Riding a favorite conservative hobbyhorse onto the opinion pages, New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane recently urged the paper to cover President Obama more aggressively and highlighted complaints that the daily suffers from a liberal bias.
Citing concerns from mostly nameless "critics" about the paper's allegedly liberal tilt, Brisbane provided examples to support the claim that the Times has been guilty of overly friendly Obama coverage.
But Brisbane's examples, like the larger liberal bias charge, don't hold up to scrutiny:
Like a lot of America, it basked a bit in the warm glow of Mr. Obama's election in 2008. The company published a book about the country's first African-American president, "Obama: The Historic Journey." The Times also published a lengthy portrait of him in its Times Topics section on NYTimes.com, yet there's nothing of the kind about George W. Bush or his father.
According to a study by the media scholars Stephen J. Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter, The Times's coverage of the president's first year in office was significantly more favorable than its first-year coverage of three predecessors who also brought a new party to power in the White House: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.
None of the three points are persuasive. Let's examine each.
First off, Brisbane notes the Times published a book about Obama's rise to the presidency and suggests that supports the allegation that the paper "skews left." But the Times often publishes books chronicling historic moments in U.S. history. For instance, in 2003 the Times published "A Time of Our Choosing: America's War in Iraq."
According to promotional material for the book, the tome offered "the authoritative and dramatic account of the war in Iraq" and drew on "the unparalleled resources and reportage of The New York Times." Based on the criteria Brisbane uses with regards to the Obama book, should the Iraq War publication be seen as a proof of pro-war bias at the Times?
Second, Brisbane notes that online, the newspaper published a lengthy portrait of Obama in its "Times Topic" section, but no such profile exists of George W. Bush or his father. This is accurate, though it's worth noting that the Times has such profiles for top Republicans like John Boehner and Mitt Romney. Even Newt Gingrich has one.
What is not accurate though, is the suggestion the "Times Topic" profile of Obama is especially flattering or that it reflects the paper's "warm glow" regarding Obama's 2008 victory.
Here is a sample from the "Times Topic" profile:
But his popularity fell steadily into 2010 -- from 70 percent to under 50 percent -- as unemployment stayed stubbornly high, and conservative anger rose over the health care bill and a steeply rising deficit.
On Nov. 2, 2010, Republicans rolled to their greatest midterms gains in 80 years, recapturing the House of Representatives and cutting the Democrats' majority in the Senate. After what Mr. Obama termed a "shellacking,'' he pronounced himself ready to cooperate with Republicans.
The profile in no way constitutes proof of liberal bias.
And thirdly, Brisbane refers approvingly to a study from Farnsworth and Lichter regarding the Times' coverage of Obama during his first year in office; a study that suggested the Times leaned heavily to the left and was more favorable to the new Democratic president than network newscasts. The researchers though, limited their analysis of the Times' Obama coverage to only articles that appeared on the front page, which means a huge portion of the Times' Obama coverage went un-studied. Bristane also omits the fact that one of the study's co-authors, Lichter, is a former paid Fox News contributor who as recently as 2009 claimed Fox truly is a "fair and balanced" news outlet.
In his column, Brisbane actually pointed to one other example of concern about liberal bias at the newspaper:
To illustrate, Faye Farrington, a reader from Hollis, N.H., wrote me earlier this year in exasperation over a Sunday magazine article about "Downton Abbey," the public television series, in which the writer slipped in a veiled complaint about Mitt Romney's exploitation of the American tax code
To sustain the very serious allegation that the Times' political coverage isn't fair to conservatives, Brisbane airs the complaint about a single sentence from an arts article about a PBS television drama? That doesn't make much sense.
If the public editor of the New York Times has proof that the newspaper habitually adheres to a pro-Obama tilt, he ought to point to clear examples. But the evidence Brisbane included in this Sunday column doesn't come close to making the case.