Does the New York Times Have a False Balance Problem?

Its public editor dismisses the criticism as irrational. She should take it a lot more seriously.

A view of the newsroom at the New York Times building May, 2008 in New York  City.
A view of the newsroom at the New York Times building in May 2008.

Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images

In her Sunday column, New York Times Public Editor Liz Spayd pushed back against critics who have accused the Times and other news outlets of false balance. What is false balance? In Spayd’s telling, the term “refers disparagingly to the practice of journalists who, in their zeal to be fair present each side of a debate as equally credible, even when the factual evidence is stacked heavily on one side.” Why is she writing about this topic now? Because Spayd has received lots of emails from readers who feel the Times has overaggressively covered Hillary Clinton’s various scandals, even when there’s nothing there, in order to parry charges that the paper is biased against Donald Trump. Spayd doesn’t put much stock in these criticisms, deeming them the empty complaints of irrational partisans who do not understand how good journalism works. She should give their broader argument more credence.

Media critics have been accusing mainstream media outlets—not just the Times—of false balance in one form or another for decades. In my experience, these arguments come less often from unlettered nitpickers than from people who actually know a great deal about journalism and its potential to change the world. During my five years working at the Columbia Journalism Review, I edited dozens if not hundreds of articles urging news outlets like the Times to realize that it is OK to call B.S. on liars—that the inverted pyramid will not crumble into dust if a reporter pauses to adjudicate a factual dispute. (Spayd came to the Times from CJR; our tenures there did not overlap, and we’ve never met or spoken.) False balance is a valid journalistic concern, one worth taking a lot more seriously than Spayd does in her column.

In Spayd’s definition, false balance refers to the newspaper journalist’s traditional reticence to evaluate competing factual claims that are presented within the same news article and the related impulse to give both sides of an issue equal say, even if what one side has to say is not at all worth saying. I actually think the Times does a good job of avoiding this sort of false balance, and given the constraints of the newspaper format, Times reporters are pretty willing to call something a lie when they see it. In a story dated Sept. 8, Jonathan Martin and Amy Chozick wrote that, during a recent candidate forum moderated by Matt Lauer (emphasis mine), “Mr. Trump twice denigrated America’s generals; suggested he would fire the country’s current military leadership; and insinuatedvaguely, unverifiably and without evidencethat the intelligence officials who recently gave him a classified briefing about threats to the United States had said that the president had flouted their advice.” That’s about as close as a newspaper reporter can come to saying, “Look at this clown.”

But the paper isn’t wholly innocent of the false-balance charges against it. Another, related form of false balance, which Spayd addresses, is perhaps better described as false equivalency. Assume you have two relatively similar rocks. Is it possible to tell them apart? Sure! You can take a close look at the rocks and notice their different surface blemishes. You can note their disparate weights and textures. You can run them through a mass spectrometer. There are lots of ways to differentiate between two similar rocks. False equivalency leaves it at, “We’ve got two rocks! Two rocks here!”

This is what Spayd’s correspondents are presumably getting at when they criticize the Times for spending so much effort investigating Hillary Clinton: the insipidness of pretending that Clinton’s indiscretions, real and newsworthy though they may be, are gravitationally similar to those committed by Donald Trump. This false balance problem is really part of a larger problem that says journalists must not have opinions, and this in turn is a problem with the profession’s inability to overcome the oppressive inertial force known as journalistic objectivity. The prospect of journalistic opinionating is exactly what Spayd cautions against in her Sunday column: “The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates.” The horror!

What Spayd doesn’t acknowledge—and what the Times refuses to internalize—is that any sentient political journalist is already passing moral and ideological judgment on the candidates and campaigns they cover. A reporter covering a beat will very quickly become a relative expert on its substance. As a result of that hard-won expertise, he or she will naturally form opinions about the issues and actors in the world that they cover. These are not regurgitated opinions but instead the product of the sort of “forceful, honest reporting” for which Spayd routinely cheerleads.

Why is it desirable for smart, informed people to suppress judgments that have been formed through reporting, study, and observation? Well-informed and thoughtful people are supposed to have actual opinions on current events. The Times employs some of the smartest reporters in the business, and it’s odd to expect them to refrain from drawing their own conclusions on the stories that they and their colleagues cover for a living. I want to know what Times reporters think! And knowing that they have opinions does not mean that I trust their reporting any less.

Spayd presumes a world in which journalists and editors can actually divorce their personal feelings and professional judgments from the coverage they produce. This is an impossible, fantastical ideal. And there is far too much lip service devoted to the pursuit of this impossible ideal by self-valorizing newspaper people, who would pretend that they are mere vessels for the news, covering stories as they happen without favor or discretion.

But of course this is not how reporting actually works. Journalists exercise conscious and subconscious judgments every day, with every story they report or choose not to report. Journalists and their editors do this when they decide whom to interview; where to place and how to frame their interviewees’ quotes; how to structure a story; which stories to put on A1 and which to bury inside the newspaper or deep down its homepage. Journalists’ choices are informed by their educational and class backgrounds, by the nature and extent of their journalistic experience, by the size of their hangover that day or whether their kid kept them up all night. Were their parents professionals or laborers? Did they have to work their way through college? Are they religious? Are they in debt?

A newspaper story is the sum total of a million tiny judgments, and the newsroom fetishization of “balance”—the reflexive obeisance to journalistic objectivity—is largely an attempt to conceal those judgments from the reading public. In his important 2003 essay “Re-thinking Objectivity,” my former Columbia Journalism Review colleague Brent Cunningham noted that journalistic objectivity began as a financial imperative, a way for the “penny papers” of the 19th century to appeal to broad audiences of all political persuasions. Over the years, journalistic objectivity became a mantra: We report, you decide. But somewhere along the way, Cunningham wrote, reporters began “allowing the principle of objectivity to make us passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it.”

This passivity isn’t especially thorny if you’re covering breaking news, like a fire. But political reporters don’t report on actual news events so much as staged pseudo-events—not fires but politicians talking about fires. As a result, their stories often take the following format: “Candidate A said there was a fire. Candidate B said there wasn’t a fire.” That’s an objective story: The journalist takes no sides, gives equal time to each party, and does not insert an opinion. But it’s also a very bad story, because it says nothing about whether or not there was actually a fire. If there actually was a fire and Candidate B keeps insisting that there wasn’t, then it’s not “bias” to say that Candidate B is wrong. If Candidate B keeps on insisting that there wasn’t a fire—or, perhaps, if Candidate B goes on record encouraging arsonists to set fires—then journalists ought to spend more time refuting and challenging Candidate B.

“Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers — remember that?” Spayd continues. “Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope.” Is it, though? The concept of news judgment is not a slippery slope; it is the single most critical aspect of the journalistic endeavor. It is the thing that sets a newspaper like the New York Times apart from Facebook’s semi-automated “trending” news section. Every single day, in every single news organization in the world, journalists perform the dastardly feat of measuring two stories against each other and prioritizing that which they deem most important.

Second of all, while I am not privy to the contents of Spayd’s inbox, in my world, at least, there are relatively few people arguing that the Times should refrain from aggressively covering Clinton’s campaign and her life in the public sphere. It serves the public interest for the Times to take an adversarial approach to covering both Clinton and Trump. But it also serves the public interest for the Times to recognize that there is a qualitative difference between digging for evidence of embers and covering the exploits of someone who is actively fanning flames. Over the past three months, according to a Nexis search I performed Tuesday morning, the Times has run exactly one hard news story about Trump’s decision to donate $25,000 to a group connected with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi as Bondi was investigating allegations of fraud at Trump University. During that same time period, the Times published at least seven hard news stories in which possible improprieties at the Clinton Foundation were major themes. That’s quite a disparity. It’s hard not to think that the people criticizing the Times have a point.

Perhaps these letter writers are primarily upset by the simpering journalistic false equivalencies of the sort that Spayd herself presents later in her column, when she writes that “Trump is so erratic and his comments so inflammatory that many in his own party have rejected him. But it is also true that these are two presidential candidates with the lowest approval ratings in history. Neither is very trusted or liked.” True! But there are different reasons why each candidate is mistrusted and disliked. And it is well within a working journalist’s bailiwick to evaluate those reasons, measure them against each other, make a news judgment, and proceed accordingly.

This is the second time in a week that Spayd has addressed false balance—and in fact urged on its tenets. Last week, she published a memo by the Times’ standards editor, Philip Corbett, who instructed Times newsroom staffers to refrain from “taking sides” on political matters on social media. “On personal social-media accounts, Times newsroom staffers should avoid editorializing, endorsing candidates or otherwise promoting their own political views,” Corbett wrote. And furthermore:

If you are linking to other sources, aim to reflect a diverse collection of viewpoints. Sharing a range of news, opinions or satire from others is usually fine. But consistently linking only to one side of a debate can leave the impression that you, too, are taking sides.

As I’ve noted before, people following Times newsroom staffers online expect them to be well-informed and thoughtful. But we should leave the editorializing to our colleagues on the Opinion side.

“Maybe repeat offenders need a little kick in the pants,” Spayd wrote in her prelude to Corbett’s memo. This flippant comment makes more sense in the context of her most recent column, where she made clear that she thinks false balance is a worthless charge invented by disingenuous cranks and partisans. But if false balance is anything at all, it is what Corbett prescribed in his memo, and what Spayd lukewarmly endorsed: If you quote one side of a debate, you have to give equal time to the opposite side.

The problem with this rule, especially when it comes to the 2016 presidential election, is that it’s almost never the case that both sides of a debate have an equal claim on the truth. Any rule that tells reporters to prioritize false balance at the expense of truth-extraction—whether in actual stories or over social media—is a bad one. There’s nothing wrong with reporters exercising news judgment or expressing their opinions over social media. After all, when reporters suppress or conceal their opinions, it doesn’t mean that they stop having them: It just means that the public is less aware of those opinions. Journalism is neither science nor art, produced by neither androids nor poets. It is the work of human beings, and for a century the high priests of “journalistic objectivity” have encouraged reporters to pretend that it is possible to extinguish their humanity. But whom does this fiction serve? Certainly not the reader seeking clarity in a world increasingly dominated by partisan spin—and a presidential campaign whose rules no longer prohibit the bending of reality.