Media Criticism

Newspapers Shouldn't Act Like Super PACs

The paper of record took to social media lobbying.

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Journalists will often complain that readers don't properly understand the distinction between editorialists and reporters. To be fair, it's often quite difficult to tell. That's not only because of some biased coverage or because the internet has largely wiped away the compartmentalization of the traditional newspaper; it's because reporters now regularly give their opinions on TV, write "analysis" pieces and make their ideological preferences clear on social media. Many news outlets—The Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, etc.—unapologetically report from a left-wing perspective.

I'm not sure whether this kind of transparency is necessarily a bad thing, but whatever the case, an editorial board is still run separately from a newspaper. It offers arguments regarding public policy and culture. Ideally, it publishes op-ed columns by an array of voices with varying points of view, and it even occasionally challenges the preconceived notions of readers. When I was a member of an editorial board, our mission, at least as I saw it, was to offer rigorous good-faith arguments for whatever point of view we were taking. I never once consulted anyone in the newsroom.

In his botched sting on the Washington Post this week, conservative provocateur James O'Keefe demonstrated just how easy it is to either confuse the editorial board with the newsroom or manipulate readers to confuse them. At some point, though, it can also be the paper's fault. What happens when an editorial board goes beyond arguing for liberal positions and debating policy to actively politicking? There's a vital distinction to be made between political discourse and partisan activism.

This week, The New York Times editorial board took over the paper's opinion section Twitter account, which has 650,000 followers, "to urge the Senate to reject a tax bill that hurts the middle class & the nation's fiscal health." To facilitate this, it tweeted out the phone number of moderate Republican Maine Sen. Susan Collins and implored its followers to call her and demand that she vote against the GOP's bill. In others words, the board was indistinguishable from any of the well-funded partisan groups it whines about in editorials all the time.

Perhaps I'm overlooking some instance of similar politicking, but I don't think I've ever seen a major newspaper engage in that kind of partisan activism—not even on an editorial page. The Times editorial board isn't merely contending, "Boy, that Republican bill is going to kill children!" It's imploring people on social media—most of whom don't even subscribe to the paper or live in Maine—to inundate a senator with calls in order to sink a reform bill it dislikes. (It's worth pointing out that most of the hyperbolic contentions The Times make regarding the bill are either untrue or misleading, but that's another story.)

When consumers see a media giant engaged in naked partisan campaigning, fair or not, it confirms all their well-worn suspicions about the entire paper. You can grouse all day long about readers' inability to comprehend the internal divide. But how could a Republican trust The New York Times' coverage of a tax bill after watching it not just editorialize against it but run what could fairly be characterized as an ad that could have been produced by any of the Democratic Party's many proxies?

Maybe this is just a more honest way to do business. The fact is it's highly unlikely that The New York Times cares about enticing conservatives anymore. Like many others, the Times board likely feels a moral obligation to act because it sees any Republican legislative victory as an apocalyptic event. There is nothing demonstrably unethical about this kind of crusading, but like many of our political norms, journalistic norms seem to fall every day.

On the other hand, there is one thing that makes this kind of activism (which is likely to be ineffective) particularly hypocritical and distasteful: The Times has long argued in favor of empowering the government to regulate or shut down corporations—just like The Times itself—that engage in this brand of campaigning by overturning Citizens United and, therefore, violating the First Amendment. This is worth remembering as we watch one of the nation's largest editorial boards transform into the equivalent of a super PAC.

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  1. Should The New York Times be lobbying followers of its Opinion Twitter account to call a senator about the tax bill?

    Yes, because it’s a nice way to confirm exactly what the NYT as an organization really is.

    1. I thought it was reclassified to “rag” decades ago…

      1. If by ‘rag’ you mean a fully functioning branch of the DNC, sure.

  2. well the NYT is an honerable newspaper while the rethugian is clearly a lying piece of shit and should be called to task for even breathing

  3. It’s really amusing how people can think that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to corporations or money used to facilitate speech, and also would be appalled if anyone used those assumptions to shut down the NYT and other media outlets.

    1. Pretty much. I was amused when people pointed out to me Opinion Pieces about citizens United in Newspapers or on Cable TV. Corporations shouldn’t try to influence politics unless that is our corporations. LOL

      1. At the very least Corporations shouldn’t be able to buy politicians, but that would require politicians to make themselves ‘unbuyable’ which is a conflict of interest from their point of view. Not in the way you or I might think, though.

  4. there is one thing that makes this kind of activism (which is likely to be ineffective) particularly hypocritical and distasteful: The Times has long argued in favor of empowering the government to regulate or shut down corporations?just like The Times itself?that engage in this brand of campaigning by overturning Citizens United and, therefore, violating the First Amendment.

    Actually hypocrisy is being offended at what the NYT is doing – if one has advocated the SC Citizens United decision oneself. Pointing out someone else’s past hypocrisy is, logically, a tu quoque or ad hominem argument.

    1. OK, no.

      1. Citizens United didn’t claim to be a newspaper, so defending their right to free speech has literally nothing to do with pointing out the decline in journalistic standards of formerly-credible newspapers.

      2. Reason didn’t propose taking legal action against the NYT as a Superpac.

      3. Saying that a person or entity should do something is in no way logically inconsistent with saying that that person or entity has a right not to do that something — except to progressives, of course, who apparently believe that everything a person “should not” do by any standard must automatically be subject to legislative prohibition.

      4. A tu quoque and an ad hominem do not have the same form.

      5. A tu quoque is used to deflect criticism by saying “but you did it, too!”. It’s not automatically a tu quoque to criticize someone’s behavior. To wit, this did not come about because the NYT said “Reason has been letting their journalistic standards slip!” Also, while Reason may engage in more fact-based reporting than the NYT, Reason is not a newspaper; it is a magazine and as such is primarily editorial in nature. So, no, not a tu quoque by any conceivable understanding.

      1. 6. An ad hominem takes the form of saying “Person A was wrong about thing X, so person A must also be wrong about thing Y”. It is not automatically an ad hominem every time behavior is criticized. The ad hominem is a formal logical failure, not a blanket prohibition on criticism in any context.

        7. JFree remains a complete idiot who literally can’t even say one correct thing.

  5. but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a major newspaper engage in that kind of partisan activism

    FFS, I hate this type of reasoning. Am I to simply trust that David Harsanyi is omniscient? I don’t really care what gets printed by the Editorial Board. It’s NOT … FUCKING … NEWS. It’s pure opinion. Actual reporting bias is all that really matters, and there’s no shortage of that to focus on.

  6. What’s with all the NYT posts lately?

    There’s been a whole slew of them.

  7. ok im confused.are you stating a opinion board is journalism?

  8. Is this tribal? I can’t tell. Suderman needs to tell me if this is tribal.

  9. This article doesn’t make me respect the NYT less. It makes me respect Reason less. With the exception of few good posts by Peter Suderman and a few others (none of them named Veronique, by the way), Reason has been about as talkative about tax “reform” as the dog in “Silver Blaze”.* Back in the Obama era, I can remember Shikha Dalmia howling about “banana republic” tactics when the Democrats “rammed through” the Affordable Care Act after 26 days of debate in the Senate. The Republicans’ tax package is being rammed through with 0 days of debate, with a “bill” that will be “final” about 20 minutes before it’s passed, if that.

    It’s well known that the Koch Boys have been pushing heavily for passage of this act. The elimination of the estate tax is worth billions to the Koch family, or at least tens of millions in legal fees they spend to avoid the existing tax. (They aren’t morons, after all.) Just sayin’.

    *”The dog? The dog did nothing.”

    “That was the curious incident.”

    1. “This article doesn’t make me respect the NYT less.”

      Well there’s a strong defense.

    2. There’s no way Alan really feels this way, as according to every non-Tony troll here, Reason is a progressive rag nowadays.

  10. Just wait a fucking minute. Uh why not?

    You people defended the creation of an oligarchic state with lame comparisons between superpacs and newspapers. Now you’re whining that the opinion section of a newspaper is giving an opinion?

    Have to agree with Alan here, the Kochs must be getting jittery.

    1. An opinion by a newspaper’s editorial staff is something like “Americans should reject a high calorie diet.” Activism is when they publish contact numbers of Pizza Hut and Mcdonalds and urge readers to “call them and tell them to stop selling fatty foods”.

      The NY Times can say whatever they want without defaming anyone. They just can’t masquerade as an objective new sources. Journalists, even in opinion pieces, should report on facts, not influence them. That’s journalism 101.


  11. The Times editorial board isn’t merely contending, “Boy, that Republican bill is going to kill children!” It’s imploring people on social media?most of whom don’t even subscribe to the paper or live in Maine?to inundate a senator with calls in order to sink a reform bill it dislikes.

    I know David is almost certainly aware that this is essentially the difference. News is telling someone something of interest, more or less, while activism requires a call to action.

    By cajoling it’s readers to take action they have crossed that line. It’s a little more granular than that, but this is the essence of the difference.


    There is nothing demonstrably unethical about this kind of crusading, but like many of our political norms, journalistic norms seem to fall every day.

    I disagree. It’s unethical because they’re calling themselves a News Outlet and one could make a case that calling themselves that is false advertising. Of course, that’s one reason why they have the separation on their editorial & newsrooms. So they can claim it was just a ‘misunderstanding’ or some such when in fact it’s the goal of their institution to confuse people and make them think they’re non-partisan when they are very partisan.

    Case in point why ‘fake news’ is a rallying cry these days.

    1. And, for the record, I’m not saying it should be illegal for them to do this. Merely that one should realize that when someone quotes the NYT they might as well be quoting the head of the DNC on a given issue.

      It’s semantics, more or less, but ethically it’s a violation of the code of ethnics Journalist supposedly live by even while we’re all fully aware that 95% of them do not. And, to be clear, that’s because they are human beings and therefore fallible. Holding a bunch of chucklehead idiots that got a journalism degree to some sort of ‘ethical standard’ is pretty laughable when you think about it.

      Getting a degree in journalism is what you do when you want a piece of paper with your name on it, and don’t want to try all that hard to get it. I don’t care if you got that degree from a community college, or Columbia, or wherever but this holds true in my view.

      1. But sometimes one just has to put politics aside and stand up against injustice, a category which happens to include the entire platform of the political party I dislike.

  12. I’m sorry, but all the handwringing about media bias misses the real issue. That media could be UN-biased is one of the biggest lies the Progressive Left ever sold us.

    The problem with the NYT isn’t that they are biased. The problem is that anyone wouldever believe otherwise. Oh, amd that they are ham-handed amd borderline unreadable.


    1. I’m sorry, but all the handwringing about media bias misses the real issue. That media could be UN-biased is one of the biggest lies the Progressive Left ever sold us.

      This is absolutely true. News in America has literally always been biased. A truer journalistic ethics code would likely reflect exactly what David says; be honest about your bias as much as possible.

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