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New York Times too important to not perform better

New York Times too important to not perform better
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It is always bad for a news organization when it becomes a subject of the news instead of reporting the news. That was the case when the New York Times ended up in everybody else’s headlines for its clumsy reporting of supposed new allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughKavanaugh dismays conservatives by dodging pro-Trump election lawsuits Media circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden The Jan. 6 case for ending the Senate filibuster MORE.

No news organization is perfect, including the New York Times. But — because of its stature — professional missteps by the NYT do more damage to the journalism industry than a run-of-the-mill reporting blunder by an Ohio weekly or a Florida local television newscast.

The Times is the nation’s primary news agenda-setter. What the Times publishes is almost certain to end up as news in other outlets, including major daily newspapers, wire services, broadcast networks and cable news channels. The Times serves a powerful function in having a major say in what “news” gets disseminated into the national dialogue and what doesn’t. With great power comes great responsibility. The Times’s news judgments truly affect the news priorities of fellow journalists and the public at large.

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The recent flimsy Kavanaugh “news” prompted days of follow-up coverage across multiple journalism outlets, filling the news cycle with hand-wringing and emotion. It prompted a half-dozen opportunistic Democratic presidential candidates to go on the campaign stump and call for Kavanaugh’s impeachment. Even if the latest allegations against Kavanaugh were proven accurate, abusive behavior in college 30 years ago hardly makes for an impeachable offense. Thus, the Times’s blunder created a nonsensical narrative that polluted a presidential campaign in which the rhetoric already is filled with hype and bombast.

The Times has had several missteps in recent weeks. It changed the headline on a story about President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSacha Baron Cohen calls out 'danger of lies, hate and conspiracies' in Golden Globes speech Sorkin uses Abbie Hoffman quote to condemn Capitol violence: Democracy is 'something you do' Ex-Trump aide Pierson planning run for Congress MORE’s remarks on the mass shooting in El Paso, caving to pressure from a cyber mob. The Times also had to deal with two of its editors who thought it was OK to tweet out offensive comments.

Whenever the nation’s news agenda gets cluttered with rubbish, a major concern becomes what news is under-covered or left out of the national discussion altogether. All the news space devoted to the latest Kavanaugh “scoop” necessarily meant less coverage of the economy, a belligerent Iran, elections in Israel, or many other matters of substance. The nation is confused enough with divisive narratives and misinformation. It can’t afford to be distracted because the NYT let its anti-Kavanaugh fussiness yet again take root.

The Times’s mistakes are amplified throughout the nation and provide skeptical media consumers a reason to doubt the entire news industry. Journalists from coast to coast get painted with a New York Times brush because the Times is supposed to be the standard-setter for news professionalism. Journalism has a credibility crisis — and high-profile lapses in professional judgment confirm to citizens that the collective news industry is in disarray.

The free press was created by constitutional framers to hold the political establishment accountable as an informal “Fourth Estate” of government. The question now becomes who holds the media accountable. The press increasingly is becoming part of the political establishment itself, with its raw flexing of content control in the name of influencing culture and impacting policy.

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An activist press should be a good thing — when it is in service to the citizenry. Today, citizens rightfully suspect media activism is not so much to enlighten the public as it is to empower the media establishment for its own purposes.

The 2008 financial crisis prompted much discussion of banks that were “too big to fail.” In a sense, the New York Times today is a journalistic institution that is too big to fail, not from an economic standpoint but from the perspective of keeping independent journalism functioning professionally. A democratic system of government needs a free flow of information that is fueled by a free press. The leader of that function in the United States today should be the New York Times. It fails in that obligation when it fills the news hole with poorly sourced materials, blends reporting and opinion, and obsesses with agenda-driven content.

First Amendment framer James Madison knew a free press would make mistakes. “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of every thing, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press,” he wrote. That acknowledgement shouldn’t give the press a sense that shoddy standards just get lost in the wash. The public notices, and society suffers, when the journalism industry performs poorly. The NYT must be better — for its own sake, the sake of its journalism colleagues and, mostly, for the sake of news-consuming Americans.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.