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Q&A: Bob Kohn

The author of Journalistic Fraud on what's really gone wrong at The New York Times.

By Jesse Oxfeld - August 29, 2003

Not on the journalism faculty at Columbia, someone who lunches at Michael's, or a Kalb, Bob Kohn is not someone who under normal circumstances would spend his days thinking about The New York Times. He's a California lawyer and businessman, a guy who has built a few companies and worked for a few others and is currently vice-chairman of the software company Borland. But he's a lifelong reader of the paper, and he recently noticed that temple of objectivity with which he'd grown up was, he thought, quite a different animal. He spent some time examining the news content of the Times—not the editorial pages, which he repeatedly acknowledges can and should have whatever viewpoints they want—and located a disturbing trend of what he believes is editorializing within the paper's allegedly objective news coverage. In Manhattan to drop off his daughter for her freshman year at NYU, Kohn spoke to mediabistro.com last week about his book, his investigation, and what he thinks has gone wrong at the Times.

Journalistic Fraud at first glance seems like the first post-Jayson Blair quickie book. But actually its genesis was long before that. Tell me how you got started on this project.
I grew up in New York, I've read the newspaper since back at P.S. 169 in Queens, and I've always loved The New York Times—there's no other paper in the world that can match its coverage for foreign news, technology news, business news, political news. It is a great newspaper. But last summer I was on vacation with my wife, traveling through New England, and when you only read one thing each day you read it carefully, like a love letter. And I started to become very frustrated and very disappointed. I started to recognize a pattern of abandonment of objective journalism in the news pages of The New York Times. I have no complaint with the editorial pages—the newspaper has always been liberal and I've always been moderate or conservative, and I've often disagreed with the editorial pages. What bothered me is how they were disguising their opinions in the form of straight news, what I call the journalistic fraud on the news pages.

So the book is taking that sample of the Times—what you read when you were on vacation last summer—and finding bias in those news stories?
It was more than that. Yes, it was examples, hundreds of examples from The New York Times that had been delivered to my doorstep every day. I also did a lot research, including at the New York Public Library where they have copies of The New York Times dating back a century in .pdf files in their data base. So with a lot of research and with the examples that were appearing on my doorstep every day, I was able to do a comparison of not only recent news stories from the 2000 election and 2002 midterm election but dating back to the Clinton administration, where I was able to make comparisons between how The New York Times covered Clinton versus how it's been covering George Bush.

How did you codify what you were reading? Did you have a system for determining what you would consider a biased article?
As I was reading The New York Times last summer I started to recognize a variety of techniques they were using to slant the news to reflect their editorial views. So I developed chapters with titles like, "Distorting the Headlines," "Distorting the Lead Sentences," "Distorting with Facts," "Distorting with Opinion," "Distorting Polls," "Distorting with Loaded Language," "Distorting with Labels," "Distorting with Placement," which was my way of categorizing the various techniques they use. And then I broke it down even further. In the chapter on "Distorting the Lead" I show how to write a lead sentence—the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the story—and then I go through each of those and show how they distort the who, how they distort the why, how they distort the what.

Give me some of the more egregious examples you found.
The subtle and the not-so-subtle techniques include slanting the who. During the Clinton Administration, when good things happened they gave Clinton credit by name and when bad things happened it was blamed on "U.S. officials" or "federal officials" or "military officials." Since George Bush took office, when good things happened, like the Bush administration capturing the CEO of al-Qaeda in the Persian Gulf, the word "Bush" doesn't appear in the article at all. Yet on the same front page, when it was bad news such as the Turkish government announcing that it was not going to allow troops to be stationed in Turkey for an eventual assault on Iraq, it was a blow to the "Bush Administration." When Richard Nixon had seven of his cabinet officers and staffers indicted, the Times never said that it "rocked" the Nixon administration, or, "in response to widespread criticism" President Nixon did so and so. But when President Bush announced that he was creating a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, the lead read, "In response to widespread criticism, President Bush today...." In other words, they pre-spin the news before they give you the news. That's another subtle technique that they use. And it's an unmistakable pattern that my book demonstrates that this cannot have been by accident.

And this is something that cropped up over time, if it wasn't like this in the Nixon administration but is now?
That's right. There was an article recently in the Columbia Journalism Review by a former reporter and editor for The New York Times, and he said that when a reporter submitted a story that was loaded against Nixon the editors rewrote the lead sentence to eliminate the loaded language. That is a New York Times that I admired and that is a New York Times that I want to see back. But that is not The New York Times today. The New York Times today seems to be just the opposite, and this is even true after the appointment of Bill Keller as the new executive editor. There may be a kinder, gentler newsroom, but there are still many examples of loaded language on the front page, even this month.

Some of what you're describing as "loaded language," which you say has crept in over the years, couldn't some of that simply be attributable to changing times? I mean, it's a different media environment, there's lots of choices, there's falling circulation, people have shorter attention spans. Could it maybe just be that they're trying to make The New York Times less boring?
If they're making The New York Times into a tabloid like the New York Post, they're making the mistake of a generation. Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s great-grandfather set the standard for The New York Times when he said the aim of the paper was to report the news impartially, without fear or favor. Since Arthur Jr. took control, the aim of The New York Times seems to be to influence public opinion. When you disguise your editorial views in the form of a straight news story and say that you're fair and objective and impartial, that's a form of dishonesty. You're giving your opinion a level of credibility that it doesn't deserve by infusing it inside a news story.

So as far as you're concerned, the appearance of more muscular language in news articles—language that right now would be antagonistic toward a Republican administration because we're under a Republican administration—is not a value-neutral effort to just make the stories more exciting. You think there's obviously a specific slant in play there.
Yes.

You're not a journalist, tell me about what qualifies you to make these judgments.
I'm not a journalist, I'm not a historian, and I'm not a biographer. I'm just a consumer of The New York Times. Yes, I'm an attorney, but there are lots of attorneys who have become columnists and people who have become media critics, and I don't think being an attorney disqualifies me from writing a book that takes a forensic approach to the news pages of The New York Times. I think that puts me in a rather objective position, as a matter of fact. I'm a Republican, yes, but the only axe I have to grind is in favor of the truth. I'm concerned that The New York Times, which has always held itself up as the highest standard of journalism—and it has been recognized by the rest of journalism as the highest standard of journalism—I'm concerned that its standards have fallen. And if the standards fall at The New York Times they fall for all of journalism. That should be a concern for everybody, and it was certainly a concern for me, because I get The New York Times every day, I enjoy the newspaper—though I don't agree with all the editorials on the editorial page—and it pains me to see The New York Times become the very tabloids it likes to deride.

In your preface, you set the book up as a letter to editor or a letter to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., saying this is what's wrong and this is what needs change. Do you expect him to listen? Do you expect a response?
I don't know Arthur Sulzberger Jr. or any of the people who are managing the Times and I have no insight into whether they'll listen to what I have to say or even read the book. But if they're reasonable people they will take a look at what I've argued here and come to some conclusion about it. I don't think they can dismiss this as a mere vitriolic attack on The New York Times, because this is not a vitriolic attack. I care for this institution. People who love The New York Times have a sense of ownership over the newspaper, that we want it to succeed. If it becomes like The Washington Times, if it becomes the political party of opposition on its news pages, it's going to lose its credibility as a reliable source of news and its credibility as a reliable source of influence. The power of the editorial page of The New York Times depends on its reputation for reporting news reliably. And it's losing that reputation. Jayson Blair is the least of their problems. It's the difference between a skin rash and a skin cancer: Jayson Blair was the rash, and I'm talking about the cancer.

Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com. You can buy Journalistic Fraud at Amazon.com.



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