How America’s Mainstream Media Operate

When Adolph Ochs purchased the nearly bankrupt New York Times in 1896, he added a motto that demonstrated his marketing genius. “All the News That’s Fit to Print” became the industry standard and before long the Times became the most trusted newspaper in the country––a status it retains one hundred twenty years later. Yet, the evidence is clear that the Times violated that standard continuously while pretending to engage in objective, unbiased journalism. I will demonstrate my thesis through a review of how newspapers work, which I’ll follow up with by reviewing two books that prove my point.

Every newspaper is the product of a set of procedures whereby an institutional bias determines what stories are covered, how they are covered and what appears on the paper’s editorial pages. In theory, that bias reflects the staff’s professional objectivity and conscientious impartiality, which is the case for a large percentage of the stories each paper generates. Where papers depart from that professional journalistic bias is in the coverage of issues that owners and their top editors view as especially important.

Ironically, the notion that ownership influences a paper’s coverage is accepted when talking about papers owned by conservatives, but not when referencing papers such as the L.A. Times, Washington Post or New York Times. Yet as I shall demonstrate, ownership influence is just as strong at those papers as in the others.

The owners of major newspapers rarely provide direct instructions on how to cover a topic. They don’t have to. Their influence is more subtle and is the result of long-standing policies that determine who is hired and who is promoted to decision-making editorial positions. As a result, their views influence how issue-critical stories are covered, editorial positions, and who is invited to contribute columns on editorial pages.

The Selection of Reporters Re-enforces a Paper’s Bias

Reporters who get jobs at large daily newspapers have proven themselves to be worthy of that responsibility. For the most part, they have graduated from highly rated colleges and held positions where they’ve demonstrated that they hold the kind of values the hiring newspaper requires. Those values include an understanding that they must stay within the boundaries of the views expressed in that paper in the past.

Reporters who get promoted to editorial positions have demonstrated an advanced degree of loyalty to a paper’s traditional practices and outlooks. If, for example, the top editors of a paper have determined that climate change is a threat to civilization, a reporter who has expressed doubts about that theory will not advance professionally––even if s/he has only expressed that viewpoint in private.

This all sounds very conspiratorial except two recent close examinations of the coverage of the New York Times of critical news stories demonstrate the validity of my thesis. In his 2019 study “Print to Fit,”[i] Jerold S. Auerbach details the Times’ coverage of Zionism and the state of Israel from Ochs’ purchase of the Times through the present day.

Auerbach documents how the Times consistently engaged in coverage decisions that conveyed opposition to the founding of a Jewish state and then, after the state of Israel came into existence in 1948, the Times has consistently blamed Israel for its problems with the region’s Arab population while minimizing the responsibility of Israel’s enemies.

Auerbach had the unenviable task of reading through more than one hundred years of the Times’ news stories and editorials. He documents story by story how the Times’ coverage reflected the view of its owners. Although the Times occasionally publishes the views of those who disagree with its coverage and has retained columnists who voiced other opinions, those exceptions have been rare.

How Owners’ Views Get Implemented

The Times’ owners’ antipathy to the notion of a “Jewish state,”[ii] was reflected in the selection of reporters and bureau chiefs sent to the Middle East. Each followed the party line, which they demonstrated in their coverage of decades of attacks on Israeli civilians by Arab nationalists. Again and again, post-killing stories featured the murderer and his family, suggesting the bombings, knifings and other methods of shedding Israeli’s blood were justified by the conditions they were living under and/or by Israel’s refusal to give the “Palestinians” a state of their own. In contrast, the stories of the Jewish victims are minimized or ignored.

On the other hand, actions by the Israeli government to counteract this violence were criticized by the Times’ columnists as a departure from adherence to democratic values while the support by the leaders of the Palestinian organizations for suicide bombings was “understandable.” Never did the Times’ admit to this double standard––asking Israelis to turn the other cheek while not expecting Arabs to be capable of restraint.

You might ask why the Times was opposed to Zionism and why it has been antagonistic to Israel for the past seven decades. Their attitude can be explained by the fact that the Times’ Jewish owners did not want to appear that their ownership resulted in undue positive coverage Jews, Judaism or Israel. But the truth is more complicated. It began with Ochs’ connection to the Reform Movement in Judaism.

Why The Times Is Hostile to Israel

The Reform Movement in the U.S. gave Jews permission to see Judaism as a religion divorced from the history of the Jewish people and from the notion of Jews as God’s chosen people. As a result, during the first half of the 20th century Reform Jews opposed the movement that sought to return to the land from which the Jewish people were exiled two thousand years ago. Even today, many Reform Jews prioritize being comfortable as Americans free from the accusation of divided loyalties, which Israel’s existence threatens.

That outlook was carried over in the personage of Ochs’ son-in-law and successor, Arthur Hays Sulzberger. Sulzberger was even more hostile than his father-in-law to the notion of Jews as a distinct people to whom other Jews owed an allegiance. Sulzberger demonstrated his rejection of that allegiance in his relations with top officials in the Roosevelt administration during World War Two giving them cover for their failure to offer sanctuary to Europe’s Jews or to engage in efforts to stop the Nazis’ slaughter. His editors reflected his view in terms of their news coverage or lack thereof of what we today know as the Holocaust.

Laurel Leff analyzed the Times’ WWII coverage in great detail in her 2005 expose “Buried by the Times.”[iii] While, like Auerbach, Leff carefully read through the pages of the Times to justify her thesis, she also had access to correspondence and other sources. Studying the Times from1933 through the end of World War Two, she documents the Times’ downplaying the dehumanizing policies of the Nazi government towards Jews and the paper’s failure to recognize evidence that those policies had metastasized after 1942 into the Final Solution and the death of six million.

Sulzberger did not instruct his editors how to cover the crisis facing Europe’s Jews. He didn’t need to do so. He made his feelings known in hiring and promotion decisions, and by his refusal to bow to pressure from Jewish groups to tell the story of the Jews’ plight. Sulzberger also conveyed his outlook by the organizations he belonged to, such as the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, which received coverage in the Times beyond its import in terms of size and influence.

Perhaps the Times is clean except for its coverage of Zionism and Israel? Believe that and I’ve a bridge in Brooklyn . . . The Times and the rest of the mainstream press decided early on that it wanted Barack Obama to be America’s first “Black” president and it covered his campaign and presidency from that outlook. It subsequently decided Donald Trump was unworthy of being president and has done everything it could to reverse the 2016 election and make sure he doesn’t serve a second term.

Expressing editorial opinions on one’s editorial pages is not a problem because readers understand there is a difference between news stories and editorials. Yet, today a paper’s

editorial outlook leaks into the selection and placement of stories on sports and life pages as well as in the news section. Adding editorial columns to those pages is a relatively new phenomenon that I’m not certain readers have caught on to. What is clear is that you won’t have a pro-Trump lifestyle page columnist writing for the Washington Post, New York Times, et al. Rather, what those papers are saying is the more angles from which Trump can be attacked the better.

From the days when news of Jews being slaughtered in Europe were buried at the bottom of news stories on inside pages to the present, papers like the Times have not been neutral, objective or unbiased in their coverage of the major topics of the day. You may agree with their bias, but if so, know facts and opinions in opposition to their views will not be featured despite the occasional guest columnist whose presence satisfies the papers’ need to appear fair.

It is incumbent upon Americans who are concerned about being led by the nose by media giants like the New York Times to get their news from a variety of sources. The Internet, though subject to ‘fake news,’ offers contrasting opinions and researched coverage. Those sources are also biased, but readers willing to put in the time can find sufficient information to make their own decisions about the issues of the day. In sum, we must recognize no source can be trusted––particularly the New York Times.

 

[i] Jerold S. Auerbach, “Print to Fit.The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2006,” Academic Studies Press, 2019.

[ii] Deborah Lipstadt points out in her review of Auerbach’s book that as late as 1986––nearly forty years after the founding of the state of Israel, the Times would still not allow Israel to be described on its pages as a “Jewish state.” See Deborah E. Lipstadt, “The Gray Lady and the Jewish State,” Jewish Review of Books, Fall, 2019, P. 22.

[iii] Laurel Leff, “Buried by the Times. The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper,” Cambridge University Press, 2005.

 

What journalists do: My thoughts

Rex Smith, editor of the Albany Times Union, informs us “a journalist who just passes along what is said is a fancy stenographer, failing at the task of truth telling.” That in a nutshell describes where journalism has gone off the rails and why it’s audience represents only one segment of society.

When I was a cub reporter with the Oberlin College student newspaper, my first assignment was to cover a talk by the poet Stephen Spender. I was asked to take notes so that people not able to attend would get an accurate idea of what he said. I certainly was not expected to judge or evaluate Spender’s presentation.

Later I became a sports editor. The closest I came to “truth telling” was writing a headline that told readers the extent of the victory or defeat. The story itself was a recapitulation of the events of the game or match told without editorial input. Today sports stories rarely report on the game itself; instead they purport to tell us what the victory or defeat means, taking away our pleasure as fans coming to our own conclusions.

When it comes to politics, journalism today is agenda driven. What that means is that the newspaper’s point of view on all major topics is pre-determined. All a reporter needs to do is fill in the details that support the paper’s view. If that’s truth telling, my name is Bill Clinton.

If you need evidence, consider the revelations that discredit the New York Times from being an objective source of information on the issues of the day.

With the election of Donald Trump, the Times resolved to focus on the assumption that he stole the election with help from Russia. “We built our newsroom to cover one story, and we did it truly well,” said Dean Baquet, the Times’ current executive editor. I would question that conclusion. There was no collusion, but the Times reportedly gained 600,000 digital subscriptions telling its readers daily for more than two years that the evidence was mounting. Mission accomplished.
Today, Baquet has decided to shift to another story: racism. His goal is to reframe the entire history of this country to make it a function of slavery. They want us to believe that the history of the United States of America began with the arrival of the first African slaves at Jamestown in 1619. Slavery taints all and cannot be erased. Not even reparations will satisfy.

It’s easy to see how this game plan accomplishes the Times’ current political agenda. It not only appeals to the descendants of slavery, but it enables the Times to undermine black support for President Trump, which could be a factor in the outcome of the 2020 election.

What should newspapers do?

In its long history on this continent, newspapers evolved from being a voice for owners to express their views on the issues of the day ala Ben Franklin to becoming a platform for political parties, which meant tarring opponents with whatever calumny was handy. In the early 20th century reformers sought to hold papers to a set of principles that included separating news stories from opinion. That was the prevailing ethic until Watergate—the expose of President Nixon’s involvement in trying to undermine George McGovern’s campaign by planting false evidence in a Democrat campaign office.

After that, the big newspapers got swelled heads, feeling their job was not just to report on, but once more to influence the outcome of the issues of the day. If that means reporters inserting their views in news stories, so be it. If that means having an agenda which all stories on a topic such as climate change or tariffs have to adhere to a set position, so be it.

Professional journalists should not just be stenographers, but neither should they couch a news story to follow a political agenda failing to report facts that conflict with those that support the company’s view.

Jill Abramson, Baquet’s predecessor at the Times, wrote a book, Merchants of Truth, in which she argued that newspapers are kowtowing to advertisers in the face of declining revenues. What has turned things around economically for some has fast news distribution via social media, using Twitter for example, to release partial stories ahead of print publication. The danger she sees is a lack of oversight and a rush to judgment. That is exacerbated when the paper has an admitted agenda.

In a democracy, readers ought to be given adequate information to make up their own minds. Newspapers should provide a balanced coverage of the issues, such that reporters tell us what people say on both sides of an issue without editorializing. If they want to express their own opinions on the issues, save it for their personal Twitter account. The arrogance of those who think they are in possession of the truth contributes to the public’s distrust of the media. Fox has it right: their job is to report; ours is to decide.

Is the News Media above criticism?

The national news media has been engaged in a battle royal with Donald Trump that began the day he declared his candidacy. I doubt any major newspaper has failed to post an editorial attacking Trump for criticizing the news media, arguing their reporting is above criticism thanks to its Constitutional protection and that his attacks encourage or at least give permission to others to do so as well which threatens this vital institution.

There is a red line in all criticism that should not be crossed––namely advocating violence to people or property, but Donald Trump has not crossed that line nor have the people who are accountable to him. I’m not saying you might not be able to find some nut job who has advocated violence against the media, but according to my philosophy professor one example of anything does not make that thing representative. There was also the case of the man who killed journalists in Annapolis, but there’s no evidence he was motivated by national politics.

Those who feel the media has not just been unfair, but has engaged in a concerted campaign against Donald Trump and his administration, can feel somewhat justified at the announcement that the New York Times has added an avowedly racist Asian woman to its editorial board.

Sarah Jeong has posted on Twitter statements like “Dumba— f—ing white people marking up the Internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants” and “It’s sick how much joy I get from being cruel to old white men.”

How do you think the Times would react if it discovered a white male it had hired had said the same thing about Asian women while a teenager and now admits it was stupid and wrong? He would have been shown the door faster than Clark Kent changed into Superman. Yet Sarah Jeong is not recanting her racist comments and the Times and others defend its choice telling white people to stop being so sensitive.

What we have is a clear case of hypocrisy. It’s okay if I attack you for something even when I can’t prove it, but you are not allowed to attack me even when you have proof.

But it’s worse than that because the Times is saying it’s okay to be a racist as long as you attack white people. So, racism is only wrong when it’s practiced by white people. It’s okay if you’re a Black, Latino or Asian racist.

This country was built on a different set of principles––the notion of equality before the law. The New York Times may claim to still support that principle, but actions, as someone once said, speak louder than words.