Catching up on a topic that eluded us over the weekend, it is worth noting that on Friday, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan decided to tackle the question of whether the newspaper is favoring the Obama Administration’s effort to build support for a war against Syria.
After talking to several top Times editors who inevitably aver that they are treating the anti-Syria PR effort with due skepticism, Sullivan reaches her own rather inconvenient (for her employer) conclusion that the Times is not being sufficiently skeptical:
Here’s my take: I’ve been observing The Times’s Syria coverage and its editorials for many weeks, with an eye to this question. While The Times has offered deep and rich coverage from both Washington and the Syrian region, the tone cannot be described as consistently skeptical. I have noticed in recent weeks the ways that other major newspapers have signaled to their readers that they mean to question the government’s assertions. For example, although it may seem superficial, The Washington Post has sent a strong message when it has repeatedly used the word “alleged” in its main headlines to describe the chemical weapons attacks.
I have also found that The Times sometimes writes about the administration’s point of view in The Times’s own voice rather than providing distance through clear attribution. This is a subtle thing, and individual examples are bound to seem unimportant, but consider, for example, the second paragraph of Friday’s lead story. (The boldface emphasis is mine.)
The negative vote in Britain’s Parliament was a heavy blow to Prime Minister David Cameron, who had pledged his support to Mr. Obama and called on lawmakers to endorse Britain’s involvement in a brief operation to punish the government of President Bashar al-Assad for apparently launching a deadly chemical weapons attack last week that killed hundreds.
With the use of the word “apparently” – rather than directly attributing the administration, The Times seems to take the government’s position at face value. It’s a tiny example, of course, but in the aggregate it’s the kind of thing the readers I’ve quoted here are frustrated about.
When The Times’s news coverage does take a more distanced approach, it does so extremely well – perhaps nowhere better than in Thursday’s front-page lead article on the administration’s intelligence challenges by Mark Mazzetti and Mark Landler, with the headline “U.S. Facing Test on Data to Back Action on Syria.” That article acknowledged the influence of “botched intelligence” about Iraq and a “deeply skeptical” public, and referred to “bellicose talk” from the administration and pushback from some members of Congress.
If you read the rest, you will see that Sullivan appears to believe the Times’s editorial page has been more fair to the anti-war side even though she does criticize it for refusing to run more essays from people who think a Syria campaign is a mistake.