• Jim Kelly

Can you spot the New York Times' bias?

“The Internet changes everything,” they said back in the 90s. Fast forward a few decades: newspapers lie disrupted, scientists disputed, religions discarded, government officials discredited. Our traditional ways of determining what’s true and what’s false aren’t working anymore.

More fundamental than the housing crisis, the debt crisis, or the climate crisis, we earthlings are having an epistemological crisis. If we can’t even agree what the facts are, we have no way to work through differences: of course we’re doomed to culture war. And political war, and censorship war, and too frequently military war.

Our era puts the individual’s critical thinking skills to the test. When we’re watching the same screen but seeing different movies, we ought to stay in the theater and make the projectionist keep rolling it back until we’re seeing the same one. Or at least understand why our friend across the aisle sees it as he does.

For example, I thought we all understood that although the mainstream media is seismically unstable — a mountain prone to collapse or explode at any moment — progressives have pretty much taken it over. Fox News aside, major media tilts left.

So I had some bracing cognitive dissonance at a recent article suggesting the far right has paralyzed the media, who feel obliged to give it equal time. Subsequent conversations confirmed my progressive friends’ view that the media too often has a conservative bias.

The problem with detecting bias is there are no strictly objective observation spots. Nevertheless it’s hard for me to see how anyone can sustain such a belief.

Reverse-engineering the rules of the New York Times' bias

So in the spirit of rolling back the film, I perused the nytimes.com homepage on Friday, June 21st. Most of the headlines struck me as neutral, but about a third suggested a political bias either in the point of view or in the choice of topic. The bias was always leftward — I didn’t find a single headline that favored a Republican cause or a conservative value.

  • We Need Cooler Heads Than Trump and the Warhawk Caucus [anti-Trump]

  • It Turns Out Family Separations Never Really Stopped [anti-Trump]

  • Boris Johnson? How Did We Come to This? [opposes Johnson because he’s a Trump-like conservative]

  • Which of the FDR Wannabes Actually Understands New Deal Liberalism? [Implying the New Deal is an appropriate litmus test]

  • Fake Meat Will Save Us [vegans are Batman and Elastigirl all rolled into one]

  • The Trumpification of the Federal Reserve [more anti-Trump]

  • Tariffs on Mexico? That Could Result in Trump’s Nightmare [negative conjecture about Trump’s policy]

  • Black People’s Land Was Stolen [long ago. Only someone on the left would consider this front page news.]

  • Being Transgender at Goldman Sachs [championing a marginalized group in fashion on the left]

  • New York State passed sweeping laws against sexual harassment. Supporters called them among the toughest nationwide. [leftist cause, so emphasize the supporters’ view]

  • A climate bill set off tumult in Oregon: Republicans fled, and the police followed. [casts Republicans as Bonnie and Clyde]

  • A Jesuit school in Indiana, defying its archdiocese, refused to fire a teacher in a same-sex marriage. [And good on them for standing up for the left’s view on the topic.]

  • With Surging Storms and Rising Seas, Which US Cities Should Be Saved? [stoking climate alarm]

  • How New Rent Laws in New York Help All Tenants [leftist cause, so emphasize the upside]

  • Sex Harassment Laws Toughened in New York: ‘Finally This Is Happening’ [implying tougher laws are correct]

  • Some Students Get Extra Time for New York’s Elite School Exam. 42% Are White. [stoking anti-white resentment]

  • EU Leaders Fail to Strengthen Climate Target [implying climate targets should be stronger]

Have you spotted the formula? Make factual statements and reasonable opinions, simply frame them around progressive presuppositions about what’s good news and what’s bad, what’s worth reporting and what isn’t. Leave out the downside of any move by the left, the upside of any move by the right.

Conjectures and dubious assumptions are fair game. Never mind that zero US cities have been lost to surging storms and rising seas, and no one is deciding "which should be saved," go ahead and catastrophize and call it news. Disabilities, parental engagement, selection bias, or old-fashioned corruption might be behind New York's school exam statistics, but the only explanation worth considering is racism.

To borrow Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations vocabulary, we see care and fairness exclusively for the usual “marginalized” groups; loyalty to Democrats; and purity with respect to diet and environmental footprint. What’s left out? Any care or fairness for individuals, nor for disfavored groups like landlords or employers, any skepticism about government institutions, a legitimate role for non-governmental institutions like the Catholic Church, and any loyalty to procedural niceties like property rights or democratic elections.

I picked the the New York Times because it’s about as mainstream as media gets, but it’s hardly an outlier. I can’t bear to listen to NPR because its bias is so objectionable. I hear it rarely in what it says, more often in what it leaves unsaid: the stories it doesn’t run, the skeptical questions it doesn’t ask.

Does media bias matter?

If you’re a progressive, the good news is you’ve won, at least on this one front. Almost all the corporate media sings from your hymnal.

But the bad news for anyone trying to sort out fact from fiction is information sources you may consider terra firma are squishier than you might realize.

And they’re hard to catch at it. Not only because by definition we lack a frame of reference to identify our own biases, but because the bias is generally in what they’re not telling you. To spot it you need to somehow envision the full picture, then subtract what they told you. What’s left is what they omitted.

To envision the full picture, it’s worth going deep on a topic or two. Absorb what thoughtful people from multiple sides are telling you. Dig up the source data yourself. Then go back and assess how complete a picture you’re getting from one channel.

You can’t go deep on everything, though. So remember that while your outrage pays the bills, every story has more than one side.

Newspapers used to be black and white and read all over. They’re scarcely read at all now, so they’re all the more frenzied to paint issues as black and white. Pay attention to when you’re getting the black-and-white version, and hold on to a little skepticism.

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