Is the New York Times a liberal rag? A better question: is anyone who reads the Times - with reverence or irreverence - in doubt about who it favors and who it opposes? In an interview on The Diane Rehm Show on NPR on October 19, Times executive editor Jill Abramson denied the liberal-rag charges. Critics, she said, "don't understand the separation between our opinion side...and the news report."
Times reporters, Abramson insisted without a laugh track, "go into their stories with an open mind.'" She wasn't going to get any challenge on that from NPR. The question came near the very end of the hour, so no callers had time to call in and react.
This is kind of funny coming from Rehm, who in my one experience on the show, sat with a pile of liberal editorials in front of her. Abramson appeared to promote her book The Puppy Diaries.
REHM: And one question that has been raised a great deal about The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, many of the news outlets, and that is the liberal, so-called liberal stance. How do you see it?
ABRAMSON: You know, I think that the people who see The Times as like a liberal rag are wrong and that they sometimes don't understand the separation between our opinion side, which produces our editorials and our op-eds, and the news report. They're two different things and there's separation between the two. And when I worked at The Wall Street Journal, it was known as a conservative newspaper, again, because of the editorial page. But, you know, the news gathering side played as it was.
REHM: And you continued to feel that that's what happened at The Times and at The Wall Street Journal?
ABRAMSON: I do. I think, you know, the news reporters go into their stories with an open mind. And something I stress to our reporters at The Times is even when you think you know the story, go in ready to be surprised or illuminated by what somebody tells you.
Just before that, a caller named Martha praised Anita Hill's courage to come forward with unproven sexual-harassment charges against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas twenty years ago, and wanted Abramson to praise her, too:
MARTHA: I'm wondering if you could comment on the role of the individual as a catalyst for something versus a larger kind of societal trend. I wonder if - I mean, what Anita Hill did was so courageous and an individual act of courage, but at the same time, the times were such that people listened to her and that she felt that it was okay to do that. And I'm wondering about how the press seizes or maybe not seizes, but acknowledges the contributions of an individual versus the individual being a representative of a larger movement.
ABRAMSON: Well, you know, I think that Anita Hill, you used the word catalyst, and I think that's a very, very good word. She was. She saw herself of course as merely a citizen doing her duty, that she came to Washington, the Judiciary Committee asked her to come and she testified. And I'm not sure in real time she realized the impact of her testimony and that many women across the world understood what sexual harassment was. But it seemed a new issue to many other people.
But I think in terms of your question about the media, that it isn't always a happy experience when someone who isn't a well-known person steps forward in a public way, that they become the focus of attention. And the case of Anita Hill, there was a very sophisticated opposition campaign directed at undermining her. And I think going through that was very bruising.
Abramson and her friend Jane Mayer wrote a book called Strange Justice arguing that Thomas was guilty of sexual harassment. ABC and the other networks gave them hours of air time to denounce Thomas. That opinion hasn't changed:
REHM: Do you still believe he lied about relations with Anita Hill?
ABRAMSON: What I do believe, having spent, you know, literally years with Jane Mayer who's one of the best investigative reporters in the business - she now works for the New Yorker, but we spent years researching every nook and cranny of the story. And we found other women who described incidents of Clarence Thomas saying bizarre things to them, just of the kind that Anita Hill testified about. And we found patterns in his life that gave credence to what she came to Washington and told about. So we felt the weight of the evidence supported her.