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The New York Times' Sulzberger warns reporters of 'blind spots and echo chambers'

<em>New York Times</em> chairman and publisher A.G. Sulzberger, shown above, on Monday called for journalists to operate independent of government pressure, corporate influence, partisan agenda - and personal ideology.
Stephanie Keith
Getty Images
New York Times chairman and publisher A.G. Sulzberger, shown above, on Monday called for journalists to operate independent of government pressure, corporate influence, partisan agenda - and personal ideology.

The New York Times chairman and publisher A.G. Sulzberger was born in 1980, just a year before the first millennials. They came of age as cable news and online sites pulled journalism toward opinion and advocacy, and they emerged with their own ideas about how the news business should operate.

"This is something we hear often from inside our industry and outside it," Sulzberger tells NPR in an exclusive interview. "Is it enough for journalists to describe the world as it is, or should they try to fix it? Should they try to crusade for a better version of it?"

No, Sulzberger responds emphatically in a 12,400-word essay posted Monday morning in the Columbia Journalism Review. No offense to point-of-view outlets, he says, but it's not the right role for the Times and other major news organizations.

Sulzberger's public statements arrive after the #MeToo and social justice movements that inspired greater activist sentiment inside major newsrooms, including his own. And those concerns often reflect perspectives considered to come from the left.

Too often, he says, "journalists are demonstrating that they're on the side of the righteous. And I really think that that can create blind spots and echo chambers."

Reporters and editors "need to have humility," Sulzberger says

Not that he wants a mealy mouthed approach to discerning the truth in the age of misinformation. "When the facts are absolutely clear they should be called out unequivocally and unapologetically," Sulzberger says.

Journalists, he tells NPR, "need to have humility, that if you're following the facts, wherever they lead, they often lead to a question. They often lead to uncertainty. They often lead to a debate."

The public's trust in the media sits at near-lows. Some conservatives accuse it of bias. A certain former president regularly decried major outlets, including the Times, as "fake news."

Sulzberger gave an exclusive interview to NPR ahead of the release of his essay, a call for what he terms independent journalism: coverage that's free of governmental intimidation, corporate influence, partisan agenda and yes, the personal ideologies of the journalists reporting the news.

He says such an approach is the best way to win back the public's trust. A member of the fifth generation in his family to control the newspaper, Sulzberger initially trained as a reporter at papers in Providence, R.I., and Portland, Ore. Once at the Times, Sulzberger became a well-regarded writer (one article was optioned and became Kodachrome, a feature film starring Ed Harris and Jason Sudeikis) and later led an effort to modernize the paper.

In Monday's essay, Sulzberger looked to the paper's history, invoking his great-great grandfather Adolph Ochs' mantra that the Times should present the news "without fear or favor."

How much of themselves should journalists bring to their coverage?

In recent years, newsrooms rebelled over whether people of color and other underrepresented people were sufficiently present on staff, in coverage, and among the ranks of news executives making the choices that define the news.

Sulzberger, who has embraced the goals of those drives, says he wants people to bring their lived experiences to the newsroom to inform the paper's coverage. He just doesn't want those experiences to dictate how the news is defined.

The news is often dominated by relentless, divisive and seemingly existential stories including climate change, heightened political polarization, a global pandemic and a former president who at once attacked the press and overwhelmed it with bombast and lies.

Faced with that present, and a past defined by media executives who largely constructed newsrooms from a white, male perspective, many journalists ask whether news organizations are built to meet the challenge ahead.

Reporter says Sulzberger effort to be perceived as impartial reflects appeal to paying subscribers

"Journalists are humans, in that we have biases, we have preferences, we have blind spots, we have experiences, and we have deficits of experiences in some cases," says Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who covers issues of race and justice. "Very often it's in that line of coverage that our news organizations send messages about what they think is important, what they think is urgent, what they think is controversial."

"It's how we show our biases and values, [by] what story we put on the front page, what story we order a series on, what story we don't cover at all," Lowery adds.

Lowery has written critically about modern news leaders, including those at the Washington Post, where he used to work, and the Times, even as he praises Sulzberger's efforts to diversify his workforce. Lowery says he appreciates the profound ways in which, he says, Sulzberger has plumbed the challenge of covering the news in the current era.

But he says the Times' (and Sulzberger's) focus on sidestepping bias is driven by its desire to present an appealing and non-offensive image to deep-pocketed subscribers. (The Times is the envy of the news business, nearing 10 million paying subscribers, including its crossword, cooking, sports and consumer product review services; it has its sights on 15 million.) Lowery points to the Times' reporting reflecting the concern of parents and some researchers who question the U.S. medical establishment's care for teens who seek to transition.

"The coverage of any issue has to be considered not just within the context of that piece itself," Lowery says, "but how does that piece fit into a larger line of coverage and the message that is being sent by a news organization?"

A sizable group of journalistsprotested the stories on care for trans youths, including some with past ties to the Times.

At a time of polarization, Times publisher says reporting must be independent of agenda to be trusted

The newspaper has defended the pieces as rigorously reported efforts to explore vital and uncomfortable questions.

When asked by NPR about this coverage, Sulzberger does not directly address those articles, saying generally that many people inflamed by his paper's coverage object to the fact of the coverage more than the facts in it.

He points to the paper's award-winning stories on the failures of schools, which receive government money, set up to serve Hasidic Jewish children in New York. Some Hasidic and Jewish leaders said the articles could incite anti-Semitic attacks simply by reporting those findings.

The Times got big stories wrong, Sulzberger says, when it presented matters as certain that weren't: The Times led the way in reporting that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction ahead of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. (He didn't.) The Times and other news organizations largely dismissed the suggestionthat the COVID-19 virus might have leaked from a lab. (Uncertain, but considered possible by some federal agencies.)

"We live in this incredible, diverse country that aspires to come together in a pluralistic democracy," Sulzberger says. "If society is to grapple with all the big challenges it faces... what that democracy needs, what the public needs, as much as anything, is trustworthy information."

"And so I believe that independent journalism plays a really essential role. It's not an abdication of a role, in an era of misinformation," Sulzberger says. "We're seeking the truth in an era of polarization. We're fostering understanding. And those two words, truth and understanding, I think, are two of the most important answers to all the challenges we face as a society right now."

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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.