Does the NYT's Jill Abramson understand how journalism is supposed to work?

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Or does she consider playing dumb to be part of her job description as M.E. of the Times? I ask because during a recent Q&A with a reader, Abramson raised doubts about both.

The question came from a reader still upset about the Times' Rush Limbaugh valentine written by a Limbaugh dittohead and published on the cover of the Sunday Times magazine last summer. The reader noted:

I find it interesting that there is very little on-going criticism of Rush, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and people like this. I cannot figure out why people who have such a following seem to be isolated from criticism except from such Web sites as Media Matters...Rush is left off the hook because he is "an entertainer." Since when don't entertainers have the tell the truth?

Abramson's utterly predictable, CYA response:

There seems a suggestion behind your question that the job of The Times is to target for attack certain figures because of their ideology and prominence. The role of a great news organization isn't to make itself a combantant in the ongoing political food fights that unfold each night on cable and elswewhere. Our Rush Limbaugh magazine cover story was a rich, nuanced portrait of someone whose show has made him a large force over time at the interesection of news, politics, business and entertainment. You may have found it too kind because you would have preferred to read a partisan hatchet job. You won't find those in The New York Times.

Read that a couple times to let the significance sink it. The Times, according to Abramson, has no responsibliity whatsoever in reporting critically, or even accurately, on hate speech merchants like Rush Limbaugh, even when the Times devotes 7,700 words to profiling them in the Times magazine. In fact, the Times thought it was a smart idea to hire a devoted fan to profile Limbaugh without ever revealing to readers the writer's open bias in favor of Limbaugh.

Consequently the Times' Limbuagh profile was a laughing stock (see James Wolcott).

Here's the point I made last year:


Does every Limbaugh profile need to be a hit piece? Of course not. Should every serious Limbaugh profile at least try to convey to readers what's so controversial about the host and what he says on his radio program? Of course. And that's where the Times, rather obliviously, took the pratfall with its Limbaugh article.

I understand that Beltway media players routinely play nice with Limbaugh and his fringe brand of conservatism. Spooked by his liberal-bias charges, the mainstream press corps has for years treated Limbaugh with undeserved respect, worked overtime to soften his radical edges, and presented him as simply a partisan pundit.

The lengthy Times profile took that trend to a whole new level, because unlike most previous half-hearted attempts to outline, in very general ways, what Limbaugh says and explain why he's controversial, the Times clearly never had any intention of shedding even the dimmest light on the content of Limbaugh's program. Instead, it hired a conservative writer to wistfully dismiss Limbaugh's critics in two or three sentences. And in exchange for playing dumb, the Times was granted unusual access to the talk-show host.

That kind of obvious quid pro quo is the type of thing that's practiced on a daily basis at celebrity magazines, where editors angle for access in exchange for puff pieces. It's not journalism, and it ought to be beneath the Times.

The Times has never addressed that charge. And based on Abramson's cavalier Q&A response, it never intends to. The Times would rather play nice with Rush Limbaugh than be honest with its readers.

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