Liz Spayd is the New York Times’ Public Editor, a role that ostensibly makes her the readers’ representative within the paper’s newsroom. As her predecessor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote, the Public Editor is “a foreign agent in the newsroom.” Her role is to challenge her colleagues. To examine their mistakes and, by shining a light on them, help improve the paper’s reporting.
In her most recent column, Spayd considers “false balance” journalism. As Sullivan once warned, false balance is the kind of reporting which says that climate deniers deserve equal time to rebut the overwhelming scientific consensus that man-made climate change is real. Or that creationists should be given equal space to debate biologists. False balance is what leads pundits to claim that Hillary Clinton’s denunciation of racists is the moral equivalent of Donald Trump’s racism. It is what the Washington Post’s editorial board recently denounced when it warned of reporting that treats Clinton’s “minor email scandal” as something akin to Trump’s “manifest unfitness for office.”
And yet, according to Spayd, it is no big deal.
Despite Spayd’s theoretical role as her paper’s in-house gadfly, her column on false balance reads more like a brief in defense of the paper’s political coverage than the work of someone empowered to criticize. She raises the question of whether the Times’ reporters are “unfairly equating a minor failing of Hillary Clinton’s to a major failing of Donald Trump’s,” then spends the bulk of the column dismissing the paper’s critics as partisans driven by motivated reasoning.
In a court of law, nearly all the of the advocates who appear before a judge are literally paid shills for one of the partisans in the case. That doesn’t mean that a judge can simply ignore their arguments by dismissing the attorneys as self-interested.
“I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance,” Spayd writes, “given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates.” She dismisses Slate’s Jacob Weisberg’s suggestion that Trump may be a much more flawed candidate than Clinton as “a partisan’s explanation passed off as a factual judgment.”
And maybe it is, but so what? As Kevin Drum writes, “there’s no question that charges of false equivalence are often partisan,” but Spayd’s job “should be to figure out if they’re correct anyway. She doesn’t even really try to do that.”
In a court of law, nearly all the of the advocates who appear before a judge are literally paid shills for one of the partisans in the case. That doesn’t mean that a judge can simply ignore their arguments by dismissing the attorneys as self-interested. And yet that’s essentially what Spayd does in her column. The fact that an advocate has an interest in a dispute does not make them wrong.
The crux of Spayd’s defense of her paper, however, is summarized in one paragraph:
The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates. Take one example. Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers — remember that? Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope.
Much of this paragraph is a strawman. I’m aware of no serious critic who has claimed that the media should simply ignore the story of Secretary Clinton’s emails. Rather, the concern is that, as the Washington Post editorial quoted above states, too many reporters are treating this story as if it were “one of the most important issues facing the country this election,” without contextualizing it or giving similar coverage to much greater sins by Donald Trump.
The single oddest sentence in Spayd’s column, however, is the one highlighted in bold above. Spayd writes as if there is an objective, amoral process that journalists can use to determine what they should write, and that reporters who allow their moral views to guide them away from these perfect stories betray their calling as journalists.
But this is nonsense. There is a limited supply of journalists in this country, and we all have a limited amount of time. Every time we choose to cover one story, we are effectively choosing not to cover some other story that we could have focused on during that time. To make these judgments about what to cover and what not to cover, we necessarily make moral judgments. The reason why a politician’s affair with their mistress is considered news, while their relations with their spouse does not make headlines, is because reporters make a moral judgment that extramarital affairs are more worthy of a harsh spotlight than ordinary marital relations.
Or consider the judgment that went into one of the Times’ most maligned pieces. On the afternoon of September 1, the conservative group Judicial Watch, a well-known critic of Hillary Clinton, circulated a press release titled “New Abedin Emails Reveal Top Clinton Foundation Executive Doug Band Sought Diplomatic Passport from Clinton State Department.” The release highlighted an email from Band to Clinton aide Huma Abedin, where Band asked if the State Department could issue him a diplomatic passport, suggesting that Band sought a special “favor” from the Department.
The reason why a politician’s affair with their mistress is considered news, while their relations with their spouse does not make headlines, is because reporters make a moral judgment that extramarital affairs are more worthy of a harsh spotlight than ordinary marital relations.
Shortly after Judicial Watch’s press release went out, the Times published an article, headlined “Emails Raise New Questions About Clinton Foundation Ties to State Dept,” which echoed the release’s breathless tone. The exchange between Band and Abedin, Times reporter Eric Lichtblau claimed, raises “new questions about whether people tied to the Clinton Foundation received special access at the department.” Lichtblau also dutifully quoted Donald Trump, who claimed that Clinton presided over a “pay to play” operation when she was Secretary of State.
Yet, if you only read the headline and the opening paragraph of Lichtblau’s piece, you would miss the key fact that whatever “new questions” were raised by the Band/Abedin exchange, those questions had clear answers. And the answers were that nothing untoward happened.
The reason Band requested a diplomatic passport, as Lichtblau eventually discloses, is that Band was part of a high-level delegation led by former President Bill Clinton which successfully negotiated the release of two American journalists from North Korea. Band sought a diplomatic passport because he was engaged in a diplomatic mission.
Also, the State Department did not give Band the passport.
Lichtblau’s reporting and the New York Times’ decision to publish this piece in the first place has been widely criticized for making a scandal out of a non-story. But let’s set that judgment aside for a second and consider what this incident has to say about Spayd’s suggestion that journalists should not apply their “moral” judgments to candidates.
There are two stories that can be told about the Clinton family’s charity work, both of which are true. One is that the Clintons are some of the world’s great humanitarians, providing life-saving medical care to millions of the globe’s most vulnerable people. As Mark Joseph Stern notes, the Clintons built “one of the most phenomenally successful AIDS relief programs of all time.” Because of their work, “more than 11 million people in developing countries today have access to vital AIDS medication, many of them children.” And that is just one of their many projects.
The second story — which, again, is also true — is that the Clintons raised money for their humanitarian work from individuals who have a direct personal interest in the business of the United States government. These ties to wealthy individuals and even foreign leaders potentially raise a conflict of interest for Secretary Clinton as she seeks the presidency, and it is incumbent upon her to demonstrate that her decisions as president will not be shaped by Clinton Foundation donors.
Lichtblau’s decision to emphasize these potential conflicts of interest — even as his own reporting failed to find any evidence of shady dealing — or other Times reporting which emphasizes ethical questions raised by the Clinton Foundation and de-emphasizes its humanitarian work, are rooted in a moral judgment. The Times could have focused a light on the many lives saved by the Clintons’ charity work. Instead, it decided that such light was better focused on the potential for unsavory dealing.
Though Lichtblau and the Times’ decision to take editorial direction from Judicial Watch is hard to defend, there’s nothing inherently wrong about choosing to focus on the second narrative regarding the Clinton Foundation instead of the first. Again, reporters and editors must make these decisions all the time. It is an unavoidable part of being a journalist with only a limited amount of time every single day.
Which is why Spayd’s defense of her paper’s editorial decisions is a non-sequitur. If Spayd truly believes that the New York Times’ political desk has made wise decisions in how it devotes its limited resources, then let her make that case. But dismissing critics because they expect journalists to make moral judgments is like rejecting criticism of a taxi driver who refuses to drive a car.
One more point should be made about Spayd’s blasé approach to allegations of false equivalence. Last July, Spayd wrote about allegations that her paper’s coverage favors liberals over conservatives. Though she did not explicitly endorse these allegations, she wrote that this mere perception that her paper may lean left “strikes me as poison.” “A paper whose journalism appeals to only half the country has a dangerously severed public mission,” she claimed. “And a news organization trying to survive off revenue from readers shouldn’t erase American conservatives from its list of prospects.”
She then spent much of the column pointing out aspects of the paper which might annoy conservatives, including the paper’s decision to run paid ads from the Clinton campaign. “Seeing Clinton’s smiling face when I’ve come to read the news,” she claimed, “can be rather jarring.
Spayd, in other words, appears to believe that the mere perception of liberal bias is a toxin that must be cured, not just by the paper’s content producers, but even by its ad sales department. Yet, when left-of-center voters worry that the paper is giving too much attention to minor concerns about Clinton and not enough to major flaws in her racist opponent, those critiques aren’t even worth considering. The “ideological motives” of liberals make them inherently suspect, but similarly motivated critiques from conservatives must be remedied.