.” 

On the same day that the Times published just a photo of the march with a two-line caption on page A17, it published a front page article about a Catholic school in Seattle, Washington where a few students were protesting the firing of a school employee who was fired for marrying his gay partner.

The Times doesn’t give fair treatment to reasonable and rational disagreement by social conservatives because its staff is composed of journalists who don’t think social conservatives hold reasonable and rational positions.

But conservative views are main-stream. The public is evenly divided over abortion, with strong majorities favoring limits on late-term abortions, parental involvement laws and other restrictions like waiting periods. Nearly half of the public believes God had a hand in creation, according to Gallup. And you wouldn’t know it by the media’s coverage of the issue, but only a slim majority of the public favors same-sex marriage. 

I believe liberals cherish tolerance, inclusiveness and diversity—they just don’t cherish them as highly as they do abortion, same-sex marriage, the so-called separation of church and state and other items higher up on the left’s hierarchy of rights and values. For many liberals in newsrooms, this means that their allegiance to the liberal worldview trumps their professional allegiance to objectivity.

In the wake of the Shonda Rhimes controversy, Dean Baquet, the Times’ first black executive editor, acknowledged, “I have an obligation to diversify the staff.”

But shouldn’t diversity include political and ideological diversity too?