February 25, 2016
If the New York Times really were what the New York Times pretends to be, when it or its industry was criticized, it would bend over backwards to make sure it was being fair to the critics. That’s the true test of “objectivity,” isn’t it—how you act when it’s your own ox being gored?
Instead, the Times typically reacts to criticism the way a cat typically reacts to being given a bath.
Take, for example, a piece in the New York Times (2/23/16) that addresses presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ criticism of corporate media—or “the ‘corporate media,’ as he refers to it,” as the Times’ Jason Horowitz refers to it.
The first thing the Times wants you to know about Sanders’ media criticism is that it’s wrong: “As News Media Changes, Bernie Sanders’ Critique Remains Constant,” is the headline. Horowitz’s piece elaborates on this theme of Sanders’ failure to appreciate the brave new media world:
Despite the advent of the Internet, the diminishing of traditional news media companies and the emergence of new media Goliaths like Facebook that have helped fuel his rise, Mr. Sanders remains orthodox in his mass media doctrine….
As Mr. Sanders sees it, the profit-hungry billionaire owners of news media companies serve up lowest-common-denominator coverage, purposefully avoid the income-inequality issues he prioritizes and mute alternative voices as they take over more and more outlets.
Is that wrong? For example, aren’t news media owners mostly billionaires with a keen interest in profit? The largest stockholder of the New York Times is Mexican telecom mogul Carlos Slim, who’s a billionaire 77 times over; he didn’t get to be the second-richest person in the world without a healthy appetite for return on investment.
Horowitz attempts to set Sanders straight by asserting that
there has been a proliferation of new media offering alternative voices, and traditional news sources have shrunk in an Internet age of diminishing advertising revenue.
Here’s a chart of the top 10 online news sources, courtesy of Pew Research Center. One thing you should notice is that most of them are traditional news sources, now dominating online news. Of the ones that aren’t, Yahoo is partnered with ABC News (which is why they share a slot on the chart); Huffington Post is owned byAOL, which in turn is owned by Verizon; and Buzzfeed sold a $200 million equity stake to NBCUniversal, which is to say Comcast. When people think of “alternative voices,” they’re not generally thinking of giant cable and telecom companies. (Where’s Facebook? Facebook and other social media are not content producers; they direct content generated elsewhere, and if those were largely “alternative voices,” they’d be showing up on this chart.)
Far from shrinking the reach of traditional media, the internet has allowed them to reach vast new audiences. The Times is getting 57 million unique visitors a month—compare that to its peak daily print circulation of 1.2 million. So maybe warnings about the power of corporate media aren’t so out of date after all?
And does corporate media, as Sanders says, avoid issues of income inequality? FAIR has studied this repeatedly, and while a content analysis can’t discern whether it’s on purpose or not, corporate media outlets do show a persistent lack of interest in inequality and poverty. One FAIR study (Extra!, 9-10/07) found that over a 38-month period, the three major nightly newscasts did fewer stories on poverty than on Michael Jackson’s legal travails (58 vs. 69). Another study (Extra!, 5/12) found a short, sharp increase in interest in inequality in 2011, coinciding with Occupy Wall Street, that quickly subsided to the prior level of neglect. According to our analysis of 2012 campaign coverage (Extra!,9/12), “just 17 of the 10,489 campaign stories studied (0.2 percent) addressed poverty in a substantive way.” Our most recent study of the issue (Extra!, 6/14) noted that four times as many network news stories mentioned billionaires (of whom there were 482 in the US at the time) as addressed the 50 million Americans living in poverty.
But the real point of the Times article is to respond to Sanders’ complaints about his own coverage, and his relationship with the journalists who follow his campaign—his “antagonism” toward the press, which goes beyond “the standard posture for politicians” and is actually “a pillar of his anti-establishment, socialist worldview.”
So what are his anti-establishment, socialist complaints?
In December, his campaign demanded that the “corporate network news” grant him as much coverage as it does Mrs. Clinton (the “Bernie blackout,” they called it).
Sanders was referring to the study by the Tyndall Report (cited inWashington Post, 12/7/15), the standard resource on how much time the networks spend covering what. Tyndall found that in the first 11 months of 2015, Sanders had gotten roughly one-twentieth the coverage of Donald Trump, one-tenth the coverage of Hillary Clinton and one-fifth the campaign coverage of Joe Biden, who wasn’t even running. (FAIR noted this phenomenon as well—and documented it in print publications like the Times as well as on TV.)
But rather than mentioning the rather persuasive data that Sanders was pointing at, Horowitz ran a dismissive quote from Sanders’ primary opposition:
The Clinton campaign, however, argues that Mr. Sanders has benefited from the superficial horse-race journalism he scorns, and that coverage has largely focused on his avuncular style and cross-generational appeal rather than thorough inspections of his proposals or record.
It’s not clear where Clinton’s spokesperson saw evidence of this focus on Sanders’ avuncular appeal. Was it the New York Times news story (5/31/15) that reported that Sanders’ platform “may eventually persuade Democrats that he is unelectable in a general election”? Or the one (1/31/16) that lumped Sanders in with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as “candidates on the ideological fringes” and “idol-smashing outsiders.” Or maybe it was the news article (2/15/16) that quoted economists associated with the Democratic establishment—misidentified as “liberal-leaning economists who share his goals”—comparing Sanders’ agenda to “magic flying puppies with winning Lotto tickets tied to their collars.”
Here’s a thought: Maybe Sanders’ media critique remains constant because media likes the New York Times constantly need criticism?
After Bernie Sanders lost the Nevada caucuses to Hillary Clinton, 47 percent to 53 percent, the New York Times (2/21/16) declared the 2016 primary race all but over:
Senator Bernie Sanders vowed on Sunday to fight on after losing the Nevada caucuses, predicting that he would pull off a historic political upset by this summer’s party convention.
But the often overlooked delegate count in the Democratic primary shows Mr. Sanders slipping significantly behind Hillary Clinton in the race for the nomination, and the odds of his overtaking her growing increasingly remote.
Mrs. Clinton has 502 delegates to Mr. Sanders’s 70; 2,383 are needed to win the nomination. These numbers include delegates won in state contests and superdelegates, who can support any candidate.
At the end of the tenth paragraph, the Times‘ Patrick Healy includes some information relevant to the question of whether Sanders is “slipping significantly behind” Clinton:
A New York Times analysis found that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders are tied in the pledged delegate count, at 51 each.
In other words, as far as voters are concerned, Sanders and Clinton are exactly tied so far. It’s only when you count the intentions of superdelegates—party insiders who by virtue of their position get to weigh in on the nominee—that Clinton has any sort of delegate lead, insurmountable or otherwise.
There are good reasons to treat the pledged delegate count as the delegate count. For one thing, the unpledged superdelegates can only indicate who they intend to vote for, which is not necessarily who they will actually vote for; they can and in the past have changed their minds. Counting them the same as pledged delegates is a bit like counting delegates from states that haven’t voted yet because voters in those states tell pollsters they intend to vote for one candidate or the other. They may or may not feel differently when the time comes.
Further, it’s doubtful that superdelegates would choose to overturn the will of Democratic voters to pick a nominee that they had rejected in the voting booth; that seems like an ideal strategy for keeping Democrats home on Election Day, not only giving up control of the White House but—perhaps more importantly to superdelegates, many of whom are in Congress—also putting otherwise safe legislative seats in jeopardy. As Daily Kos blogger Tausendberg (8/30/15) put it last year:
If, in 2016, the Democratic base was told that their opinion had been overridden and made irrelevant, the psychological impact would be so catastrophic on Election Day 2016 that we would need to make up new words to describe it.
Finally, one could argue that media outlets should emphasize the delegate count that reflects the will of the people, rather than an alternative count that disguises that will, because election coverage is supposed to be about facilitating democracy, right?
Arguments like these must have been persuasive to the New York Times at some point, because in 2008—the last time there was a contested Democratic primary—the Times did the count the other way, treating the count of pledged delegates chosen by voters as the real count. As the Times‘ Patrick Healy put it in a February 2008 news article (2/7/08), “The Times counts only delegates that have been officially selected and are bound by their preferences.” (That’s the same Patrick Healy who now puts the pledged delegate count at the end of the tenth paragraph.)
Senator Barack Obama emerged from Tuesday’s primaries leading Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton by more than 100 delegates, a small but significant advantage that Democrats said would be difficult for Mrs. Clinton to make up in the remaining contests in the presidential nomination battle.
Note that Obama’s critical 100-delegate lead was in pledged delegates; that was apparently considered so obvious that it went without saying. The Timesrightly noted that only after voters had had their say would superdelegates’ preferences come into play:
Neither candidate is expected to win the 2,025 pledged delegates needed to claim the nomination by the time the voting ends in June. But Mr. Obama’s campaign began making a case in earnest on Wednesday that if he maintained his edge in delegates won in primaries and caucuses, he would have the strongest claim to the backing of the 796 elected Democrats and party leaders known as superdelegates who are free to vote as they choose and who now stand to determine the outcome.
At that time, whether superdelegates had the right to make a choice independent of what voters wanted was an open question—with Clinton and Obama taking opposite sides:
Mrs. Clinton’s aides said the delegates should make their decision based on who they thought would be the stronger candidate and president. Mr. Obama argues that they should follow the will of the Democratic Party as expressed in the primary and caucuses—meaning the candidate with the most delegates from the voting.
Of course, in 2008, it was the Times‘ stated view (1/25/08) that the Democrats had “two powerful main contenders” who “would both help restore America’s global image…. On the major issues, there is no real gulf separating the two.” So while the paper endorsed Clinton over Obama, it was safe to leave the decision in the hands of the voters.
This year, the Times (1/30/16) endorsed Clinton over an opponent who is “a self-described Democratic Socialist,” who “does not have the breadth of experience or policy ideas that Mrs. Clinton offers,” and whose plans “to break up the banks and to start all over on healthcare reform…aren’t realistic.” This time around, then, the favored candidate could use a little help by including her establishment supporters in the count alongside delegates chosen by voters—so you might call attention to the “often overlooked delegate count” to portray her chances of being beaten as “growing increasingly remote.”
You can send a message to the New York Times at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to (outgoing) public editor Margaret Sullivan email@example.com (Twitter:@NYTimes or @Sulliview). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.