For starters, it’s important to accept that the New York Times has always — or at least for many decades — been a far more editor-driven, and self-conscious, publication than many of those with which it competes. Historically, the Los Angeles Times, where I worked twice, for instance, was a reporter-driven, bottom-up newspaper. Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?”We've seen this happen many times. With Israel, the narrative drives the stories, not the facts. And in the case of the Middle East, the NYT narrative is indeed what drives too many politicians and pundits in other media outlets to slavishly follow the Gray Lady's lead.
It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.
Reality usually had a way of intervening. But I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the Los Angeles bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: “My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?”
The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: “We set the agenda for the country in that room.”
Having lived at one time or another in small-town Pennsylvania, some lower-rung Detroit suburbs, San Francisco, Oakland, Tulsa and, now, Santa Monica, I could only think, well, “Wow.” This is a very large country. I couldn’t even find a copy of the Times on a stop in college town Durham, N.C. To believe the national agenda was being set in a conference room in a headquarters on Manhattan’s Times Square required a very special mind-set indeed.
Inside the Times building, then and now, a great deal of the conversation is about the Times. In any institution, shop-talk is inevitable. But the navel-gazing seemed more intense at the Times, where too many journalists spent too much time decoding the paper’s ways, and too little figuring out the world at large.
The narrative is of a far-right Likud government which has no interest in negotiations and of a moderate and pragmatic Palestinian leadership that is frustrated by Israeli intransigence. The narrative is where Jews who want to live on their ancestral lands are considered the biggest obstacle to peace while the terror attacks that occur every day have nothing to do with incitement by the Palestinian leaders in the media and in their school curricula, which is almost never reported.
And this is just the news desk. The editorial page is much worse, and consistently shows an anti-Israel slant, with anti-Israel op-eds outnumbering pro-Israel op-eds by a ratio of 5-1 most months.
True, middle America couldn't care less about the NYT narrative, as the last election showed. But the power brokers in Washington and New York indeed believe that the Times "sets the agenda" and they happily play their part in following it. It blew up in their faces on Election Day but there is little indication that the soul-searching at the NYT is going to be extended to its foreign news coverage, where the editors still create the narrative and the reporters still follow.
(h/t Yaacov Lozowick)