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'New York Times' publisher: journalism should be free of writers' personal beliefs

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Journalism - it should be free from government intimidation, corporate influence and any partisan agenda. But should it also be free of journalists' personal beliefs? Yes, says A.G. Sulzberger, the chairman and publisher of The New York Times. His essay posted this morning in the Columbia Journalism Review. And in an interview with NPR's David Folkenflik, Sulzberger concedes his view puts him at odds with others in the profession and his own newsroom.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: A.G. Sulzberger was born in 1980, just a year before the first millennials. They came of age as cable news and online sites pulled journalism toward opinion and advocacy, and he says he finds the pull jarring.

A G SULZBERGER: This is something we hear often from inside our industry and outside it. You know, is it enough for journalists to describe the world as it is, or should they try to fix it?

FOLKENFLIK: The stories that journalists cover are relentless, divisive and often feel existential.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Personal and political polarization at a 20-year high.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Right now, they're in a battle against something else - a changing climate.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Mr. Trump's first lie was told just seconds into the night.

FOLKENFLIK: Sulzberger says The Times should no longer let lies go by unnoted.

SULZBERGER: When the facts are absolutely clear, they should be called out unequivocally and unapologetically.

FOLKENFLIK: Polls show trust in the media to be low. The press has been accused of bias from the right for decades. Journalists of the past, as a result, bent over backwards to be perceived as fair. Over the past six years, the #MeToo and social justice movements have sparked greater activist sentiment inside American newsrooms. Sulzberger says the risk today is that journalists are embracing what he calls one-side-ism.

SULZBERGER: Where journalists are demonstrating that they're on the side of the righteous. And I really think that that can create blind spots and echo chambers.

FOLKENFLIK: Many journalists question whether more traditional approaches, like Sulzberger's, can meet the moment - Wesley Lowery among them.

WESLEY LOWERY: Journalists are humans. We have biases. We have preferences. We have blind spots. We have experiences. And we have deficit of experiences in some cases.

FOLKENFLIK: Lowery is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who reports on issues of race and justice.

LOWERY: Very often, it's in that line of coverage that our news organizations send messages about what they think is important, what they think is urgent, what they think is controversial. It's how we show our biases and our values - what story we put on the front page, what story we order up a series on, what story we don't cover at all.

FOLKENFLIK: Lowery praises Sulzberger's efforts to diversify The Times' journalistic ranks and to think more deeply about its coverage. Yet, he says The Times' interest in sidestepping bias ends up crafting an identity and image to market it to deep-pocketed subscribers.

LOWERY: The coverage of any issue has to be considered not just within the context of that piece itself, but how does that piece fit into a larger line of coverage and the message that is being sent by a news organization?

FOLKENFLIK: As one example, Lowery points to articles questioning medical care given to teens who want to transition. A sizable group of journalists protested the stories, including some with past ties to The Times. The Times has defended those stories as rigorously reported efforts to explore vital and uncomfortable questions.

SULZBERGER: Journalists also need to have humility that if you're following the facts wherever they lead, they often lead to a question. They often lead to uncertainty. They often lead to a debate.

FOLKENFLIK: The Times got big stories wrong, Sulzberger notes, when it presented matters as certain that weren't, like wrong reports that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the U.S.-led invasion or the dismissal of the suggestion that COVID-19 leaked from a lab - unlikely but possible. Sulzberger says he wants people to bring their lived experiences to the newsroom to inform their coverage. He just doesn't want those experiences to dictate how the news is defined.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.