Oh, the pain of writing objectively

Peter Goodman, an econ reporter who’s leaving the New York Times to take job at the Huffington Post, sat down with Howard Kurtz to explain the rationale for his seemingly unorthodox career move:

“For me it’s a chance to write with a point of view,” Goodman says in an interview. “It’s sort of the age of the columnist. With the dysfunctional political system, old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what’s going on. This is a chance for me to explore solutions in my economic reporting.”

Goodman, who spent a decade at The Washington Post before his three years at the Times, says he will still rely on facts and not engage in “ranting.” And while he was happy at the newspaper, he says, he found he was engaged in “almost a process of laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.”

Cue the applause sign from Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly:

It’s been one of the most glaring flaws in major American media for far too long — news outlets can tell the public about a story, but they won’t tell the public’s who’s right. Every story has to offer he-said/she-said coverage, and every view has to be treated as entirely legitimate. (“Republicans today said two plus two equals five; Democrats and mathematicians disagree.”)

To tell news consumers about a controversy is fine. To tell news consumers who’s objectively correct is to be “biased.”

For the public that wants to know who’s right, and not just who’s talking, it creates a vacuum filled by online outlets. For journalists who want to “tell readers directly what’s going on,” it creates an incentive to abandon news organizations that demand forced neutrality.

Uh huh. I think we can all agree that burying that quote from the Heritage Foundation in the 11th paragraph has made Americans seriously confused about the ideological agenda of The New York Times. But seriously, I don’t think Benen and Goodman quite understand what’s going on here. The media landscape in this country is quite asymmetric. Yes, CBS News isn’t as overt about their politics as, say, The Nation, but things still skew undeniably liberal. But while nearly all the media outlets tilt left, this is a center-right country. Hence Charles Krauthammer’s famous observation about FOX News: “The genius of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes was to have discovered a niche market in American broadcasting — half the American people.”

For the overwhelming number of liberal-leaning media outlets, maintaining at least an pretense of objectivity in theory still provides a some reason for half the country not to dismiss you out of hand. FOX News can actually afford to overtly skew to the right because they have no competition. The Times does not have that luxury — the more it surrenders mainstream appeal, the more it will be cannibalized by ideological media outlets such as the Huffington Post. (Newsweek is a pretty instructive cautionary tale here.)

Making sure the Times remains an influential voice in politics is probably to liberals’ advantage. So in that sense, claiming that the paper’s Achilles heel is acknowledging opposing arguments is manifest nonsense.

If it was as easy to determine the validity of political and policy arguments as it is to determine that 2+2=5 is incorrect, then yes, a newspaper really would be holding itself back by dwelling on things that are not true. In the real world, shades of gray often show up. Arguments are often dependent on unpredictable future events or questions with subjective answers. (Examples: What will Obamacare do to insurance premiums? Will the next cut in capital gains taxes cause revenues to go up or down? Are Americans overtaxed or undertaxed?) There are very few public policy debates in which the objective soundness of one view  is as easily demonstrable or self-evident as Benen suggests.

And so what remains is a business calculation. If you’d like to embrace an ideological worldview that colors your reporting, you start the Huffington Post or work as an opinion journalist elsewhere. If you want to give time to plausible opposing arguments, you’re following the traditional model.

For decades, The New York Times has fallen somewhere in between — a liberal news organ with comprehensive coverage of the facts. Unfortunately for them, this business model is not faring so well amid the current marketplace in which more options are available:

The New York Times Company just issued a disappointing outlook for Q3.

None of the news is good, but the worst part is that the company’s circulation revenue, which held the ship together through the bust, is starting to break down.

Here are the highlights:

* Total revenues to decrease approximately 2 to 3 percent;
* Print advertising revenues to decrease approximately 5 percent;
* Digital advertising revenues to increase approximately 14 percent;
* Circulation revenues to decrease approximately 5 percent; and
* Operating costs to increase approximately 1 to 2 percent.

But by all means, encourage the paper to abandon objectivity. Once the Times is no longer yoked by that whole attracting-readers-outside-the-Upper-West-Side business plan, we’ll see whether their math still adds up.

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