In 1972, National Review magazine published a content analysis titled “Is it true what they say about the New York Times?”
The analysis and conclusion reached in that study was an unwelcome shock to many of the conservative magazine’s subscribers, as it held that the Times was editorially balanced in its news pages, in contrast to its editorial pages. NR founder William F. Buckley Jr. took a lot of heat from his supporters, as did the co-authors of the study. Not surprisingly, NYT Executive Editor Abe Rosenthal loved it and bought hundreds of copies of the issue.
Five decades later, in early January this year, another study was published that comes to a very different conclusion about the objectivity of the legacy media, particularly the New York Times. The subject of this inquiry was news coverage of “Russiagate.”
This examination, undertaken by Jeff Gerth, a decorated investigative journalist formerly with the Times, was published by Columbia Journalism Review. It’s a tour de force! Having taken a year and a half to research and write, and at a length of 24,000 words in four installments, Gerth utterly destroys whatever is left of the lie that Trump was in league with the Russians, and of the extraordinary lengths the media went to spread that smear.
Taken as a whole, this series strikes me as the most important media criticism in my lifetime. For one thing, Gerth mentions a number of media outlets by name rather than referring to them in the collective as “the media.” This kind of specificity is rarely found, especially in news stories about poll or survey results regarding the media.
But that is nothing compared to the fact that the news organization that is front and center in Gerth’s piece is the New York Times. The Times, and to a lesser extent the Washington Post, is to U.S. journalism what magnetic north is to compasses – the needle always points in their direction.
Broadcasters and other newspapers take their cues from them, especially regarding national and international issues. This partly explains why you rarely see stories on television you haven’t seen in the two papers, especially the Times. If the whole of the news industry were considered a single company, the New York Times would be the CEO of that company.
And then there is the shock of Columbia Journalism Review as the publisher. This small circulation magazine, published by the Columbia Journalism School, operates at the heart of the media establishment. More than this, both CJR and the journalism school have many ties with the Times. The current chairman of CJR, for instance, was until recently the deputy managing editor of the Times.
That CJR’s editor/publisher, Kyle Pope, would agree to publish such a study elevates him to a kind of hero status that few editors or publishers have attained. Pope’s contribution to the piece extends beyond his courage in publishing it. It includes his editor’s note, kicking off the series, part of which seems especially brave and wise:
No narrative did more to shape Trump’s relations with the press than Russiagate. The story, which included the Steele dossier and the Mueller report among other totemic moments, resulted in Pulitzer Prizes as well as embarrassing retractions and damaged careers. For Trump, the press’s pursuit of the Russia story convinced him that any sort of normal relationship with the press was impossible.
Ultimately, this study could prove to be a seminal document in recovering journalism's lost soul. So far, only a few brave dissidents – reporter Matt Taibbi, podcaster Walter Kirn, and RealClearInvestigations’ editor Tom Kuntz, and a handful of others – have been willing to challenge the prevailing, and factually problematic, Russiagate narrative. Kirn says it is his hope that the Times is working on a mea culpa response to the CJR piece, like the Times’ published about its own Iraq coverage. Taibbi believes this is wishful thinking.
And given that neither the Washington Post nor the Times have publicly addressed the gaping hole Gerth’s reporting has torn in their credibility – and the muted reaction of most of the rest of the corporate media to Gerth’s exposé, we seem to have entered a new era. In today’s brave new journalism world, objectivity and even truth have been abandoned in favor of a journalism that simply reflects whatever political or ideological narrative is prevalent at the time.
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Patrick Maines is the president emeritus of The Media Institute, a Washington-based think tank that in his time aggressively promoted free speech and journalistic excellence. He engineered the creation of an independent national celebration called Free Speech Week, now in its 20th year.