Monday, April 5, 2010

The New York Times and Objective Journalism

This post has been sent to the editor of The New York Times.

In 1964, I worked in the campaign of media personality and former evangelist Charles Templeton in his unsuccessful bid for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party. During a break in one of our strategy sessions, Charles reminisced. When he worked for the Toronto Star a few years earlier, the shortage of hospital beds was a major political issue. He proudly informed us that for 26 consecutive days he put the hospital issue on the front page.

One day we had no hard news to report, he told us. So I phoned a politician friend, and told him to ask a question in the provincial legislature, any question about hospital beds. The question was asked and featured on the front page of the next issue.

I felt admiration, marveling at the power he wielded. However, after years of media scrutinizing, I came to realize how false, how manipulative, how abusive of the reader. His cause was not to inform, but to further an agenda. Worthy or not, this was a misuse of the platform given to him. If he was executing Star policy, then the newspaper itself was wrong.

Media coverage of the troubles of certain members of the Catholic Church hierarchy brought the Templeton episode to mind. As of a few days ago, The New York Times has given negative front-page mention to matters Catholic for some 40 consecutive days. Which makes me wonder whether the Times is presenting news or riding a hobbyhorse. There may be some who marvel at what they consider determined journalism. There are others who resent being manipulated.

Lutheran theologian John Stephenson has challenged media coverage of these sex scandals. The press "cannot be expected to highlight insignificant details such as the fact that Benedict XVI has vigorously addressed this issue from the first days of his papacy." He continued, "When guilt is foreordained and execution already carried out, mere supporting evidence is of no account."

Barely a week ago [about March 23], the New York Times headlined the "news" that, as cardinal prefect in 1996, Ratzinger, quashed the canonical trial of of a priest of the Milwaukee archdiocese accused of unspeakable crimes.

"There is no likelihood of the NYT apologizing for this lie uttered a reader, after the paper declined to interview the canon lawyer who presided over the judicial proceedings in Milwaukee. According to him, the canonical process was still in full swing when the accused priest died."

Had the Times held that interview, it might have missed a day in its campaign. Increasingly, authoritative voices are challenging Times reportage. Unbiased sources are exposing factual flaws. When serious errors persist, the editorial process takes on the trappings of abuse of platform.

On May 6, a CBS/NY Times poll tested the American public on the matter of media bias. The poll showed that 53 percent of the respondents thought the scandal reports were accurate. I do not know if the newspaper has the wit to see the inverse situation -- that almost half the population thought the reports to be inaccurate.

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