Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The NYT vs. President Bush

I've made the case in a few different places that, one, the concept of "liberal bias" is at best incoherent, and two, that the New York Times on the whole does not have one. I have challenged the people making these claims to give me examples from the Times's print or online versions to prove it; none have stepped up, and I'm regularly surprised by the conservatism of the op-ed page. (See today's paper for Thomas Friedman's pro-globalization, pro-business, pro-low taxes on corporations column.) What I'm going to do in this blog post is analyze one of the Times's front page articles about Bush's speech.
The headline is "Bush Acknowledges Difficulties, Insisting on Fight to the End." On reading it, I note many examples of what conservatives would perceive as bias; I just see these statements as facts. Here are some:
1) "The questions now are how many more times over how many years he might have to deliver the same message of patience and resolve - and whether the American public, confronted with a mounting death toll, an open-ended military commitment, lack of support from allies and a growing price tag, will accept it."
From one perspective, these are incontrovertible facts: the commitment is open-ended; there are no major allies involved; and the price tag is growing. From another this sentence carries a sort of ominous warning in it.
2) "Using language that infuriates his opponents who say there is no link between the Iraq war and Al Qaeda, he specifically cast the battle in Iraq as part of the bigger conflict that began with the Sept. 11 attacks, which he mentioned explicitly five times and alluded to at others, and invoked the specter of Osama bin Laden."
Here's another--the writer specifically mentions that Bush referred to 9/11 five times. If this speech was about Iraq, why was 9/11 being mentioned? To someone like me, this is again pure fact; to others, I could see how (especially if they believe in a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq) this would be riling.
3) "Mr. Bush certainly has cause for some optimism. While the bloodshed goes on unabated, the Iraqis have made real progress in establishing a political system that includes Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. American and Iraqi forces have been capturing or killing leaders of the insurgency and scooping up caches of weapons."
Favorable.
The articles ends not with the writer getting any last barbs in, but with Bush:
4) "We know that when the work is hard, the proper response is not retreat, it is courage," Mr. Bush said. "And we know that this great ideal of human freedom is entrusted to us in a special way, and that the ideal of liberty is worth defending."
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the Washington Times and 10 being the Village Voice, I'm going to have to give this article a 5--smack in the middle, well-written, objective, fair and balanced. Anyone disagree?

17 Comments:

At 3:05 PM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

Charles, I think you hit on a really good point that I don’t think most people usually bring up: at what point is bias nothing more than truth? That is to say, when “factual” claims become co-opted into political positions (e.g. Saddam has weapons of mass destruction), and then those claims are proven to be false (e.g. Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction), can’t we understand that political position to be, at least in some sense, wrong? And, if a newspaper were to report it as such, it would be called a clear case of “liberal media bias,” when in fact it was simply reporting a proven fact. So, not to distract from your post (in fact, I hope that some of Charles’s “Conservative” readers will ignore this post for a while to either attempt an example of “bias” or admit that this is a fair, balanced report before continuing on to answer my claim), but it seems to me something that has yet to come up (at least explicitly) when writing about the “bias” issue. Regarding this article, anyway, the only things that could be taken as criticisms of the President are statements of fact, not of political opposition.

 
At 4:18 PM, Anonymous dadman said...

I agree with j. morgan. An acutely observed post. May I take a moment to go off on a tangent about Bush's speech? Thanks.

Bush said, "They are trying to shake our will in Iraq... They will fail."

Just imagine, Bush announces a timetable for bringing the troops home. Zarqawi calls him on the phone and says, "Nyah, nyah, if the troops go home I win."

Bush replies, "You're trying to shake my will, Zarqawi. You will fail."

Z. says, "No, really, please let the troops stay. Trying to blow them up is such wonderful training for my people. And their presence is an excuse for all sorts of terrible things."

B: "You're not shakin' my will, Z-man. The troops are comin' home. Stick it."

Z: "Aiiee!"

Okay, what am I saying here? It's not really an argument for troops coming home, or for troops staying. It's just pointing out that "they must not shake our will" is not a rationale for anything at all, because, as the philosophers say, it cannot be falsified.

Thanks for your time.

 
At 7:46 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

The complaints of liberal bias in the New York Times should not be taken to mean that every single scrap of information in the New York Times is blatantly liberal. The complaint is that, on average, the NY Times leans considerably left of center. In essence, we are arguing that columnists such as Maureen Dowd get a larger pulpit than John Tierney.

As to the bias of this article, I'll agree it's fairly balanced. As they say, "Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while."

Mr. Caler- I apologize, while I believe some on the way left are anti-american, I don't believe you are and didn't mean to insinuate that.

 
At 8:34 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

and... uh... how bout the "conservatism" of these editorials in the times?

AIDS
Reaction to Bush's Speech
One more for good measure

I guess they only way we could really resolve this would be to carefully analyze every single article and assign it points based on which way it leans. I'd rather not, not because I'm scared of the results, but because we'd just argue about how many points to assign and it's too time consuming.

Since I'm partial to analogies, I'll make one and then rest my case. Let's say the NY Times has a hankering for some hopscotch. While some of the time it will use both feet, I'm pretty sure which leg will get more use.

 
At 8:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bush goes on TV and says, "It would be a wonderful day in Washington if the sun were shining."

The Washington Times says, "The President said it would be a wonderful day if the sun shone."

The New York Times says, "The President said it would be a wonderful day if the sun were shining. An aide held an umbrella over his head to shield him from the pouring rain as he spoke."

Not bias. Facts.

 
At 9:01 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

and one more thing-

"at what point is bias nothing more than truth?"

I think this question is overly simplifying things. Things that are true can still be biased. For instance, if an article was written focusing on all the TRUE negative aspects of the war (no definate timetable, troop deaths, etc...) then it would be biased towards anti-war. However, if the article ignored these aspects and only focused on the TRUE positive aspects (increasing Iraqi self-reliance, increasing participation in congress and decreased abuse of the Kurds, increasing infrastructure, no attacks on US soil, one less threat for Israel, great US staging point for future Iranian confrontation, Saddam no longer in power, etc...) than the article will obviously carry a pro-war bias.

As further proof, just by analyzing the number and quality of examples I listed, it's apparent that I'm pro-war, even though everything I said is factually true.

As to Saddam's lack of WMD's,
we know Saddam used chemical weapons on the Kurds in the nineties. It seemed safe to assume he still had them after he USED them, and that 16 violations of UN Security Council Resolutions surely deserved some punishment other than allowing him to exchange oil for foo... anything he wanted.

 
At 8:46 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

jackscolon: I'll gladly explode some of your facts.

http://counterpunch.org/dixon06172004.html

That's how we gave Saddam the chemical weapons you're so upset about.

And--no attacks on US soil? When did Iraq attack the US?

 
At 10:18 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

Well, I assume that we will continue with this conversation, since only jackscolon stepped up to the plate and admitted that this was a fair article. So, three points:

First, bias is a vacuous term in most employments. Of course there is bias in everything that is written – the question is whether that bias is prudent, judicious discrimination that favors some content over others because of the nature of that content or if it amounts to an overt political agenda regardless of content. That is the crux of the case, isn’t it? So by pointing out that bias is always present, we really don’t solve anything. The more substantial claim, that it is overt politically-motivated, data-skewing bias (like Pravda or something) is a much tougher claim to make.

Second, the Op-Ed section of any paper is probably not the best test case to flesh out whether that paper is a “biased” publication. Of course Opinion pieces are biased – that’s the point. Op-Ed editors don’t make money by clustering their editorialists in the center – they make money by hiring provocative, disparate writers who gain cult followings (Brooks is a great, right-leaning example). It’s no secret that Maureen Dowd is a leftist – neither the NYT nor Dowd herself hides that. But that’s just the point – she is not a journalist charged with reporting the news.

Finally, I think jackscolon’s point is that if certain facts are presented at irrelevant or inappropriate times or if they are presented to the exclusion of other, complicating data, despite their truth value, that can amount to the Pravda-type bias. Now, whether or not I think that is true, I think it is irrelevant in the case of the NYT. In the article in question (and in all the front page articles today) the facts are presented at crucial points in the reporting – when they, the journalist, do some fact-checking research to independently verify claims or contextualize comments. The article doesn’t exclude any pro-administration data either - quotes extensively from the President himself.

So, there it is. I think this article that Charles has pointed to is representative of the type of journalism presented in the NYT on a regular basis: fair, accurate, well-research, and well-written. And simply because Maureen has a job at the paper, doesn’t change that. Most of what "Conservatives" think is "bias" at the times is either editorializing or just good reporting.

 
At 1:31 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

Since it seems we thrive on dissension, let me dissent.

1) In regards to WMDs, since we gave him the weapons, all the more reason to suspect he still has them... and here is the analogy.

Suppose a man has a rats in his basement, and you worry that those rats will make their way next door to your basement. In order to stop the rats, you give the man some arsenic, which kills the rats. A few years later, the man uses the arsenic to kill some stray dogs that had been living in his backyard for quite a while. No one really cares, because they were stray dogs and in his backyard. A few years after that, he knocks over his neighbors fence in order to use his pool. The police react, return the pool, and now that it's apparent that he is a neighborhood threat, demand proof that they previously given arsenic is destroyed. The man lets the police search his house, but not areas where the police want to search, 16 times. Now, does this kind of behavior imply the man still has the arsenic? I believe it does.

Here we reach our impasse, I will always believe Saddam was a legitimate threat in the War on Terror and apparently you won't. Hindsight is 20/20 and as CharlesPierce has pointed out- the Democratic Leadership who voted for the war should not bashing Bush for something they were involved in. So rather than endlessly debate the circumstantial evidence (which I believe was strong enough), let me ask this question: What do you believe is our legitimate course of action now that we are involved in the war? Do we give up everything we've gained, abandon the Iraqi minorities again, and allow the terrorists to believe they can win?

As to attacks on US soil, I'm agree with redhurt that part of the benefit of having the war in Iraq is that it attracts terrorists to attack us there instead of here. In essence, it is a "grand diversion", and I personally would rather have terrorists attack our military which is capable of defending itself, than our milk supply. Whether we were substantially justified to remove Saddam or not, you can't argue that Iraq isn't involved in the War on Terror ANY LONGER. While you will never hear me dispute that the US government is a little shortsighted, I don't believe you can ignore the here and now to debate prior mistakes. While those mistakes should be analyzed to guide future actions, America shouldn't hesitate to act rightly in the present strictly because mistakes were made in the past.

One more analogy and I'll rest my case and refuse to debate the merits of the Iraq war any longer (well, I'll probably still debate it, but I won't bring it up). Lets say the police invade a house under suspicion of drug violations and discover body parts from murdered humans. Do you allow the owner to walk free simply because you didn't find the correct evil? Or do you re-evaluate and pursue the course of action which NOW seems correct?

 
At 1:36 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

2) and about the NYT- google Jayson Blair. Also, a paper that hasn't endorsed a republican candidate since Eisenhower has to be a bit biased (how can you not endorse Reagan? Ronald Freaking Reagan? He won over 60% of the popular vote!).

 
At 2:09 PM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

Um, your long comment was way off topic from this post, so I don’t think it is a discussion we should continue. I do, however, want to correct three problems with your analogy:

1) Substitute “rats” with “other neighbors who neither of you like.”
2) Substitute “stray dogs” with “still other neighbors who, despite not being part of the neighborhood, lived on what is now their lot long before this was a neighborhood.”
3) Substitute “you” with “police.”

When you do that, you get a different story that makes the arsenic not such a mild, helpful tool in our continuing war on domestic pests. It also highlights how it is perfectly reasonable to think you could get away with knocking down fences whenever you wanted. It further demonstrates why this man would be less than willing to cooperate with the same police force that gave him the poison in the first place. So your analogy is pretty much way off and pretty offensive. Don’t downplay how morally bankrupt it was for us to give Saddam chemical weapons and don’t elevate our status to do-gooders with good intentions now.

 
At 2:13 PM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

Jayson Blair doesn't work at the NYT anymore to the best of my knowledge. But, the reason that the NYT hasn't endorsed a Republican since Eisenhower is because the Republicans haven't nominated anyone worthy of endorsement since Eisenhower. Now, out of respect for Charles's blog space, we should restrict comments to his posts.

 
At 2:33 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

I apologize- I got sidetracked and the analogy is a bit excessive. One clarification and I'll withdraw. I'll agree we didn't give weapons out of a moral obligation, but as a short term solution to immediate problems. As to why these solutions are short-sighted, I've argued that short-term leadership looks for short-term answers out of political necessity.

Moving back to the NYT- "the reason that the NYT hasn't endorsed a Republican since Eisenhower is because the Republicans haven't nominated anyone worthy of endorsement since Eisenhower."
Since we can't objectify the criterion for nominating candidates, a statement like you just made is obviously biased. Since that statement is biased to the left and the NY Times agrees, I think it follows that the NY Times is biased to the left.

To anyone skilled in logic (which I'm not) I'd be glad if you pointed out any errors in my syllogism.

 
At 4:23 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

Here's one: you committed the fallacy affectionately known to ivory tower logicians as ad populum, as you conflated Reagan's popularity with excellence. Reagan was a terrible president. Here are my objective criteria for being a terrible president:

-selling arms to Iran to fund illegal wars in Nicaragua
-forcefully breaking up legitimate strikes
-invading island nations in the Caribbean for no reason whatsoever
-calling princess Diana "princess David" during a speech in London
-having Alzheimer's during your presidency
-causing stock market crashes
-building thousands of useless weapons

And so on. Please either 1) dispute those item by item, if you choose to, or 2) explain why the fulfillment of any is not a necessary or sufficient criterion for being a terrible president.

 
At 4:23 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

j. morgan, I thank you for your defense of relevance--I just can't let gross factual inaccuracies go, no matter what subject they reference.

 
At 7:28 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

I’ll go through these in reverse order.
1) Building thousands of useless weapons- If you think forcing the Soviet Union into in arms race that would push them economically to an eventual collapse was useless, than a few facts and my poor attempt at eloquence won’t convince you, I’ll agree to disagree.
2) Causing stock market crashes- I don’t think the crash is attributable to Reagan. Most of the theories I’ve heard center around interest rates, which is the domain of the Fed, who isn’t accountable to anyone. If you have some proof, I’d be interested. For the most part, Reagan presided over one of the longest peacetime economic booms in US history, until the Internet boom. As for the recession in 1982, that is more attributable to the Fed’s fanatical war on inflation, as a direct result of the economic quagmire left by the Carter administration.
3) Having Alzheimer’s- I don’t think Ronald Reagan ever remembered having Alzheimer’s during his presidency… hey-o! This to me seems like an unfortunate occurrence, and if you have a specific wrong that occurred because of Alzheimer’s, once again I’d be interested to hear it.
4) Calling Princess Diana “Princess David”- C’mon! If you listened to Margaret Thatcher at his funeral, you’d know the Brits still loved him.
5) Invading Caribbean Islands- A bit ridiculous in retrospect yes, but I don’t think you can underestimate the communist paranoia that infected everyone, not just Republicans.
6) Selling Arms to Iran to Fight the Contras- When the idea was pitched to Reagan (I’m trying to remember the book by Oliver North I read a long time ago) it would have accomplished two goals. One: it was intended to release the hostages sans military intervention and two: it would have helped the contras defeat the Sandinistas. Ronald Reagan didn’t create the plan, he just signed off on it with minimal involvement, if he is guilty of anything- it’s at grasping at straws to rescue American hostages. Also, getting American hostages released while combating puppet governments for the Soviets isn’t a bad idea, it was just poorly executed. We should have been openly supporting the Contras, and at the time I’m sure it was a lot easier to remember the good old days with the Shah than to anticipate the American-Islam Wars twenty years later. I don’t think the goals of improving relations with Iran and fighting communism were bad, although I will concede this wasn’t the way to go about it.

As to positive aspects of Reagan’s presidency, I’ve already stayed at work an hour longer than I was supposed to- so I’ll get on that as soon as I get to another computer.

 
At 11:37 AM, Blogger RedHurt said...

This post is long because I might not get back here for a few days, so I want to lay everything on the table at once.

Ronald Reagan was an amazing president, but that has little or nothing to do with your post, so if you two liberal and intellectual behemoths can stop ganging up on Jack for a second, I'd like to get in on the bias issue. Sorry I didn't see this post until this morning.

First of all, "I note many examples of what conservatives would perceive as bias; I just see these statements as facts." Of course you do, Chuck. That's because you're a raving liberal, and statements like "Ronald Reagan was a horrible president" look like facts to you.

Now that's not the truth, but it is the facts: you are a liberal, you do sometimes rave, you do think Ronald Reagan was a bad president, and you consider that to be a fact.

The truth is that you're one of the most open minded people I know and you call it like you see it without toting the party line. What I said presented the truth, but not the whole truth, and that distorts the issue. Bias isn't always about not telling the facts - it's about the way you present those facts, and everyone knows that. I presented a few facts in a way that implied you're so biased you don't know what facts are. I even used a quote, which implies even more objectivity since I'm using your own words instead of making them up. I slandered you without lying, but that doesn't make it right, fair, decent or responsible.

It's more like the Objective Times reporting, "President Bush said it was raining today" and The Biased Review reporting, "Bush has a dreary outlook on the current state of affairs in Washington."

I'm tempted to start a new post here on bias in general, but I'll try to bring it back to the real media. I don't know about the NYT because I don't read it. I've heard accounts that it's the most biased source of all, but haven't seen it substantiated myself, and some pretty objective people like Chuck say the opposite, so I have nothing to add. What I can say is that the mainline TV news is loaded with bias. Tom Brocaw and Peter Jennings and Dan Rather haven't presented a straight story in their lives. Example: as I've oft recounted, in Brocaw's going away special, they recounted his presence during various historical events over the years. During the section on Reagan's administration, rather than focusing on anything having anything to do with the president himself, Brocaw's focus was the AIDs scare, and how Reagan was a poor president for not reacting better to it. Bush Sr. and Reagan were given no credit at all for helping bring down the wall in Berlin while Clinton was praised for intervening in Bosnia. JFK was extolled for his brilliance while the words "Bay of Pigs" and "Cuban Missile Crisis" were never entered. The AIDs scare is more important than the Cuban Missile Crisis? Brocaw was there for both, reported on both. Both are "the facts", as you've called them. The difference is that Brocaw and the editors, directors, writers, etc. at NBC chose to emphasize the weaknesses of Reagan and ignore the same in JFK, despite the fact that JFK's blundering had a far bigger impact on America.

Bias is never "nothing more than truth", j. morgan. Bias is the ability to present the truth from a certain perspective - it's the truth with a healthy dose of opinion hidden underneath, like the fatty butter carefully baked into so many other healthy foods. I think you outlined it excellently, J. Morgan, when you said that most employments of the term are vaccuous, and that the more serious claim - that bias is being employed to the detriment of readers - is much harder to defend.

Yet I think sometime's it's quite clear. Would anyone not argue that Fox News is biased? It features strong, well spoken conservatives, employs almost exclusively republicans, and sets them up against weak liberals. CNN often does the same thing. They're interview a strong, well spoken Democrat, and then choose Pat Buchanan to represent the right. While I've seen good evidence that their internet news is decent, their TV station is ridiculous. During the fillabuster issue, they DAILY interviewed 2-3 different Democratic senators and NOT A SINGLE REPUBLICAN between the hours of 4-6pm when I was watching it in the weight room at work.

And the upsetting thing isn't that bias is present, but that it's presented as unbiased fact. "We Report, You Decide." "Just the Facts." It never is, it never has been, and it never will be. We wouldn't like it if it were. In America, we have this strange idea that middle-grounded-ness is a virtue. Why can't Fox News just come out and say, "Providing powerful Right-Wing answers to every whiny Liberal problem, 24/7" or CNN, "Getting the facts from the perspective the liberals who matter"?

Whether we ought to be so upset about bias or not is another question. The issue seems to come down to being upset that people who don't think critically will be lead into adopting an opinion other than the one they'd normally choose. I'd like to see more conservatives upset about a lack of critical thinking and objectivity on the part of watchers/readers and less time spent complaining about media bias. More than being upset about the bias towards one political side or the other, Charles and I have often lamented the bias towards sensationlism and stupidity in the news. A bias towards dumbing stories down, never offering opinions that really are critical, but instead simplifying everything for public consumption and pandering to a culture focused on entertainment. If the masses spent more time reading several different opinions and researching issues, then biased news sources, be they conservative or liberal or just stupid, would be far less influential in unconsciouly swaying public opinion.

 

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