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An Open Letter to Daniel Okrent

Why the NYT is Not "Assertively Left"


Chapel Hill, North Carolina

On March 27th, in your "Public Editor" column, you referred to the editorial pages of The New York Times as ‘assertively left". I have participated in numerous gatherings of people on the left, and written for some left wing publications. Mr. Okrent, nobody on the left considers The Times editorial page to be their voice. You also say that the editorial pages provide a dramatic contrast to the news pages. Since three of the most prominent columnists, Nicholas Kristof, Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman, are former Times reporters, I don’t see how this is the case. Let me try to clarify the difference between The Times and the left, blending examples from news and editorials:

The Times: mildly opposed the war in Iraq, largely on procedural grounds (even as reporters Judith Miller and Michael Gordon breathlessly pedaled every piece of administration propaganda about WMDs), but now supports the occupation.
The Left: militantly opposed the war, and opposes the occupation.

The Times: couldn’t care less about civilian casualties in Iraq caused by the US, and in fact celebrated the destruction of Fallujah with ‘band of brothers’ style prose (later praised in your column).
The Left: believes the US has committed serious crimes in Iraq that are likely to continue for the duration of the occupation.

The Times: supports FTAA and other corporate oriented free trade pacts.
The Left: opposes such pacts.

The Times: opposes unions in most instances, and is highly suspicious of collective action (such as protests and strikes) in general.
The Left: generally supports unions, and believes collective action is an important part of democracy.

The Times: regards Frank Rich and Paul Krugman as the left.
The Left: regards Rich and Krugman as moderate liberals.

The Times: thinks Lawrence Summers is a knight in shining armor riding out to do battle with the stuck-in-the-sixties, thin-skinned faculty at Harvard.
The Left: regards Summers as an apologist for discrimination and an opponent of open debate on Israel and US foreign policy.

The Times: believes that Europe and Japan need to remake themselves more in the model of the US.
The Left: believes the US has much to learn from other countries.

The Times: regards Hugo Chavez as a menace to be removed by a coup, if it can be done smoothly, without calling attention to itself.
The Left: regards Chavez as the democratically elected leader of Venezuela.

The Times: believes that any left wing leader who gets elected in Latin America, India, or elsewhere should immediately betray his or her program and deepen neoliberal reforms.
The Left: believes such leaders should live up to their promises and challenge further privatization and polarization.

I think this is a fair summary, although, both ‘the Times’ and ‘the left’ are heterogenous groups of people not entirely consistent in their political views. Of course there is some variety of opinion at the Times. Editor-in-Chief Bill Keller does not see the world exactly as Frank Rich (reportedly the other major candidate for Editor-in-Chief, currently a columnist) does. This does not mean the Times does not have a political agenda, anymore than the fact that The Nation publishes writers as varied as Robert Borasage and Alexander Cockburn means that The Nation has no agenda. The political agenda at The Times is maintained in a fairly straightforward fashion: the publishers appoint top editors they trust, and the editors in turn hire and promote people who see things as they do. The political agenda is doggedly centrist. Since centrism always means triangulating between a perceived left and right; in today’s political climate, that means trying to calculate how far to lurch to the right to remain credible in Washington. You yourself summarized well the articles of faith of the Times when you described your political views in your first column: "I’m an absolutist on free trade and free speech, and a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights who thinks that the late Cardinal John O’Connor was a great man. I believe it’s unbecoming for the well off to whine about high taxes, and inconsistent for those who advocate human rights to oppose all American military action. I’d rather spend my weekends exterminating rats in the tunnels below Penn Station than read a book by either Bill O’Reilly or Michael Moore." Although you predictably identify yourself as between the right and left, there are in fact few prominent writers at the Times who wouldn’t agree with this agenda more or less in its entirety. David Brooks and Paul Krugman could probably both sign off on it.

There isn’t anything wrong with producing a publication with a political agenda. But there is a problem with two ways of describing the Times, both of which you (somewhat inconsistently) indulge in. First, when one describes the Times news reporting as striving for ‘objectivity’, there is implicit the notion that this is a high-minded enterprise better able to arrive at the truth than those who openly admit to a political agenda, whether of the right or the left. In fact, the Times has as much of an agenda as anyone else. Readers ultimately need to critically scrutinize all journalism and opinion pieces for logic and evidence, and try to consider what is left out, rather than trust that some techniques can arrive at an ‘objective’ standpoint.

The second position, that the Times is a liberal or even a left paper, is usually associated with ideologues of the right. It is easy enough to see what is gained when the right denounces the Times (and NPR, CBS, etc) as ‘liberal’. It undermines The Times’ claim to objectivity. It may, at first, be a little more confusing to understand why the Times’ public editor would make a similar claim. There are two possibilities. By describing the Times as liberal or left, you are basically trying to delegitimize opinion further to the left of the Times. As the late John Hess, a former Times reporter, noted in his memoirs, My Times, the Times is notoriously intolerant of dissent from its left. You are basically saying, why bother? We are the liberals/left! As you noted in another column, readers who dissent from the Times from the left only raise points of economics or foreign policy (as if these aren’t important), unlike right wingers, who disagree with the Times about everything (including the presumably more important social issues, which the major political parties also openly debate-although I’m not so sure that those on the left agree with the Times about all of these, particularly recent celebrations of stay-at-home mothering). The other possibility is that the Times is trying to demonstrate to the right that it is fair and willing to accept criticism. In general, in your columns you seem almost deferential to critics to your right, while irritated with those on your left.

Identifying the Times as centrist-not liberal, not objective-would be more honest and, by opening up, rather than shutting down, space to your left, might even strengthen the centrist terrain you occupy. Trying to obscure stances to your left ultimately forces you into the arms of the right, and the Bush administration which, on some level, the Times seems to genuinely dislike.

STEVEN SHERMAN is a sociologist living in Chapel Hill, NC. He can be reached at: