Feature:Opinion

Mr. Keller’s planet

Back when he was the executive editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller said he didn’t want his Sunday Magazine column to become the “editor’s pulpit,” overly absorbed in journalistic issues. But he certainly gave a preacherly blast to Fox News on the op-ed page last Sunday, calling it Rupert Murdoch’s most “toxic legacy.”

“My complaint is that Fox pretends very hard to be something it is not,” wrote Keller, “and in the process contributes to the corrosive cynicism that has polarized our public discourse.”

While Keller may not have shown the rank hypocrisy of an Elmer Gantry, the lack of self-awareness in his sermon was breathtaking. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Almost every sin he catalogues at Fox besets his own news organization. “Corrosive cynicism” indeed.

This is not to say that Fox is beyond criticism. Offering on-air sinecures to out-of-power politicians can be inappropriate, especially when there’s a good chance these figures could return to the political fray, forcing former colleagues to cover them. Some, though not all, of Fox’s opinion programming seems to have become an adjunct to the GOP’s communications apparatus. And Fox is certainly not infallible; contrary to what Roger Ailes said in a speech last month at the University of North Carolina, Fox has taken down some stories over the years.

But for Keller to say that “we [the mainstream media] try to live by a code, a discipline, that tells us to set aside our personal biases, to test not only facts but the way they add up, to seek out the dissenters and let them make their best case,” among other self-stroking claims, is a crock.

Times editors and reporters have long put their thumbs on the scales to ensure that the “intelligent opinions” it wants its readers to hold are in accord with their own. They do so largely by manipulating the stories they choose to cover, the sources they rely on and the quotes they run to fit The Times’ overwhelmingly liberal worldview. As public editor Clark Hoyt wrote in April 2008, the “news pages are laced with columns, news analysis, criticism, reporter’s notebooks, memos, journals and appraisals — all forms that depart from the straightforward presentation of facts and carry the risk of blurring the line between news and opinion.” Is The Times a liberal newspaper, the paper’s first ombudsman Daniel Okrent asked. “Of course it is.”

A prime example of opinion bleeding into news coverage was the Duke “rape” case of 2006, on which The Times ran almost 150 news reports, columns and editorials, almost all skewed against the suspects. One controversial piece affirmed that the prosecutor had assembled a strong enough case to go to trial, even as it acknowledged the case had major holes in it. Dan Abrams, a former MSNBC legal analyst, called the article “shameful” and “an editorial on the front page of what is supposed to be the news division of the newspaper.”

And what about the paper’s foot-dragging in acknowledging the religious motivations of jihadi attacks such as the massacre at Fort Hood in 2009? What about the way the paper jumped to conclusions about the 2011 shooting in Tucson, when it beat the drum about violent right-wing rhetoric for days even after it became clear that the shooter was an apolitical nut job? What about the accusations that Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants is fueled by bigotry and will foster racial profiling when the Obama administration itself made no such claims in its case before the Supreme Court?