Bias at the NY Times?

Via Stephen Dubner from Freakonomics:

I love the New York Times (and not just because I used to work there) but goodness gracious, this kind of thing really hurts its credibility.

An article about News Corp.’s decision to split off its publishing business (including the Wall Street Journal) from its entertainment business contains the following sentence:

“Both companies would maintain their controversial dual-class share stock structure, which enables the Murdoch family to control nearly 40 percent of the voting power.”

Well, guess what other family-run news organization maintains a dual-class share stock structure? Yes, the New York Times — as well as the Washington Post and others, as Rupert Murdoch pointed out in announcing News Corp.’s move. This fact, however, isn’t mentioned in the Times article. But here’s the reality: given the turmoil in the newspaper business in general and at the Times in particular, it’d be easy to argue that if anyone’s dual-class ownership is “controversial,” it is the Times‘s more than the Journal‘s.

I’m with Dubner. I love the NY TImes (especially the NY Times Magazine) and read it regularly. It is an important and storied institution in journalism. But I too sometimes find hints of bias in its pages or in interviews with its journalists. I suppose this is no insult to the Times, every paper surely suffers from the same issue. I agree very much with what Russ Roberts said recently in an interview with science journalist Ed Yong:

I think most economists, most academics, most medical researchers, most physicists see themselves as searchers for truth. But they don’t act that way. That’s how we see ourselves. That’s a form of self-deception. There’s an element of truth to it; it’s not a lie. But we, of course, are affected by hundreds of other things: our incentives to be published, to get tenure, to be famous, to be lauded, to be respected. And these things clash, obviously, and I think it’s true of journalists, too.

I’ve taught a lot of journalists, and they say what you [Ed Yong] just said with such fervor: “Our job is to seek the truth.” That is your job, in some way, I guess. It’s certainly the way many journalists see themselves. But of course it’s not exactly how they act. And that’s because, as an economist I see their incentives to act truthfully are not always so strong.

So, to take an obvious example, in political coverage if you tell a journalist that he’s got a political bias, I think it’s like telling him he’s a child molester. It’s one of the most horrifying things you can accuse a journalist of. And their response is, “No, I’m not biased, that would be a violation of my ethical code.” They get angry and they yell at you. And of course, it’s very important, and it took me a while to realize this, but journalists want to feel they are searchers for truth. Just like we economists and academics want to feel we are. But we need to sometimes step back and realize the incentives working on us consciously and subconsciously are sometimes not so much pushing us in that direction. And we ought to maybe just be aware of the fact that what we say about ourselves and how we behave are not actually the same.

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