There Is No Such Thing as 'The Times'

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In response to this item yesterday, about mainstream media outlets figuring out how to cope with "post-truth politics," a writer who is a regular contributor to the New York Times and other publications (and is not a NYT staff member) writes with this elaboration: 

I enjoyed your piece on the Times' new public editor, and agreed with most of it, but I think there's an underlying fallacy to it, slight but significant, which your readers should understand:

There's no such thing as 'the Times', really.  It is, of course, an enormous organization operating on very tight deadlines; there are hundreds of reporters and editors, each of whom acts at least somewhat autonomously, and often in a mad scramble to get the news out on time.  The paper -- like any news organization -- has its standards, of course, but they're flexible and not always easy to enforce, and in many cases it's up to individual actors, faced with specific circumstances, to decide how to phrase things.  A certain amount of oversight takes place, but a certain amount of freedom is granted, as well.

I mention this because I think readers, and people in general, often think of the Times --or the Washington Post, or CBS, or CNN -- as a monolithic entity, a single organism with a consistent approach to news-gathering.  I suspect the Times likes to think of itself that way, too.  But in my experience, this simply isn't true: reporters are given leeway; editors change things, or they don't; something gets rewritten by the desk at the last minute, because space is short or a new piece of information came in; phrases are added or dropped.  I wouldn't describe it as arbitrary, but I think it's more contingent, messy, and catch-as-catch-can than most readers realize.

I like reading the Public Editor columns, but I think they're a bit misleading.  They imply that there's a 'Times policy', and often there is, -- but often there isn't, or it's imperfectly enforced.  We would all be better off, I think, if readers understood that the paper, like all papers, is a large and contentious organization, made up of strong-willed and opinionated people in a half-mad dash to produce a fair account of what's going on.  It's message, methods, style and results are nowhere near as controlled as, say, a corporation, or a political campaign.  The paper's editors try, and I'm glad they try; but they seldom succeed, and I'm glad they seldom succeed.

Of course I agree on the main point. Even an organization like The Atlantic, so much smaller and less sprawling than the NYT, usually sets its tone through an accumulation of individual responses rather than through any tightly coordinated plan. (And I think we all view this as a good thing.) I also realize that the Times's "public editors," another term for ombudsmen, have no line authority at the paper beyond the guaranteed ability to express their views within the Times's space. My point in noting Margaret Sullivan's column was as another illustration of evolving discussion within the paper about moving beyond the "false equivalence" trap.

On another angle of the Sullivan column that I didn't address, it is worth reading this critique from Kevin Drum.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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