Excerpt #19

The level of contempt for the New York Times is unwarranted, ideological, and totally out of control. Yeah, the place has plenty of problems. It’s a massive bureaucratic institution that is, thanks to its incredible reach and the nature of its mission, inevitably at the center of the national and global conversation about issues that people are literally killing each other over. (That’s often the story!) It gathers and publishes an epic amount of information at a furious pace in a way that requires thousands of thorny judgment calls every single day. So yeah, it’s gonna fuck up. Because it is massively influential, people are going to be pissed off by those fuck-ups — all the time.

This can lead to a radically distorted picture, since the astonishing amount of stellar, expert reportorial and editorial judgment embodied in each and every edition is completely invisible. The New York Times (and the Post and the Journal) nails difficult judgment calls like Stephon Curry nails threes. But just imagine if ESPN only ever showed clips of the superhuman, laser-guided mayor of downtown shooting airballs and clanking it of the side of the backboard. It happens! Well, that’s what’s going on here. So I’m going to pound the table and insist, once again, that the New York Times ranks among our best and most valuable institutions devoted to the rapid discovery and dissemination of relevant and/or interesting truths about the human world — news.

Believe it or not (but you should believe it), the culture of the Times (and similar outfits) is profoundly committed to objectivity, verifiable fact and unbiased reporting. (When I write fact-heavy opinion pieces for the Times, they get fact-checked, which is not pretty rare.) Does it suffer from bias? Of course it does! It is produced by humans. Is it hampered by a lack of viewpoint diversity? Of course it is! Sorting and self-selection dynamics push all sorts of professions in the direction of cultural and ideological homogeneity. However, the same dynamic affects informal, leisure-time affinity groups, like the SSC community, in spades.

The professional culture of New York Times is far more concerned to correct for the biases of self-selection than the culture that’s evolved around Scott Siskind’s blogs, for the simple and obvious reason that it has a powerful rubber-hitting-the-road incentive to care. It very literally banks on its reputation for reliability. The Times obsesses over the fact that conservatives say they don’t trust it, but also apparently won’t trust it as long as the paper refuses to violate its fundamental duty not to intentionally misinform readers. They agonize over this bind because they care intensely about whether and how broadly they are trusted; they want to be trusted by everybody, both because it’s a lovely ideal and because they think they’ll make more money that way. But the idea that trust should be based in trustworthiness is considered a bedrock, non-negotiable value.

I’d argue that this sort of commitment to trust through trustworthiness is one of the main distinguishing markers that separates producers of “real” journalism from producers propaganda. This doesn’t guarantee a lack of bias. Far from it. But it does guarantee genuine and earnest concern about both the reality and perception of bias and tends to produce sincere, concerted efforts to mitigate it.

Will Wilkinson, “Grey Lady Steel Man” at Model Citizen

Tell Me What You Think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s