Public Editor Confesses: NYTimes 'Basked a Bit in the Warm Glow of Mr. Obama's Election'

New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane promised that the Times would take "A Hard Look at the President" during the 2012 presidential campaign cycle, while admitting that "the paper basked a bit in the warm glow of Mr. Obama’s election in 2008," in his latest column for the Sunday Review.

That admission is nice to hear, but in fact the paper not only celebrated Obama's election, it worked to put him in the White House in the first place, through biased coverage from the likes of Larry Rohter and Carl Hulse. Even other liberal journalists, like Mark Halperin of Time Magazine, saw "extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama coverage." Times Watch found plenty of ammunition for its special campaign report, "Top 10 Lowlights of the New York Times from Campaign 2008."

The Times even raised journalistic eyebrows by throwing a painfully hip Obama-themed Inauguration party for the president that incorporated his famous "O" logo.

After noting that the Times had been unfair to Republican candidate Mitt Romney in a recent article, Brisbane dug up a couple of novel examples of the paper's Obama favoritism, and concluded:

Many critics view The Times as constitutionally unable to address the election in an unbiased fashion. Like a lot of America, it basked a bit in the warm glow of Mr. Obama’s election in 2008. The company published a book about the country’s first African-American president, “Obama: The Historic Journey.” The Times also published a lengthy portrait of him in its Times Topics section on, yet there’s nothing of the kind about George W. Bush or his father.

According to a study by the media scholars Stephen J. Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter, The Times’s coverage of the president’s first year in office was significantly more favorable than its first-year coverage of three predecessors who also brought a new party to power in the White House: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.Writing for the periodical Politics & Policy, the authors were so struck by the findings that they wondered, “Did The Times, perhaps in response to the aggressive efforts by Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal to seize market share, decide to tilt more to the left than it had in the past?”

I strongly doubt that. Based on conversations with Times reporters and editors who cover the campaign and Washington, I think they see themselves as aggressive journalists who don’t play favorites. Still, a strong current of skepticism holds that the paper skews left. Unfortunately, this is exacerbated by collateral factors -- for example, political views that creep into nonpolitical coverage.

Brisbane provided an example from an angry reader, and Times Watch has documented on plenty of occasions liberal views in ostensibly non-political coverage, at the Masters Golf Tournament, or photos of glaciers in a Beijing art gallery.

Still, Brisbane insisted the Times slant could be overcome:

The warm afterglow of Mr. Obama’s election, the collateral effects of liberal-minded feature writers -- these can be overcome by hard-nosed, unbiased political reporting now.


Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, is a co-author of “The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election.” I asked her what she thought The Times should do to wring out bias in its 2012 coverage. Among other things, she said, “Don’t play a sex scandal out when you don’t have any evidence,” a reference to The Times’s controversial 2008 article on John McCain’s relationship with a lobbyist.

Going forward, she said, The Times should examine Mr. Obama’s record and campaign promises; monitor campaign messaging for deception; emphasize substantive policy matters over petty rhetorical combat; scrutinize the newly powerful “super-PAC” groups, and take care not to let polls overdetermine the coverage.

-- Clay Waters is Editor of the MRC's TimesWatch page