October 4, 2000
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If there were any doubts left that the New York Times is slanting its news coverage of the presidential race toward Al Gore and against George W. Bush, they should be allayed by this gem from the lead news story in today's Times, about the presidential debate: "Besides being the most watched single event of the campaign thus far, with an estimated audience of 75 million, the confrontation took on even greater significance because the contest is disturbingly close: just 35 days before the election, most polls show the race in a statistical dead heat."
Why is it disturbing to the Times that the race is close? It is supposed to be a news organization. A close race is good for circulation. A close race is more fun. A close race is more likely to throw the issues into sharp relief. Why in the world would the Times, in its own voice and in a news article, refer to the race as "disturbingly close"?
The only logical explanation is that the newspaper thinks Mr. Gore should be ahead by a wide margin, and that it is disturbed that he is not.
(Update: An astute Smartertimes.com reader in New York reports that in later editions of the Times, the sentence was changed to report that the race was "disturbingly close for both candidates." At mid-day today, however, the Times web site was still carrying the original version that was in my printed New York edition.)
More on the Debate: The Times prints several articles about the debate, plus an editorial, and, if you compare them, it's clear that either the newspaper has a fuzzy grasp on reality or else that it doesn't bother with consistency.
Suppose you are a reader picking up the paper in the morning and want an answer to what seems like a pretty basic question: Which candidate did most of the attacking in the debate?
The Times main news story says, "Mr. Bush was on the attack from the outset and proved much more assertive about the vice president's vulnerabilities than Mr. Gore was about the governor's." That is contradicted by a "political memo" on the front page of the Times, reporting that "Mr. Gore attacked, firing the same bullet over and over. . . . Mr. Bush played the nice guy taken aback by such aggression." The Times editorial appears to agree with the political memo rather than the news story, reporting that "the vice president fired volley after volley of attacks on Mr. Bush's proposals, throwing his opponent on the defensive."
Or suppose a reader wants the answer to another pretty basic question: During the debate, did Mr. Bush misspeak or fumble his words, as he has sometimes done on the campaign trail? A "news analysis" reports that "Mr. Bush avoided stumbling over his own syntax or comically mispronouncing words as he had in the past." Yet the "political memo" contradicts this, reporting that a "stutter crept into many" of Mr. Bush's answers, and that "true to form, Mr. Bush mixed up some words."
It's as if the Times has just thrown up its hands and given up any pretense of accuracy, deciding instead to just print four accounts of the debate and let the readers decide for themselves which one to believe, if any. The effect is to downgrade the credibility of each of the reports.
Lost in Boston: An editorial in today's Times about the presidential debate says that it took place at "Boston University." In fact, it took place at U. Mass. Boston. As another astute Smartertimes.com reader pointed out, those are two entirely different universities.
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