Category Archives: Journalism

The New York Times “political memo”

The New York Times is America’s newspaper of record, and a venerated journalistic establishment. It is wrapped up in the country’s history, and has contributed greatly to the development of a free press and maintenance of an open society. Some fellow conservatives will wonder why I would make such remarks about The Old Grey Lady. I make them because The New York Times – which has earned more Pulitzer Prizes than any other publication – retains one of the strongest, most important news gathering operations in the world.

I also make such remarks because I want it to be understood that I appreciate the original reporting by the Times, even though my main point today is to call attention to another potential source of bias in its coverage of domestic political affairs. That is the “POLITICAL MEMO,” the headline of which appears just above the front-page fold in today’s print edition of the newspaper. Without noticing the small special heading of the article (can I call it an “article?”), I started reading the piece and began to shake my head at some of the writer’s subjective characterizations of the U.S. Senate race in Florida.

In the Republican primary, it is speculated that former front-runner Gov. Charlie Crist may leave the party to run as an independent, leaving Marco Rubio, who surged over a number of months to overtake Crist in popularity, to claim the nomination. Using words like “independent,” “moderate,” “pragmatic,” “outsider” and party “pariah” to portray Crist in the first several paragraphs, writer Damien Cave then drops these couple of gems into the piece:

“If he chooses to run as an independent, Mr. Crist would be betting that the prevailing political logic of the moment is wrong – that despite the Tea Party’s rise, the broader electorate still wants the pragmatic apporach that propelled Barack Obama to victory here.

“Leading a campaign that would most likely lack major fund-raising and a party’s street-level support, Mr. Crist would be running in the hope of turning out ‘the silent majority’ that Richard M. Nixon identified in 1969.” [Emphasis added].

Wow. Obama displayed a “pragmatic approach” in the campaign and the great “silent majority” could just usher in the maverick moderate Charlie Crist into the United States Senate. Obviously, the tone being established is that Crist, the moderate, is naturally cast off by an immoderate Republican Party, etc, etc, etc. Yes, Crist is to the left of Rubio, but what exactly makes him a “moderate?” The fact that he recently vetoed a teacher performance pay bill? That doesn’t seem moderate to me, that seems “liberal.”

In any event, this is about the time I re-scanned the headline to check what type of piece I was reading. I was expecting “news analysis” or something like that. But I got “political memo,” in small caps. What gives? When did the Times start with the political memos, can anyone tell me? Maybe they’ve been around for a while, maybe not. The point is that the more material like this becomes part of the news pages, the more reporter/editor bias you’re going to get. At the Times, on a piece like this, that means liberal political bias.

This is all part of the game schema coverage that we’re treated to non-stop every campaign year. The horse-race coverage. The endless who’s-up, who’s-down, political analysis of election campaigns and the like. It’s in the same vein as the larger, longer trend of interpretative reporting of the news and political news in particular. On television, for example, we used to see politicians talk uninterrupted for dozens of seconds, maybe even minutes. Now, the average campaign sound bite on the news is in the neighborhood of eight seconds.

I need to wrap it up, but I may try to revisit this sometime soon. Would love to hear anybody’s thoughts on it, particularly any journalists or political operatives out there. When newspapers start publishing “political memos,” is that an excuse to write a horse-race piece and not worry too much about any bias that shows up, or is it a legitimate opportunity to delve into the type of political analysis that many readers demand and deserve?

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Filed under 2010 Senate Elections, Journalism, Media, Media Bias, Republican Party