The Case for Journalistic Independence

The subject of today’s newsletter is a bit different from normal. We’re going to focus on The Times itself — and how we define our mission today.

The occasion is a new essay in the Columbia Journalism Review by A.G. Sulzberger, our publisher, in which he explains why The Times’s guiding principle is independence. In addition to summarizing his argument, I’ll offer my own thoughts about how they relate to this newsletter.

Sulzberger writes:

Independence is the increasingly contested journalistic commitment to following facts wherever they lead. It places the truth — and the search for it with an open yet skeptical mind — above all else. Those may sound like blandly agreeable clichés of Journalism 101, but in this hyperpolarized era, independent journalism and the sometimes counterintuitive values that animate it have become a radical pursuit.

Independence asks reporters to adopt a posture of searching, rather than knowing. It demands that we reflect the world as it is, not the world as we may wish it to be. It requires journalists to be willing to exonerate someone deemed a villain or interrogate someone regarded as a hero. It insists on sharing what we learn — fully and fairly — regardless of whom it may upset or what the political consequences might be. Independence calls for plainly stating the facts, even if they appear to favor one side of a dispute. And it calls for carefully conveying ambiguity and debate in the more frequent cases where the facts are unclear or their interpretation is under reasonable dispute, letting readers grasp and process the uncertainty for themselves.

The idea of journalistic independence has many critics, he notes. Conservatives argue that journalists are too liberal to be independent, while growing numbers of liberals favor a more confidently ideological form of journalism, as was the norm in the U.S. during the 1700s and 1800s and remains common in Europe.

Independence does not always come naturally to journalists. Each of us has our own personal opinions. Sometimes, we fail to rise above our biases and produce flawed coverage. Other times, we overcorrect toward “false equivalence” and neglect to explain that one side in a debate isn’t telling the truth.

But striving for independence is a worthy goal. It’s the same goal to which scientists, judges and sports referees aspire. “Failure to achieve standards does not obviate the need for them,” Martin Baron, the former top editor of The Washington Post, has written. “It makes them more necessary.”

Sulzberger goes into more detail in the essay — including about the counterarguments —and I encourage you to read it. (Obvious disclosure: He’s my boss.)

I want to add one reflection, based on writing this newsletter during the Covid pandemic. That experience highlights the distinction between the independent approach and the alternative.

Like many other subjects in American life today, Covid quickly became a source of political polarization. Many conservatives believe that the virus’s threat has been exaggerated. Many liberals think that the country has done too little to fight Covid. The political right and left also disagree about the virus’s origin — from a laboratory leak in Wuhan, China, or from an animal at a food market in the same city.

Were The Times to adopt a more European journalistic model, our pandemic coverage would have started with the assumption that either the left or the right was correct about all things Covid. The independent model calls for a different approach. It calls for examining the evidence on each aspect of Covid — and accepting the possibility either that one political tribe is correct about almost everything or that each side is correct about only some questions.

Sure enough, the data came to show that many conservatives were terribly wrong about vaccines (which are safe and effective) and often wrong about masks (which can protect people when worn consistently). But many liberals — including some in public health, a field that leans left — also came to adopt beliefs that the evidence didn’t support.

Many liberals overstated Covid’s dangers to the non-elderly, especially children. Partly for that reason, Democratic-run communities closed schools for longer. It was a bad trade-off: These areas did not have noticeably less Covid, and their children struggled more. The left also appears to have been wrong about long-term mask mandates (which had little effect) and wrong to dismiss the lab-leak theory (which, contrary to being a bigoted conspiracy theory, remains plausible).

I want to emphasize that the independent model of journalism does not guarantee accuracy. For example, I initially misread the evidence on waning vaccine immunity and underestimated the value of booster shots. Journalism is called the first draft of history because it is imperfect. Big stories require difficult judgment calls, and reasonable people sometimes come to opposing conclusions. My colleagues and I will make mistakes.

I also don’t want to suggest that The Times’s approach is the only legitimate one. In today’s digital landscape, there is plenty of room for ideological publications. I enjoy, and learn from, many of them.

But The Times is pursuing another strategy. We believe that no political group — not the left, the center or the right — has a monopoly on clairvoyance. We are not on a team. Our bet is that The Times can best serve society by remaining independent. We believe many readers want such coverage, uncomfortable though it can be.

As Sulzberger writes, “independent journalism also rests on the bedrock conviction that those seeking to change the world must first understand it — that a fully informed society not only makes better decisions but operates with more trust, more empathy, and greater care.”

  • The Turkish elections will go to a runoff after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan failed to secure a majority of the vote.

  • The election was in many ways a referendum on the performance of Erdogan, Turkey’s dominant politician for 20 years.

  • Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, came in second. Both men said they were ready for a runoff, which is set for May 28.

Doctors who stayed in Sudan’s capital after war broke out should inspire us all to help the people in the places we are from, Farah Stockman writes.

Probabilistic decision-making tends to be better decision-making, Robert Rubin has learned with help from a yellow pad.

Gail Collins and Bret Stephens discuss the Trump CNN town hall, the budget and the border.

N.H.L. Playoffs: The Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Edmonton Oilers, 5-2, in Game 6. Las Vegas advanced to its fourth conference finals in six years of existence.

A new era: Two W.N.B.A. teams — New York and Las Vegas — have attracted enough stars to be considered superteams. Welcome to the league’s player-empowerment era.

An uncertain future: The Grizzlies have suspended Ja Morant again after he was seen flashing what appeared to be a gun in an Instagram Live.

“Seinfeld,” the show about nothing, ended in May 1998. At the center were Jerry Seinfeld and his three friends, who proudly flouted societal conventions and the rules of traditional adulthood, The Times’s Maya Salam writes. Twenty-five years later, parts of the show seem prescient, Maya writes: “With the realization that long-held images of adulthood may not be as attainable as before, the show has taken on a fresh relatability.”

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