The resounding message of South by Southwest’s (SXSW) New York Times Panel was that the journalism landscape is changing rapidly: it’s more crucial than ever that journalists be an unrelenting force against executive abuse of power, but confidence in longstanding news organizations is declining alarmingly fast.
On the first Sunday of the conference, media columnist Jim Rutenberg interviewed Executive Editor Dean Baquet on the main stage. Their answers lamented that the days of print journalism have been gone for a while, but focused on how that change doesn’t necessarily spell a dismal future. Baquet noted that Times digital subscriptions had drastically increased over the course of the 2016 presidential election––a clear signal that casual readers understood the heightened importance of media watchdogs as the election drew to a close. Information is still desired, albeit in different ways.
The real substance of the panel, though, was when Baquet focused on his own error and the error of his many reporters in predicting the presidential election’s outcome and doing due diligence in their coverage. When an audience member asked the timely question of how the media failed to predict these election outcomes, Baquet was humble and clear: the “New York bubble” certainly contributed to it––a secular, cosmopolitan outlook that sometimes undervalues the degree to which religiosity runs rampant in the rest of America––as well as a misreading of the amount of anger in the American electorate (and how that anger would be expressed at the polls).
He talked about how access to news and journalism jobs has exploded in the past few years, and about how plentiful jobs for good journalists are “the best thing for journalism.” But this explosion of access makes it so plenty of articles are circulated––many of which spread misinformation, skewed and irresponsible accounts, or blatant lies.
In a sense, Trump was “clarifying for the mission” of the New York Times. Baquet explained, “We owned the world through the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s,” but after that, traditional news outlets lost their sense of place. While covering Trump, the Times were the first to break stories on the candidate’s treatment of women, his tax returns (and lack of public release), and his debt. As things progressed, it became increasingly clear that the press needed to remain a force that holds those in power accountable.
That’s hard to do as public skepticism rises and those in the administration levy accusations at newspapers of record. It’s a challenge Baquet is going to have to deal with––and quickly. But I think fake news is an overblown worry given that the vast majority of intelligent consumers don’t have a problem discerning what’s real from what’s fake or horribly biased. The real issue has to do with liberal bias: Baquet talked about their “Clinton Win Predictor” as indicative of a blind spot––something that inaccurately computed Clinton’s electoral odds and, by extension, the anger of much of voting America.
I wish that he’d talked about the Clinton win predictor as symptomatic of liberal bias and evaluated the intellectual diversity of his newsroom. For the right and center, there’s a common belief that the news is dominated by people and companies with left-wing tilts. There are certainly sources like National Review and Reason, but the majority of the most reputable organizations––New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Los Angeles Times––have a slight left bias. This is bad, but dishonesty about it is even worse.
Baquet needed to recognize the degree to which many of his reporters––and those in the journalism industry on the whole––lean left, making it difficult to accurately interpret how right-leaning audiences will think and act. In post-election analysis, many reporters have fixated on how difficult it is to predict how white working class Americans in the heartland will vote. The real issue, though, is that minimal effort is made by most left-leaning journalists to understand the fundamental values that guide conservative mindsets as compared to the fundamental values that guide liberal mindsets. As Arthur Brooks writes, “Many Americans feel caught between two dispiriting political choices: ineffective compassion on one hand and heartless pragmatism on the other.”
This is one of the most crucial American divides and one that informs the way we think, act, speak, and vote. Until this mentality is better understood by journalists, we’re going to have a difficult time accurately predicting the preferences of Americans. Let’s hope this issue begins to get as much airtime as fake news.
Liz Wolfe is Young Voices’ managing editor.