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The New York Times is a fascinating newspaper for the study of bias. Yes, of course we all have our biases and blind spots, and every publication has a point of view, but there is something about the Times ’ style and tone that suggest a loftier than usual view of their own objectivity and insight. If journalists conceive their newspaper to be the national “newspaper of record,” that self-conception might encourage a scrupulous attempt to be objective, but it might also encourage them to assume that they are objective because they are writing in the newspaper of record.

Several friends in an e-mail circle have been analyzing Republicans Distance Themselves from Threats to Democrats . The one who sent it round wrote that the writer

could not open by saying “Republicans leaders denounced death threats, vandalism” etc. Instead, he said leaders “tried to move quickly to distance themselves” from said threats. Only tried, mind you; the success of the endeavor is in doubt.  And they only tried to “distance” themselves from the threats, not to oppose or denounce them. Does the Times presume that Republican leaders may actually countenance such threats, and are merely trying to achieve plausible deniability?

The technique is an easy one to master: you don’t report what they did, you report what they were trying to do — as you see it, of course, though you write as if this were an objective and obvious observation. Another friend in the same circle, who grew up in a leftwing family and knows how these things work, argued that,
There is no — NO — evidence that the racial slurs ever happened. There were a number of people videotaping the entire walk of the Black Caucus past Tea Partiers — people from both sides —- and no one has come up with one racial slur. This is a ploy straight out of Saul Alinsky’s playbook. He advocated just such false accusations to demonize one’s enemies. And the media have picked it up and run with it.

I’m sure some of the death threats have happened — death threats are so common that Jim Bunning got one after he held up a vote for an appropriation. There have been death threats to Republicans too, over the health care bill, but you don’t hear about them.

Furthermore, during the Bush administration, Bush himself and many other Republicans and conservatives were subject to horribly mockery and death threats, and you rarely heard about them. Glenn Beck yesterday played a segment of a Bill Maher show in which John Kerry joked about killing Bush. There was a book about killing Bush, and a play. There was a poster of him decapitated. I don’t remember a word of outrage from Democrats or the mainstream media.

Prominent conservatives get death and other threats too. Just the other day a culturally conservative academic told me he got several such threats after being mentioned in a newspaper article defending marriage. I suspect they get them in as great a number as liberal politicians do, but being dignified they usually don’t cry about it public or try to turn it to political advantage, since the threats mean nothing politically. There are vicious people out there. Some are rightwing, some leftwing, and some just hate everyone. (And we should not assume that every claim to having received such a threat is true.)

But the “death threat” story is now a staple of the kind of politically-driven reporting the Times offers. Mark Helprin famously and rightly predicted that “the homeless” would reappear in the news when a Republican succeeded Clinton. I will make a similar prediction and say that whenever the Democrats pass a hard-liberal piece of legislation to which the broad conservative movement has been strongly opposed, the Times and its peers will run a string of death threat stories, which will include the kind of “they really approve” description of the conservative response my friends analyzed. But the stories will disappear if the Republicans take power again, and not because Americans will suddenly have become more civil.

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