Nina Bernstein was covering homelessness for the New York Times in 1999 when then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced his intention to lock homeless families out of the city’s shelters for even minor rule violations.
Bernstein wrote an article about how a similar policy was working in nearby Suffolk County, leading with the story of a family of eight reduced to sleeping on a fellow church member’s linoleum floor. She reported that some families were expelled because of bureaucratic mistakes.
Simply by describing the facts, Bernstein was making Giuliani’s plan look cruel. And that created problems for her in the newsroom.
“Getting it in the paper involved overcoming lots of editor pushback,” Bernstein recalled. She and I spoke on the phone and exchanged emails.
It was a problem she ran into with some frequency: “To write factually, up close, with what I like to call intelligent compassion about these people’s lives basically invited charges of partisanship.”
The point here is that it is nothing new for editors at the New York Times and elsewhere to be uneasy about calling too much attention to reality — when that reality has a liberal bias. (Stephen Colbert coined the phrase “reality has a well-known liberal bias” during the Bush administration.)
But that friction is particularly at issue today, at the Times and elsewhere, as political reporters and their editors struggle to accurately and sufficiently convey facts about the Republican assault on voting rights and democracy. The fear of taking sides is very obviously holding them back.
“Many reporters across the traditional news media are struggling against institutional tics and timidities that make ‘balance’ a false idol,” Bernstein said. The result: “The inadvertent normalization of existential threats to democracy and public health by one party and its right-wing media echo chamber.”
“I love and respect the New York Times and that only makes its failings more painful and infuriating, which is I’m sure the way many Times reporters, present and former, feel,” Bernstein said.
“The Times is irreplaceable in scope, depth and variety of high-quality journalism. It’s also embedded in its own times, caught in its institutional contradictions.”
“Basically,” she said, “it has never been easy and it will never be easy to be ahead of the curve at the New York Times.”
Bernstein joined the Times in 1995, and after many years as an investigative reporter covering social issues, she took a buyout in 2016. She is now researching and writing a historical novel set in 11th century Andalusia.
The Weakest Link
Bernstein said that in her experience, much of the resistance to bolder reporting comes from mid-level editors. They are often the ones “who are more timid, more ready to water down or reject a story,” she said. “They’re trying to do what they think the top editors want” – even when the top editors themselves might have been more willing to push boundaries.
“It’s very hard being a mid-level editor at the New York Times. You get none of the glory and a lot of tsuris.”
Their intentions are good, she said. “I’m not talking about this caricature of editors who are trying to suppress important stories,” she said. These are “well-meaning” editors, who see a key part of their role as not losing the institutional authority that comes (or theoretically comes, or used to come) with reporters not taking sides.
The Exception That Proves the Rule
Bernstein called attention to a recent Times article that she said was “so good in the way of regular journalism” that it underscores the weakness of a lot of the routine coverage.
The Nov. 12 article was by Lisa Lerer and Astead W. Herndon, headlined: “Menace Enters the Republican Mainstream.” Its uncompromising nut graph:
From congressional offices to community meeting rooms, threats of violence are becoming commonplace among a significant segment of the Republican Party. Ten months after rioters attacked the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, and after four years of a president who often spoke in violent terms about his adversaries, right-wing Republicans are talking more openly and frequently about the use of force as justifiable in opposition to those who dislodged him from power.
(I loved the piece, too, writing in my Thanksgiving roundup that I was grateful the authors were allowed to write it.)
“What made it remarkable was that it was a political story that didn’t obscure or downplay the facts with both-sides boilerplate,” Bernstein said.
“I wonder how long it was in the works,” she said. “My hunch is that they had to overcome a lot of editor pushback to get in the paper.”
Or, more optimistically, perhaps it’s “a watershed of some kind,” she said. “Maybe press criticism by people like Jay Rosen and Margaret Sullivan and you has had an effect. Or maybe there’s just a cumulative recognition of how fragile democracy is right now.”
Add a Human Being
I recently started asking former news reporters what people like Rosen, Sullivan, and I can reasonably ask of today’s reporters, given the institutional strictures under which they operate.
Bernstein said that one simple – though not easy – way that reporters could improve coverage of policy is to vow, like she did early in her career, to include in every story at least one real person who would be affected by the policy.
She had high praise for a December 1 New York Times story by Reed Abelson, Sarah Kliff, Margot Sanger-Katz and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, which described the health policy provisions of the Build Back Better Act as “the biggest step toward universal coverage since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.” Each section of the article began with the story of a person who would be affected by the changes.
“Add a person to every policy story, to ground it in truth,” she said — “to show what’s actually at stake.”
It’s also the ethical thing to do: “At a time of incredibly wide inequality, to leave out the voices of people who don’t read the New York Times or don’t read the Washington Post but who are dramatically affected by these debates, is irresponsible,” she said.
“It’s not good journalism. They are parties to this. They should be parties to this.” That’s even though, as she put it, “no, they won’t call your editor.”
And leaving out real people in stories about investments in such things as health care and education is a disservice to readers who may not understand the needs.
“There clearly are a lot of people in this country who have no clue about the daily lives of the people who are hanging on to the hollowed-out middle class,” Bernstein said.
Balance is the Story-Killer
“One of the reasons I decided to become a journalist was because I wanted to bear witness to my own time, in a way that didn’t require me to tailor what I was writing based on ‘is this going to be good for my side or bad for my side’,” Bernstein said.
But she found the strictures of the profession also made it difficult to describe things as they really are. “It’s very hard, within the constraints of what has been mainstream journalism for decades to do that,” she said.
The obsession with balance doesn’t just enfeeble political stories, she said. It can impoverish coverage in other areas. “Less visible is that the same skewed tilt toward ‘balance’ makes it harder to cover poverty, healthcare, welfare, education, and so on,” because exposing problems can be seen as taking sides.
“We’re in a bad place,” Bernstein said, “if it’s inherently partisan to concretely and often write about what’s at stake in the lives of people.”