From the New York Times, political #fail in three acts

Three examples from Sunday’s New York Times of political coverage that makes you want to bang your head against an immoveable object until you’ve forgotten what you’ve just read:

• Maureen Dowd’s column, a characteristically superficial attack on Mitt Romney that veers into the ditch when, about halfway through, she sneers at Romney’s “shiny white family.” Seriously? What color is the Dowd family, Mo?

• Jeff Zeleny’s news analysis, in which he opines — oh, sorry, writes analytically — that both the Romney and the Obama campaigns are relying mainly on negative advertising.

Of course, there are few things more satisfying to the media mindset than asserting that both sides are just as bad. But as Zeleny writes as an aside to which he attaches no seeming significance (and as Greg Mitchell flags), the Romney campaign’s ads are five-to-one negative, whereas Obama’s are a relatively cheery two-to-one negative.

Even worse, Zeleny makes no attempt to assess whose negative ads are more truthful. The mere existence of negative ads on both sides is not the least bit newsworthy if one side’s consist of unfair attacks and the other’s are more or less on the level. All in all, a worthless exercise, yet the Times played it at the top of the front page. (Younger readers may be interested to learn that some news sites print a portion of their content on dead trees.)

• Public editor Arthur Brisbane, nearing the end of his somnolent stint as the Times’ in-house critic, laments that political coverage is too focused on the negative campaigns being waged (naturally) by both sides and not focused enough on the issues.

Now, this is a difficult one for me to wrap my arms around, because I’m as critical as anyone of horse-race coverage and the political press’ obsession with polls and tactics. But the alternative Brisbane proposes — “substance” and “issues” — strikes me as absurd given the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

This election will not be decided on issues. There is nothing important to learn by studying the fine points of Romney’s or President Obama’s tax proposals or financial-regulation plans.

Rather, this election is about broad themes, tribalism and cultural signifiers. There is more significance in polls results showing that one in six Americans believes Obama is a Muslim than there is in 50 stories telling us where he and Romney stand on cap-and-trade. Political coverage that avoids that central truth is destined to fail.

Where is our Hunter Thompson?

Photo (cc) by unwiederbringlichbegangenes and reproduced here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Bonfire of the ombudsmen

In my latest for the Huffington Post, I take a look at the abuse heaped upon Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton and New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane. And though they clearly deserved to be criticized for their lazy, ill-considered commentaries, the over-the-top nature of the reaction says more about their critics than it does about them.

Times public editor: Refer to torture as torture

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane takes on the paper’s queasiness about referring to waterboarding as torture in its news pages — and comes down firmly on the side of clarity. He writes:

The Times should use the term “torture” more directly, using it on first reference when the discussion is about — and there’s no other word for it — torture. The debate was never whether Bin Laden was found because of brutal interrogations: it was whether he was found because of torture. More narrowly, the word is appropriate when describing techniques traditionally considered torture, waterboarding being the obvious example. Reasonable fairness can be achieved by adding caveats that acknowledge the Bush camp’s view of its narrow legal definition.

Since Brisbane reports that the Times’ institutional reluctance to be forthright stems from not wanting to take sides, I wish he had stated more clearly that refusing to use the “T”-word is also an exercise in taking sides — perhaps more so, since it also involves implicitly accepting the Bush administration’s claim that waterboarding isn’t torture, a claim directly contradicted by history and international law.

Still, Brisbane takes a strong stand in favor of truth, and that’s no small thing when it comes to this highly charged topic.

The New York Times and the T-word

Peter King

The New York Times has a great story today on U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who is presiding over repugnant hearings into the loyalty of Muslim-Americans. Reporter Scott Shane reminds us that King made his reputation as a staunch supporter of the Irish Republican Army, which for years fought for independence from Britain in attacks that included the killing of hundreds of innocent civilians.

Yet I was struck by Shane’s lede, which frankly describes the IRA as “a terror group.” I don’t have any quarrel with that. But I was surprised, given the Times’ well-known squeamishness over using the T-word to describe Islamist organizations such as Hamas, which has engaged in suicide bombings against civilian targets in its war against Israel.

As the Times’ then-public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote in 2008, “To the consternation of many, The Times does not call Hamas a terrorist organization, though it sponsors acts of terror against Israel.” It’s a policy that has put the Times in an awkward position previously, as in 2010, when the paper reported on criticism of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam of the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero, for failing to label Hamas a terrorist group.

The United States, Canada, Israel, Japan and the European Union have all classified Hamas as a terrorist organization.

King’s response to being called out as a hypocrite is truly rancid, as he reveals that he couldn’t care less about the lives of British civilians who were killed in IRA attacks. “I understand why people who are misinformed might see a parallel,” he tells the Times. “The fact is, the IRA never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States.”

And in the 1980s, King had this to say: “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it.”

Shane attempts to make comparisons between the IRA and Al Qaeda, and concludes — correctly — that Al Qaeda is considerably worse. But the parallels between the IRA and Hamas seem pretty obvious.

The IRA engaged in terrorist attacks, but gradually moved toward a renunciation of such attacks as it uneasily groped its way toward a peace settlement with Britain and participation in government.

Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, may or may not be capable of moving toward a peace settlement with Israel. But certainly it was unclear at a similar stage as to whether the IRA was capable of making such a transition.

It’s pretty simple. Either the IRA and Hamas are/were terrorist organizations, or neither is. I hope public editor Arthur Brisbane will explain why it’s all right for the Times to call the IRA a “terror group” when it refuses to do the same with respect to Hamas.

Arthur Brisbane’s example-free critique

The New York Times’ new public editor, Arthur Brisbane, follows up his not-too-promising debut with a piece in which he expresses concern about analytical stories that straddle the line between news and opinion.

What’s odd about it is that though he quotes a variety of people on the subject, ranging from annoyed readers to Media Nation favorite Dan Gillmor, he only offers one partial example — a piece by an outside contributor, Jonathan Weber, who edits a non-profit news site in San Francisco called the Bay Citizen. Brisbane notes that Weber wrote about “‘vituperative’ union attacks and ‘scorched-earth’ tactics,” but he doesn’t tell us anything about the circumstances that led Weber to use such language.

Brisbane also cites a Matt Bai column about Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul Republican congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, but fails to give us even a hint of what Bai wrote.

The Times links to the Weber and Bai columns, of course, but I’m not going to bother following those links. I want to know precisely why Brisbane is concerned about those columns, and since he doesn’t tell us, clicking isn’t going to help — I’d just be guessing. Besides, what about print readers? That’s how I first read the column, as the Sunday Times is one of our few remaining print indulgences.

In an age of information overload, it’s essential that quality papers such as the Times provide analysis, interpretation and context. Just-the-facts is no longer good enough, if it ever was. Some readers may be driven away by such an approach, but I suspect even more will be drawn in.

Is it possible to go too far with this approach? Sure. Did Weber and Bai go too far? I have no idea.