The New York Times’ Social Media Crackdown Won’t Fix the Media

Published November 16, 2017

The New York Times announced a new social media policy intended to crack down on the perception of bias among their reporters. All the news that’s fit to print no longer includes off-topic, casual musings by their reporters on Twitter.

The new policy treats a symptom rather than focusing on the underlying disease. And to take the metaphor a step further, the loudest doctors aren’t the best ones to trust in this situation.

Conservatives have sustained a full-frontal assault on the media for decades now, and we’re no closer to having a media environment that adequately serves its readership. While the right-wing critique of the media is largely correct, the solutions offered by conservatives and the responses from those in charge of mainstream media outlets have been wholly insufficient.

The mainstream media is liberal. This isn’t an opinion, it’s a statement of fact. This fact is not confined to the op-ed page, or strictly to editors, or reporters, or outside columnists, or contributors, or freelancers. Liberals outnumber conservatives by orders of magnitude. It could be four-to-one; it could be ten-to-one; it could be twenty-to-one, or more. It’s a fact that has held steady throughout time.

2013 study from the University of Indiana found that only 7 percent of journalists identify as Republicans. A 2008 study from Pew found that only 8 percent of national journalists describe themselves as conservatives. A 2002 study from Pew found that 25 percent of journalists “lean right”, compared with 40 percent who “lean left.” A 1992 studyfrom media watchdog Freedom Forum found that 16 percent of journalists identify as Republicans, compared to 44 percent who identify as Democrats.

Journalism as a profession leans heavily Left, and it’s vastly out of whack with the country at large. What this fact means is open for discussion, and this is where media criticism goes downhill. Some deny that there’s a problem: “Reality has a liberal bias” is a phrase popularized to explain that of course journalists lean Left, because the facts of the world will lead inevitably to left-wing policy prescriptions.

Some insist that reporters’ personal biases don’t matter, because they are able to set those aside and write objectively and dispassionately on the topic at hand. Some downplay the numbers by claiming that the reporters with political biases don’t work the politics beat: Obviously the Style section leans Left, but this doesn’t affect White House reporting. And some, particularly conservative media critics, would rather burn the whole thing down, salt the ashes, and start anew without any pretension that reporters are unbiased.

BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins recently examined the conservative critique of the media for the Columbia Journalism Review and found a lot of support for this last sentiment from some of the big shots of the conservative journalism world. In conversations with writers and editors of conservative websites, he found that they “envision a return to the media of centuries past, when news was delivered largely by the organs of parties and ideological movements.” Coppins outlines the two paths for conservatives with aspirations to journalism: infiltrate the largely-liberal mainstream media, or stick to the Right and help build the burgeoning conservative media apparatus.

Conservatives have mostly done the latter; precious few stick around in the mainstream media. The conservative media ecosystem is large and thriving now: from generational publications such as National Review and The Weekly Standard to upstarts such as the Washington Free Beacon and The Federalist, to viral sensations such as Breitbart and IJReview, the conservative news-consuming audience is not short on outlets. The number of mainstream media journalists that got their start in conservative media, however, number in the dozens at most.

(Eliana Johnson of Politico, Robert Costa of The Washington Post, and Oliver Darcy of CNN are some of the standouts here, and are excellent journalists.)

Has this strategy worked? It’s certainly enriched a small group of conservative media moguls. Has it made the mainstream media fairer? Has it made the mainstream media better? Has it made conservative news-consumers better-informed?

Trust in the media is lower than ever, and more polarized than ever. Conservatives have not succeeded in building a news media infrastructure with any meaningful level of trust — a Pew poll found that conservative news is consumed pretty solely by conservatives, and that liberal outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, the New Yorker, and others are still mostly trusted by centrists. Conservatives have polarized the news, but they have neither conquered nor fixed it.

Coppins found that the mild version of the conservative attack on the media goes like this: given the fact that most journalists are liberal, they should drop the facade, admit as much, and join the ranks of outlets like Slate, The New Republic, The Nation, and other proud liberal outlets that aren’t afraid of their journalists’ liberal politics. The New York Times’ new social media policy goes in the opposite direction, preferring to pull the wool over its own eyes.

With trust in media so low, and some form of this criticism made by both left- and right-wing media critics, it’s past time for the media to own up. The media is filled with liberals, and that matters. If the leadership of mainstream outlets are determined to put a halt to plummeting trust, they should invite conservatives into their ranks with open arms and stop muzzling the reporters they do have.

This doesn’t mean abandoning aspirations to viewpoint-neutral journalism. What works for mainstream outlets is what’s taught in journalism school: putting biases aside and striving for objectivity is valuable. Aspirations can’t be the be-all, end-all, however. Biases affect everyone in ways conscious and unconscious, and the overwhelmingly liberal bias of journalists has an effect on their product, despite the best of intentions. To counter this, mainstream outlets need to be actively courting conservatives — and hiring them to important beats.

What conservatives need to do, conversely, is to lay down their all-out #WAR arms. The media isn’t a cabal that conspires to make sure that liberal narrative is the sole version of journalism. They’re largely liberal people who aspire to objectivity, succeed in some ways and fail in some ways, but are doing their best to fight their biases.

And it means infiltration.

There’s a pipeline that shepherds journalists through college newspapers to indie weeklies to small liberal outlets to the mainstream media. Journalists who get their start at the Washington City Paper and Salon frequently aspire to The Washington Post or The Los Angeles Times. That’s not how it works with conservatives. Journalists who get their start at National Review or CNS News typically aspire to a Fox News talking-head slot, not to A1 of The New York Times.

Conservatives have, after decades of effort, built an infrastructure that can function as a pipeline into the mainstream media, and the mainstream media has shown a willingness in recent years to treat these young journalists seriously as journalists, not merely as ideologues masking their activism as reporting. The mainstream journalists who have come up through conservative news organizations have succeeded because they’re journalists first, and conservatism is merely incidental to their professionalism.

[Originally Published at the Washington Examiner]