Mary McFadden Writes

POP-ED

It’s getting really hard to read the newspaper. It’s not just that the news has been so awful, it’s that the coverage is not swayed enough by popular opinion. At least, that’s the perception of the Public Editor.

On July 24, 2016 Ms. Spayd took to the circular argument that self-perception of public perception is leading to the perception that the New York Times is “Liberal.” Therefore, the Times should pay attention to readers who, she says, are tired of the NYT “bias against Trump,” so not reading the paper. I would be surprised to find if there are any voters for Trump or watchers of Fox News who routinely read the NY Times. Trying to get that audience to subscribe is like trying to get David Brooks to stop blaming the poor for their poverty and black men for racism.

Young readers, she recounts, “want a dynamic relationship that feels more like a conversation between journalist and reader, and they welcome a little levity mixed into their news” like Jon Stewart used to do on The Daily Show. Frankly, these “readers” seem more like hecklers at stand up comedy shows. You know, the people who forget that the audience didn’t pay to hear them, but to hear someone good at their job.

The Daily Show doesn’t get its material from viewers. It, like all shows except reality TV, has writers who know and practice comedy, who keep abreast of current events, and who check facts. Reality TV relies on artificial situations, creating conflict, selective editing, and generating intense feelings rather than critical thought.

To argue that crowdsourcing rather than critical analysis should determine newsworthiness is to equate reaction with investigation. Belief is not evidence. Anecdotal evidence isn’t evidence at all; it is selective storytelling. A lot of people believe contrails are chemicals sprayed by the government to lull us into docility, but portraying that as a controversy is ridiculous. 

The July 14, 2016 piece comparing the colors of #TheDress to editorial judgment is so out of touch, so incorrectly parsed that it makes the editorial staff sound like the guy who asked me where he could buy “one of those cloud computer things.” That the blue and black dress looked different to different people wasn’t due to viewers’ perspective, it was an optical illusion based on the phenomenon of color constancy. If the NYT is doubling down on creating illusions, perhaps the next phase of reporting would be some version of Mad Libs, where readers fill in wacky parts of speech to make their own hilarious story.

It is to laugh. Wait, it’s not. Journalism to not supposed to make us laugh by taking an amusing view of situations, but to report on facts, to reveal the truth. If the truth is ugly, intricate or dull, the job is to explain in an engaging way. 

The July 9, 2016 Public Editor article notes, Dean Baquet, the executive editor, told the staff that the way The Times tells stories would be changing. “Fewer stories will be done just ‘for the record,’ ” he said. “In fact, fewer traditional news stories will be done over all. Stories will relax in tone.”

For the record, the New York Times has decided to switch from being a news organization to the journalistic equivalent of an easy listening station. What would be the properly relaxing tone for an article on the police shooting of the prostrate caretaker of an autistic man? How does one write a soothing article about an openly racist presidential candidate who wants to vacate any pretense to rule of law?

Like all publishing outlets, the New York Times is worried about market share, about profitability. Pandering isn’t a product, it’s absolving oneself from responsibility. Trying to be popular is following a trend set by others. Leading is doing something people want to emulate, want to follow, making something people need and want to have, something so valuable people are willing to pay for it.

It’s called investigative reporting and it comes from showing that news isn’t the same as entertainment.

 August 8, 2016