N.Y. Times’ Richard Berke on Objectivity and Elections

Richard Berke, National Editor of The New York Times, visited Pomona Tuesday to deliver a talk, titled “How The New York Times covered the midterm elections.”

Before Berke’s talk, Nathan Schauer and John Thomason from TSL, Evan Preston from KSPC’s Uproot, and Ina Herlihy from The Voice had a chance to sit down with the editor and former political correspondent.

What follows is a brief excerpt from the interview. A recording of the entire interview with Richard Berke will be broadcast on KSPC’s Uproot at 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14.

Q: It’s often said, especially by those on the right, that the New York Times has a liberal slant. Do you accept this statement? And if not, it’s always hard to please everyone, so how would you define objectivity?

Berke: I know we’ve been tagged as having a liberal bias. I don’t think that’s fair. I think our editorial page is more liberal, but that’s totally separate form the news department. I know so many reporters and how they operate and how they cover politics, and for a lot of them, I really don’t know what their political views are. I think you just try to be as fair-minded as you can be, and we’re going to get criticized no matter what we do from all sides. And I guess there’s no such thing as complete, perfect objectivity because everyone comes from some background—some life experiences that make them look at life through a certain prism.

Q: As a follow-up, do you think there’s some issues where you wouldn’t necessarily represent both sides of the issue equally yet still maintain your sense of objectivity? For example, it seems that the Times has published a lot of pro-gay marriage stories. Do you think that you’re still maintaining your objectivity in such cases?

Berke: That’s a good question because…the thing we have to be careful about is not writing about gay marriage in a way that you assume it’s the right thing. And I think that’s probably how our coverage comes out, more often than not.

Even though I don’t know the political positions of many of our reporters, I would bet that…there’s probably more New York Times people, I’m guessing, who would be for gay marriage, which makes it important for us when we write about it to not look like we’re cheerleading one way or the other.

And I think we’re pretty fair about that…. I think we have to be very careful about how we characterize things and how we cover them. I think we’ve been fair-minded in our coverage of that, but I think it’s a fair thing to raise.

Q: Would you say that the media is a third party observer? Would you say that the media has a role in determining the outcome of elections by choosing what stories to write on or what stories to cover?

Berke: I’d like to see us as active observers who are trying to not push an agenda or an outcome, but as just trying to inform the public about the candidates and who’s running and why and what the big issues are. And certainly our coverage can end up affecting the outcome if we expose candidates in one way or the other, but I don’t think that’s the intention. It’s not to set out to undo one candidate or another, but just to sort of tell the readers what we think they should know about who’s running. I can’t speak for other so-called news outlets; I can’t speak for MSNBC or Fox News, they may have more specific agendas, but in terms of pure journalism and what we do at the Times and what most respectable news organizations do, it’s not to push an outcome.

Q: When you cover politics so much and you develop relationships with political figures, how do you navigate that in terms of maintaining standards of reporting?

Berke: It’s tough. You don’t want to unfairly burn someone, and its hard if they are someone who has been helpful and useful as a source for years, you don’t want to screw them. On the other hand, the story has to come first and people have to respect that. So we’re all human beings.

I don’t like to make people mad at me, but I remember going to parties in Washington, and I’d turn the corner and there’d be someone there that doesn’t talk to me, and I’d turn the other direction, there’d be someone else. And after I wrote [a story about Bob Dole’s comments about his wife’s campaign efforts], Bob Dole never spoke to me again, and I like Bob Dole, I always thought he was kind of a funny guy, just sort of a very appealing politician. But I wasn’t going to pull my punches in writing that story. He kind of did that to himself. I mean I could have written it in a different way, but why would I do that? That’s part of the job.

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