In late May of 2018, Dean Baquet, then the executive editor of the New York Times, appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. The host asked Baquet, “Have you ever printed a headline that was, perhaps, slightly charitable to the right in order to lay out your bona fides as being balanced?” Baquet doesn’t hesitate: “No.” After some back and forth, in which Baquet says most bad digital headlines are merely the product of someone who “didn’t have their second cup of coffee that day,” Colbert points to a specific print headline from 2016: “ ‘Investigating Donald Trump, FBI sees no clear link to Russia.’ That gave an air of finality that that story did not actually support. How does something like that happen?” Baquet concedes it was a mistake—but a unique mistake, one that was unlikely to happen again.
The same week Baquet went on Colbert, a headline on his newspaper’s front page read: “Divide on Abortion in Ireland.” The country was heading into a referendum on the legalization of abortion, and the Times story delved into how in Ireland, “opposition to abortion is deeply ingrained, as many people are still strongly against it on moral grounds.” Four days after that, Irish voters opted to legalize abortion by a landslide.
“What I want people to understand about newspapers,” Baquet said on Colbert, “is first off, how hard we try. We print 300 stories a day. They are 99 percent accurate. We make mistakes. When we catch them, we own up to it.”
Baquet is not wrong. The reporters and editors who make the paper of record are, very often, among the best in the field. A spot on the Times’ politics desk is one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism. But somehow, their political reporters have been deemed experts in everything, and their way of looking at the world—largely via covering the tensions of our two-party system—has infected the Times at large. It’s how they end up writing a piece that makes it sound like abortion is still up for debate in Ireland even as the issue is headed toward a definitive vote. And it’s created a false outlook on the world as left vs. right—a phenomenon countless media critics have deemed “both-sides-ism”—and nowhere has this been more apparent than in the paper’s recent coverage of reproductive health care in the U.S.
Abortion is a medical procedure. Its accessibility—or lack thereof—has dramatic effects on the health outcomes of pregnant people, something we’re starting to see reported in the Times and elsewhere. And yet, because it has been cast mostly as a matter of partisan politics, it has become the purview of the same reporters covering, say, the midterm elections or the January 6 hearings. It’s not the Times’s fault that our politics have become so wrapped up in abortion access. But much like how White House reporters were sent to cover early coronavirus briefings, the paper’s attempts to have its writers cover abortion primarily through the lens of politics too often leads to journalism that muddies more than it clarifies.
Take a recent story about swing voters and the midterms, for example: the subhead reads, “Democrats are on the defensive with vital political constituencies rattled by inflation. But amid concerns over abortion rights and democracy, Republicans still have problems in the highly educated suburbs.” Abortion, when described as one part of a laundry list of issues, does not read as the essential and sometimes life-saving procedure it is—instead it becomes just another cause championed by activists, illustrated by a young blue-haired protestor with a Planned Parenthood sign.
But it goes deeper than that. Much of the Times’ political coverage reads as though it takes for granted that its audience is liberal. That starting point leads to an assumption that its readers are already familiar with political thought that falls left of center. What needs elucidating, the paper would seem to think, is the mysterious world of conservatism. It is this impulse that has seemed to be animating the paper’s coverage of the repeal of Roe v. Wade.
In the immediate days after the Dobbs decision, here’s a sampling of headlines (two are op-eds) the Times published: “For Conservative Christians, the End of Roe Was a Spiritual Victory”; “ ‘The Pro-Life Generation’ ”; “In a Post-Roe World, We Can Avoid Pitting Mothers Against Babies”; “What Makes a Fetus a Person?”
None of these stories, individually, are horribly flawed. In fact, the paper has often delineated the stakes of the repeal of abortion rights in clear terms. (A special episode of The Daily called it a “decision that will transform American life.”) But taken in its totality, the Times’ desire to show “all sides” of the abortion issue has resulted in a picture that is acutally skewed: It’s gone overboard on anthropologizing the right, while similarly wide-eyed, earnest coverage of the left is absent.
It is certainly the job of the world’s most prominent news outlet to cover the anti-abortion movement, and to even give it space in the opinion pages. It’s a major force in American life. But the paper’s tendency—shared by many other media outlets—to split the world into neat categories (politics, culture, gender, etc.), ultimately results in a package that is a disservice to readers.
One recent story in the paper’s newsletter called On Politics focused on a powerful couple in the anti-abortion movement celebrating the repeal of Roe. The article noted: “A majority of Americans disagree with the decision, polls show, and it devastated many people across the country, with thousands protesting in cities and abortion providers scrambling to help women who now face long journeys to obtain care and, in some cases, the threat of prosecution.” Then it proceeded to tell the story of the Severinos, the couple who met at Harvard Law School and pushed for the appointment of anti-abortion judges for decades, without any other nod to the consequences of their actions.
As Rebecca Traister put it recently: “In the lived world, abortion isn’t some heavily weighted reality siloed off from the rest of life, health care, and humanity. Abortion is life, health care, and humanity.” It’s true that the same day the Severinos piece came out, over on the Styles desk of the Times, reporters had spoken with women who were stockpiling Plan B pills, fearful of the effects of the Dobbs decision. And a story from the next day, from the Well section, dove into the topic of ectopic pregnancies, and the life-or-death consequences some women would face post-Dobbs. But these stories didn’t feel connected to the choices of the Severinos, or the Times coverage of the anti-abortion movement: Their actions were not cited as a major reason why women are now scrambling. When a piece about anti-abortion women, for example, neglects to state plainly the deadly consequences of those policies, and a piece about women dealing with a lack of care for ectopic pregnancies doesn’t explain who put them in that situation, it is asking too much of readers, who are no longer sitting with the newspaper, consuming in totality from A1 to D7.
It also leads to sloppy reporting. The paper annotated the Dobbs majority decision with its own analysis, pointing out that Justice Alito’s argument is grounded in originalism, which it puts “in contrast to the more liberal interpretative method that views the Constitution as a living document whose meaning can evolve with society.” But originalism, as many have noted, is a flimsy legal framework, not a robust legal structure. It can justify anything and nothing at all. Here again the paper seems to be willing to cede to the right’s self-serving definitions to leave an impression of balance.
If the Times seeks to be the nation’s arbiter of facts, then it has to deal in reality. Too often, seeking to rebut claims of liberal bias, the paper presents the world as if it is lived by two types of people, conservatives and liberals, who are evenly powerful and generally reasonable. But most Americans—57 percent, according to Pew Research and 63 percent according to a more recent CNN poll—disapprove of the repeal of Roe. Treating the minority that embraces it with more curiosity and empathy than the majority who opposes it will lead it to skewed perceptions of the reality on the ground.
Many things can be true: the Times is one of the world’s most valuable journalistic institutions, the Times is too full of itself, the Times is vital, the Times is missing the point. The paper is once again suffering from an oft-lamented problem, its ongoing case of bothsidesism, while also doing a great deal of good work. If only they could bring the same level of curiosity to the side that has majority support.