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"Left-leaning" or "nonpartisan"?

May 13, 2008 | 10:45 am

Why would a Times article call the American Enterprise Institute "conservative-leaning," but not refer in the same article to the politics of the Mike Mansfield Foundation? Why do stories refer to the Brookings Institution variously as "centrist," "conservative" and "nonpartisan"?

Some readers have an answer to the inconsistent application of labels: They think it shows bias, saying it suggests that the reporter believes that one is mainstream and thus needs no label, while the other needs to be identified as somewhere relative to that norm.

The question was most recently raised on the April 23 article about a CIA report to Congress alleging ties between North Korea and Syria. Reader Norman Nathan of Los Angeles noted, "The article identifies the AEI as 'right-leaning' but it does not identify the Mike Mansfield Foundation as a 'left-leaning organization.' And the story gives no context as to the reasoning." In a follow-up phone call Nathan said he thought it showed liberal bias, and that furthermore, "I would have thought there would be a policy, a standard, consistent way of identifying foundations."

The April 23 article on North Korea-Syria ties reported that "disclosure of the relationship to the committees is likely to bring criticism from conservative lawmakers" who already believe that the U.S. has been too gentle with the government in Pyongyang. The story went on: "Danielle Pletka, a vice president of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute think tank, said the congressional briefings were simply a step the administration needed to take to move forward." Here's the reference to the foundation: "'You'll have some outcry, but I doubt there are enough people on Capitol Hill even paying attention to oppose it,' said Gordon Flake, who follows the issue as executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and is a critic of such a pact."

This particular story was by Paul Richter, who says he agrees with the readers.

Richter wrote in an e-mail, "I'm glad to be asked about this because I've been unhappy for a long time that we unfailingly identify the right-wing ones as 'conservative'  and usually say nothing about the center and left-wing ones." In this case, though, the reporter says that the "conservative-leaning" wasn't his: "I didn't identify AEI one way or another; I think it was added somewhere during editing." In any case, Richter points to the fact that Flake is in the same corner as the conservatives cited: "The man who runs the Mansfield Foundation, Gordon Flake, is a Republican, though I take it a moderate one; his cousin is Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). He OPPOSES the deal we've got going with North Korea that the liberals like."

It's not clear where in the editing process the words "conservative-leaning" were added, but the editor who oversees the last line of defense -- the copy desk that gives stories a final edit before they are published -- also says the reader is right in this case. Tim Lynch, who is in charge of the National and Foreign copy desks, explained, "I think that labels perform a reader service, IF they’re mutually agreed upon by the reporter and subsequent editors and IF they’re evenly applied. Neither IF was applied here, unfortunately."

Lynch calls it "the equity issue" -- the need to name all affiliations, or none, in the same story. Lynch adds, "I lean toward identifying group's leanings (liberal, conservative, centrist), but that call should be made by the reporter in conjunction with editors." He adds of one oft-used label: "'Nonpartisan' doesn't necessarily mean that a group does not have a political bent or philosophy."

Richter doesn't know if labeling is that easy: "An important consideration is that a lot of these think tanks have liberals and conservatives: e.g., Brookings has Peter Rodman, a former top official of the Rumsfeld Pentagon, and Carlos Pascual, a former diplomat who is a critic of the administration's approach to Iraq. Center for Strategic & International StudiesCouncil on Foreign Relations are the same way. Carnegie Endowment, predominantly liberal, has the neocon Bob Kagan. So if you identify Brookings as center-left that just misleads the reader if you then quote Rodman. My preference is to make clear the view of the analyst on the issue in question -- e.g., say that Pletka of AEI opposes the North Korea deal. You could identify Rodman as a strong supporter of the Iraq invasion, and so forth. But I think the conservative readers have a good point on this."

National Editor Scott Kraft gives another reason to stay away from labels: "Some think tanks, in recent years, have moved away from their ideological underpinnings and it's more difficult to label them. It's sometimes useful for readers to know where a think tank is coming from, so labeling is nice, when it fits. But it doesn't always fit."

When it comes to the "centrist," "conservative" and "nonpartisan" Brookings, Kraft says, "We should probably not be labeling it. Brookings is one of the think tanks that has made an effort to bring in other points of view and become less ideological. For some think tanks, that is because they don't want to be ideological. But my sense is that there are also two other factors at work. These places want to keep a high profile and, like colleges and big lobbying firms, they are trying to bring in big names (of all ideological stripes) for their star power. They also may think that broadening their ideological representation will help make sure that they won't be shut out of the country's conversation when they're out of power. So we should probably be more careful about using labels, especially with think tanks that have brought in folks with more varied ideological backgrounds."

Finally, editors will try to keep a sharper eye out for the labels, says Melissa McCoy, the deputy managing editor who oversees copy desks and other matters of style and standards in the writing. [This corrects McCoy's title, which earlier was given incorrectly as assistant managing editor.] "The reporter’s assessment is right on point. We should try, if there is any labeling necessary, to stick with the individuals involved. We should always keep in mind that any labeling is only to help the reader understand the subject’s background and viewpoint on a particular topic. That’s the reason we’ve done it historically, in part because readers can’t be expected to know the motivation, background or political bent of every person we quote, and analysts get paid to think and pontificate on important issues. If we feel the reader would benefit from some guidance, and we stick with describing the individual’s views, writings or public statements, we can offer a fairer depiction for everyone.

“There is no doubt that we need to set better standards on this issue, and we will.”

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