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August 2, 2005
Tapscott: No One Mourns The Wall?

Mark Tapscott wonders why the mainstream media and the blogs haven't shown more interest in a statement by the New York Times' Bill Keller last month essentially admitting that "even sophisticated readers of The New York Times sometimes find it hard to distinguish between news coverage and commentary in our pages." Mark writes that no one seems all that shocked to hear Keller admit this:

I blogged at length on Keller's memo and the committee report June 28. But besides postings by other bloggers, reports in Editor & Publisher, some pieces in Salon and Slate and an edition of PBS's excellent "On the Media" radio show hosted by Bob Garfield, Keller's comment has all but disappeared since its initial public appearance in mid May.

That invisibility might be attributable to some degree to professional courtesy among editors, but my guess is that it is more related to not wanting to call attention to the fact Keller's statement so profoundly concedes what critics have said for so long and thus confounds all of those MSM denials over the years since Spiro Agnew's first mention of the "nattering nabobs of negativism."

I agree with Mark; this should have received much more attention. Mainstream media outlets, mostly newspapers, that have a regular editorial section constantly defend themselves from allegations of bias by asserting that a "wall" exists between news reporters and the editorial staff. This wall supposedly keeps any editorial biases from appearing in the manner in which the publication reports news stories. It seems that Keller might admit in his statement that such a wall only exists in the utopian concept of a newspaper and not in its practical application.

On the other hand, it could mean something different. A local newspaperman once told me that my suspicions about our local newspaper and its editorial bias were fundamentally correct but my understanding of how it happens was off. Technically, he assured me, the wall exists. Editorial-page staff do not influence the placement and editing of the news sections. The bias enters the system because the newspaper/media organ tends to hire and promote people who think alike -- in this case, with strong leftist biases.

This causes a cognitive disconnect when media critics start complaining about the biases of news reporting at places like the New York Times or the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Bloggers such as myself will point out evidence of what we think is editorial tampering in news reporting. The newspaper, knowing that the processes in place don't give that kind of access to the decisionmaking on news reporting, scoff at the allegations and hold them up to show us as rubes. In fact, the bias exists, as this journalist told me -- but results from the monolithic mindset that afflicts most news outlets due to the "birds of a feather" syndrome, and not any deliberate attempt to skew reporting, at least not directly.

Keller's remarks therefore probably admit less but mean more than people think. I doubt that he intended on saying that the wall has crumbled and editorialists have infiltrated news reporting. What I think he meant was that the bias exists with or without the wall. That presents a much more difficult problem for papers like the Times. If the processes really were corrupt, fixing them would not be terribly difficult. The problem exists because newspapers have created a tunnel-vision mindset, one so entrenched that most of those involved can't even detect it for themselves.

The challenge, for those who admit this problem, is to fix it. Given the size of the effort needed to do so, it really isn't so surprising after all that most would prefer not to acknowledge it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 2, 2005 5:24 PM

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» Quote of the Day from Ed
"even sophisticated readers of The New York Times sometimes find it hard to distinguish between news coverage and commentary in our pages."--Bill Keller, The New York Times' executive editor. What direction does that commentary come from? Well, let's f... [Read More]

Tracked on August 2, 2005 5:26 PM

» MSM Ignores NYTimes Keller Statement on Bias from Tapscott's Copy Desk
The first comment is right on, and not only because it anticipates the basic point underlying my column on this subject, which will appear Friday on [Read More]

Tracked on August 3, 2005 6:01 AM

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