Should Newspapers Sugar Coat The World?

by Conor Friedersdorf

There's been a lot of controversy surrounding this New York Times "Vows" column, wherein we're told the story of a couple that met while they were both married with kids, decided that they were soul mates, and divorced so that they could wed one another. As Phoebe commented, "It was a straight-up case of grass-is-greener - a fine reason to end a relationship at 17, but a truly upsetting one in a case like this."

This followup post by Kathryn Jean Lopez interests me:

The bride in yesterday's now-(in)famous New York Times wedding announcement comments: “We are really proud of our family and proud of the way we’ve handled this situation over the past year. There was nothing in the story we were ashamed of.” Is the Times equally proud of its attempt to take all meaning from the word "vows"?

And for anyone wondering why in the heck the couple would let the Times feature them: They did it for the children. She tells Forbes: “We did this because we just wanted one honest account of how this happened for our sakes and for our kids’ sakes.”

In publishing the column, The NY Times certainly highlighted a marriage that violates prevailing social norms. But these sorts of relationships, where someone basically trades in their spouse for a new flame, simply are part of American society, however much we might lament that fact. And a newspaper's role is to tell us about the world as it is. Inplicit in Lopez's criticism is that its editors should make moral judgments about recent unions and highlight only those that aren't deemed unseemly. Perhaps she is thinking that stories like this one undermine the norm of "till death do us part."

Whatever one thinks about whether newspapers should deliberately shape a society's norms by ignoring certain facts, it's interesting to observe that editors and reporters allowing their moral judgments to shape coverage is precisely the sort of bias that Lopez objects to in other contexts. Her take on the vows column suggests she doesn't merely want a newspaper that neutrality isn't her desired end so much as editors who actively shape coverage in accordance her notions of traditional morality.

And I think her attitude is very common among conservatives, who complained for decades about bias in media, and when given the opportunity proceeded to embrace not the least biased new outlets, but the ones that skewed most heavily in their own ideological direction. This is a shame, because some of the old conservative critiques of bias and information bubbles were really quite good.