NYT Public Editor Arthur Brisbane Almost Admits Liberal Bias Skewed Tucson Coverage

On Saturday, the New York Times's Public Editor offered a milquetoast apologia for the paper's leading role in falsely ascribing blame for the Tucson massacre to conservative pundits and politicians.

Nowhere in the column did Public Editor Arthur Brisbane address columnist Paul Krugman's false smear of Rep. Michele Bachmann, noted in a letter sent by NewsBusters to Brisbane's office on Friday.

Brisbane attributed the rush to blame, at least in part, Sarah Palin and other conservatives for the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others at a Tucson Safeway to the Times's generic efforts "to define the context of a story, to set up a frame for it, sometimes before the facts can be fully understood."

The Tucson shootings afforded another, quite different illustration of the pressure of time in news coverage — not pressure measured in seconds and minutes, but pressure that news organizations feel to define the context of a story, to set up a frame for it, sometimes before the facts can be fully understood.

The Times’s day-one coverage in some of its Sunday print editions included a strong focus on the political climate in Arizona and the nation. For some readers — and I share this view to an extent — placing the violence in the broader political context was problematic.

C. Wenk, a reader in Alexandria, Va., criticized “an egregious rush to judgment in the Times coverage of the Arizona shooting, specifically aimed at linking the shooting to various conservative or Republican political rhetoric.”

A second reader, Kevin O’Donnell of Greenbrae, Calif., saw it as a case of The Times jumping too quickly: “I understand the larger point about coarse speech raising the potential for violence. By offering that debate within hours of events, doesn’t The Times risk starting at the conclusion end of the argument?”…

So why does a story get framed this way [in a political context]? Journalism educators characterize this kind of framing as a storytelling habit — one of relating new facts to an existing storyline — and also as a reflex of news organizations that are built to handle some topics well, and others less well.

A "habit…of relating new facts to an existing storyline" could more accurately be framed in the context of the Tucson massacre as a habit of squeezing an unrelated event into a pre-defined narrative that fits the political views of reporters at the New York Times.

There were no facts bolstering the Times's incessant implications that Jared Lee Loughner was driven to violence by political rhetoric, most notably of the conservative persuasion. In fact, even as the Times was reporting that Loughner's rage had some connection to Palin and and other conservatives - with craven qualifiers such as "critics say," of course - substantial evidence continued to emerge that undermined the Times's narrative.

Yet it continued to push that narrative, even in the face of evidence that Loughner was (a) probably mentally ill, (b) completely uninterested in and oblivious to mainstream political commentary, and (c) of the far-left, to the extent that he had coherent political views.

Even as evidence emerged that Loughner's irrational hatred for Giffords sprouted in 2007, before the meteoric rise of Palin, Glenn Beck, or the Tea Party - three common culprits among post-shooting media lamentations of "violent rhetoric" - the Times continued with its bogus narrative. In other words, the paper tried to fit the shooting into its anti-conservative narrative not with the support of the facts, but in spite of them.

Brisbane apparently believes those actions stem from a natural (even genetic, he suggests) journalistic instinct. That the Times's advocate for the reader, its guardian of ethical integrity, would excuse these actions thusly speaks volumes about the state of the Times's reporting.

Reporters cannot simultaneously claim to be objective, and make concerted, premeditated efforts to fit events into narratives formed exclusively by them. Doing so skews the news towards their political views, which at the Times means it skews the news quite far to the left.

In 2004, Brisbane's predecessor, Daniel Okrent, reflected on his paper's coverage of "the flammable stuff that ignites the right." "If you think The Times plays it down the middle on [social issues]," he wrote, "you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed." In other words, where the Times seeks to fit news into a "narrative," it will almost invariably present the liberal position under the guise of straight, objective reporting (unless the Times has since renounced its claim to political neutrality, though I don't think it has, Okrent's comments notwithstanding).

In the case of Loughner, the narrative was, roughly, that "violent rhetoric" comes disproportionately from conservatives, and that such rhetoric can, and does, drive people to violence. Palin's target map fit perfectly with that narrative, so the Times ran with it.

But Times reporters framing current events so that they fit a pre-formed liberal narrative is hardly shocking. What makes this instance so egregiously offensive to conventional standards of journalism is that it was done in spite of the facts. The narrative continued not just despite the total lack of evidence supporting it, but even in the face of facts that undercut it.

Allahpundit reacts appropriately:

...Arthur Brisbane’s notion that steering coverage of a breaking event is journalism should come as a rude awakening to the few defenders the Times still has. Why “steer the coverage” at all until the facts came out? Within a couple of hours, the gunman had been identified and enough was known about him to understand that he was a lunatic, not a political activist. Yet even after those facts became known and verified, the editorial board published its attack on the Right, implicitly blaming conservatives for the tragedy while using just enough weasel words to cover their own rear ends in case the witch hunt blew up in its face.

Even more reprehensible than ignoring the facts is Paul Krugman's distortion of them. That offense went unmentioned in Brisbane's column, despite an apparently massive volume of letters regarding the offense.

The postmortem sadly offers little insight into the real problems that plagued the Times's reporting on the shooting, which go far deeper than Brisbane acknowledges.