New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller submitted to an "Ask the Editors" Q&A session online, and the denials of a liberal bias were insistent. When one questioner decried the opinions of liberal columnists Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd, and then suggested it's ludicrous that the Times was equally comfortable with Democrats or Republicans, Keller replied:
It would, indeed, be preposterous to argue that The Times does not have a liberal editorial page, or that a majority of the columnists (with a couple of outstanding exceptions) do not tend liberal. But it's just plain wrong to say that the newsroom is "liberal" -- in the sense that it toes a certain political or ideological line. This segregation of opinion is the practice at most American newspapers. The Wall Street Journal has one of the most conservative opinion pages of any American newspaper, but I would not describe the paper's news coverage as "conservative."
Do reporters and editors in the newsroom have political opinions? I assume most of them do. So do judges, military officers, school teachers and many other professionals who are expected to perform their work impartially. They are trained to keep those opinions to themselves -- and they operate in a culture that tries to prevent their opinions from leaching into their work...
At The Times, we have remained sufficiently evenhanded that we get hammered by critics on the left as well as the right, and we manage to annoy -- sometimes infuriate -- officials of all political stripes. (If you think The Times has an adversarial relationship with the Bush administration, you should have seen the sparks fly during the Clinton administration.)
Keller elaborated when he was challenged again on how opinion emerges from Times news stories:
Despite what you hear from the clamorous partisans of the left and right, reporters have no license to insinuate their politics or ideology into news stories. And the only direction they are supposed to receive from management in this regard is a conscientious effort to keep our coverage impartial. That does not necessarily mean equal time for all points of view on every issue, which would be absurd. It means that our underlying mission is not to tell readers what we think, or what they should think, but to give them sufficient information to make up their own minds.
We encourage reporters to provide analysis and context, which is not the same thing as opinion. Thus if the Supreme Court rules on a big case, we invite our Supreme Court reporter to tell us whether this represents a shift in precedent, and whether any of the justices seems to have altered their views from previous cases, and how the decision might affect the lives of citizens. We do not invite her to tell us whether the decision is good or bad.
Now, there are critics who will point out that we do not always live up to this high-minded standard, and they are right. Newspapers are written and edited by humans. We get things wrong. There are some critics who propose that, because pure objectivity is elusive, the press should give up any pretense of impartiality, that individual reporters should declare their views and write polemically. To me, that is like saying that because much of our children's future is ordained by genetics, we should abandon the business of being parents. Impartial journalism, like child-rearing, is an aspiration, but it is a worthy one. And, unlike your children, a daily newspaper affords you the chance to start all over the next day, and this time get it right.
But the oddest reply from Keller came when he insisted he wasn't a very opinionated or polemical columnist for the Times:
Q. In your columns, before you were appointed executive editor, you proclaimed yourself to be a "hawk" with regard to the then impending Iraq war. In retrospect, do you still stand by that opinion?-- Heidi Miller
A.That's an excellent question, which, I apologize, I'm obliged to duck. In my current job it's important that I endeavor to keep my opinions to myself and out of the paper. To do otherwise risks giving readers the impression that the paper is driven by a political agenda, which it is not. (This attempt to segregate opinion from news is also the reason that in my current job I have no authority, none, over the editorial and Op-ed pages.) When editors are partisans, there is also a risk that reporters, whom we exhort to be impartial, might tailor their writing to the editor's perceived convictions.
During my roughly two years as a columnist, I was probably the least opinionated opinion writer in Op-ed-land. Perhaps it's a reporter's curse, but I seemed to have a gift for seeing both sides of almost every issue. My columns, therefore, tended to be reported musings -- "Here's how I thought my way through the subject of X" -- rather than polemics...
Brent Bozell begged to differ, especially when Keller tried to insist in 2002 that the Catholic Church was comparable to Soviet communism: "One paradox of the Polish pope is that while he is rightly revered for helping bring down the godless Communists, he has replicated something very like the old Communist Party in his church."
Bozell was blunt: "I’m sure Keller is well pleased with his analysis, except it collapses quickly under its own idiocy."
Keller grew more polemical:
But Keller is on a roll and sinks even further by rooting for John Paul's death as an occasion for the church's hostile takeover by the lifestyle left. He suggests "one reason many Catholics see the moment as ripe for reform is that this pope is on his last legs. Soon, the hope goes, a vigorous new leader may emerge. Maybe so. But like the Communists, John Paul has carefully constructed a Kremlin that will be inhospitable to a reformer." He has committed the offense of forming seminaries that are "begetting a generation of inflexible young priests who have no idea how to talk to real-life Catholics."
The Vatican and the Kremlin are the same thing, but Keller was the "least opinionated" columnist with the "gift for seeing both sides of almost every issue." Can he understand why conservatives then don't buy his denials of a liberal bias?