The New York Times tweaks its credo

NEW YORK -- The New York Times has for generations printed its credo on Page 1 to inspire the faithful: "All the News That's Fit to Print."

But times changed and the high church of journalism was challenged by radio and television news, which was followed by a tsunami of news, rumors, opinions and criticism on 24-7 cable news networks and the Internet. The result has been a subtle change in doctrine at the Times, although the Gray Lady's motto has stayed the same.

Around-the-clock competition has "caused us to shift our emphasis from information as a commodity and play to different strengths -- emphasizing less the breaking facts than the news behind the news, writing more analytically," said executive editor Bill Keller, speaking at last week's National College Media Convention.

"We long ago moved from 'All the News That's Fit to Print,' to 'All the News You Need to Know, and What It Means.' "

Keller's address blended confessions about the newspaper industry's sins with a litany of praise for journalistic virtues. Journalists at the Times, he insisted, still practice what they preach, remaining "agnostic as to where a story may lead" and maintaining standards of accuracy and fairness that prevent the "opinions of our writers and editors from leaching into our news pages."

However, he also said he believes that "information is not what people crave. What they crave, and need, is judgment -- someone they can trust to vouch for the information, dig behind it, and make sense of it."

The question is whether critics, especially those in religious sanctuaries, will trust Keller's team to provide an unbiased take on the news and then, as a finale, pass judgment on "what it means," said former New York Daily News reporter William Proctor, author of "The Gospel According to the New York Times."

"This intentional change in the motto -- even if it won't be printed by the newspaper -- suggests to me that editorializing is being placed on an equal footing with straight news," he said. The new motto seems "to be saying, 'We're recognizing that opinion has a larger role than the editorial or op-ed pages. In fact, opinion now has a place in the news itself.' "

Meanwhile, critics may remember Keller -- who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in the Soviet Union -- as the Times columnist who once called himself a "collapsed Catholic" and lashed out at Pope John Paul II and the Vatican for rejecting female priests, gay rights, legalized abortion and the sexual revolution in general.

The struggle within Catholicism, he wrote, is "part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. ... This is, after all, the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition."

However, as executive editor, Keller produced a 2005 manifesto urging his staff to improve religion coverage, avoid the misuse of loaded labels such as "religious fundamentalists" and hire qualified journalists who offer a diversity of "religious upbringing and military experience, of region and class."

Journalists at the Times, he said, must strive to escape "our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. ... This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in."

This candor is refreshing, said Jay Rosen, who leads New York University's journalism program and has written a provocative essay entitled "Journalism is Itself a Religion." The problem is that many journalists want to escape old-fashioned straight news, but they don't know what to call their new product. It's hard to distinguish between news "analysis" and "opinion" writing that reflects the beliefs of the writer.

The New York Times sees red

When it comes to capturing the worldview of New Yorkers, it's hard to top Saul Steinberg's famous cartoon entitled "A View of the World from Fifth Avenue."

It appeared -- where else? -- on the cover of The New Yorker. The city is in the foreground and, beyond the Hudson River, there is a void dotted with mesas, mountains and hints that Chicago, Texas, Nebraska, Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean exist.

There are no steeples anywhere.

This would have been the perfect cover for a new study by the New York Times hierarchy entitled "Preserving Our Readers' Trust." The in-house panel decreed that the newspaper must do a better job covering "unorthodox views," "contrarian opinions" and the lives of those "more radical and more conservative" than journalists inside the Mecca of American journalism.

"We should," it said, "increase our coverage of religion in America and focus on new ways to give it greater attention. ... We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar)."

It might help, noted the report, if Times editors sought out some "talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faiths."

This is precisely what the newspaper's "public editor" was describing last year in his column with the infamous headline: "Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" Daniel Okrent's very first sentence was his answer: "Of course it is."

Many people criticize the Times for many things, he said, but the "flammable stuff" almost always seems to be linked to faith, family and morality and the most ticked-off people are on the cultural right.

"If you're examining the paper's coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn't wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you're traveling in a strange and forbidding world," wrote Okrent.

The editorial page is thick with "liberal theology" and many think the news is tainted, too, he said. The coverage of gay marriage "approaches cheerleading."

In a recent "On the Media" interview with WNYC, Okrent gracefully tried to retreat a step or two, acknowledging that he gave the "paper's enemies" ammunition they could yank out of context. The Times isn't really liberal, he said, it's merely liberal on "certain issues, social issues. ... It is a product of its place and of its people, and I think it's really important for the paper to recognize that and recognize how it is perceived."

In other words, the New York Times is only liberal on issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, Hollywood, euthanasia, gay rights, public education, cloning and loads of other issues linked to faith and public life.

That's all. But that's enough.

Life does look different from the vantage point of Ninth Avenue, and also from Times Square. The self-study panel noted, for example, the urgent need for the newspaper to be careful when it pins "loaded terms" on believers. For example, there are those "fundamentalists" who would rather be known as "Christian conservatives."

One such religious believer is John McCandlish Phillips, who is known these days as a preacher on Manhattan's upper West Side. But long ago, he was the rare superstar Times reporter with a worn-out Bible next to his newsroom typewriter. Now he is tired of hearing top Times columnists -- stuck in a "values voters" funk after the 2004 election -- saying that America has become an oppressive "theocracy" caught up in a "jihad."

The self-study is a remarkable step forward, especially with its blunt talk about religion and the need for accurate, balanced reporting, said Phillips.

"People at the Times are sensitive, as they should be, to this criticism because they know it is accurate. ... This document seems to be a call back to the standards that made the Times the foremost engine of news gathering and presentation in the history of the world."